We’ve all got one: that relative, friend, or social media acquaintance who thinks the danger from Covid-19 is overhyped and the real danger is to the economy. I’m less bothered by this than the response: endless grieving about the inability of people to respect the experts and listen to the facts. “If only people recognized epidemiological truths when they saw them!” seems to be a growing cadence among my friends and numerous media pundits. Really people should quit acting as if sharing videos of handwashing techniques and flattening incidence curves will bring everyone else on board. Actually achieving greater compliance with social distancing and lock-downs will require taking a far different tack.
When we misunderstand disagreement as a product of a deficit in truth, we miss all the ways that it is really rooted in matters of trust. When people fail to accept what we ourselves might see as an obvious fact, we are more likely to denigrate them as ignorant or brainwashed. There’s no shortage of handwringing on Twitter about the MAGA-hat-wearing fools who are less concerned the need to take precautions. But in understanding the issue as a battle between fools and those of us ostensibly enlightened enough to hang on to the CDC director’s every word, we lose the ability to actually understand and sway skeptics. If anything, we push them further away.
In framing skepticism as a matter of scientific literacy, we forget that the risk is actually very uncertain, distant, intangible for most people, a challenge that the pandemic shares with challenges like climate change. Even epidemiological experts have been at odds in face of the considerable complexities and uncertainties of the novel disease; some even debate whether we actually know that the mortality rate is significantly worse than the flu and question the practicality of a long-term social lock-down.
Furthermore, most of us are not seeing the harms in front of our faces, and demands that we pursue social distancing can seem irrational when much of the rest of everyday life appears unchanged. It won’t be clear for years if our actions were too precautious, just right, or not stringent enough—if ever. Health officials are really asking quite a lot from people: ignore what you see, trust us and our models to know what’s best…even if this goes on for months.
That some people more readily trust health officials and the exhortations of heads of state says more about their underlying moral framework than their intelligence. As Jonathan Haidt’s work uncovers, most liberals’ politics is guided by a single principle: care for the least advantaged. Calls to social distance are steeped in this morality, asking people to take precautionary action to preserve precious medical resources for the elderly, immunocompromised, etc. So, it comes as no surprise that liberals are the most convinced that the pandemic is worrisome, the problem already fits neatly into their preferred moral universe.
It isn’t so much that the people who do take Covid-19 more seriously are more scientifically literate. Rather the vast majority of them had likely already bought in before they had ever seen a meme about “flattening the curve.” Although there are likely exceptions, most people’s concerns precedes their scientific literacy: if the more precautionary are more scientifically literate it’s because they already accepted the crisis as a legitimate one in the first place and then sought out scientific counsel. Do you know anyone who waited for high school biology or earth science to have an opinion about abortion or climate change, and do you know very many people whose opinion has actually been significantly altered in the short-term by taking in new scientific information? I don’t, and I know a lot of very well-educated people.
The idea that simply listening to the epidemiologists (or climates scientists or…) will end petty politicking and lead to objectively correct actions and policies just doesn’t jive with people’s thinking. I think it is embraced more for relieving our anxieties than accomplishing anything productive. Yet the belief that science can swoop in to establish order in a chaotic and conflictual world is a comforting one. I don’t necessary begrudge anyone who seeks out its comforts, but the belief drives ill-conceived political communication regardless.
The lesson for coronavirus is the same for other scientific crises: Don’t expect people to not only accept your advice but also your moral framework. And even better, leverage already trusted authority figures, like pastors and conservative television hosts.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what is going through the mind of coronavirus skeptics, but there are a few already visible threads that we should follow. Many skeptics argue that the prospect of a global economic crisis is more salient and important to them than the actual deaths that might manifest—rightly or wrongly. That some people still venture out, despite mandated social distancing, is not so much carelessness per se but caring about different things than the rest of us.
Smart pandemic policy would seek to limit the extent to which these economic worries undo social precautions. Apart from the massive proposed economic stimuli on the table, states would be wise to pair limitations on pubs and cafes with a relaxing of laws on the delivery of alcoholic beverages. And many restaurants are surrounded by so much parking that they could function as drive-in’s without too much difficulty, if made legally permissible. Similar temporary changes to regulations could enable other brick-and-mortar institutions to still do some business rather than none at all.
Discovering the right moral intuition to evoke could be done right now, using the same research techniques that marketers already use to fashion more persuasive ads. We should not just appeal to the moral intuition of care but also loyalty, sanctity, and other ideals. Abstract calls to mind the country’s limited infrastructure of intubation machines and intensive care beds would be more fruitful if supplemented by other messages: respecting social distancing is an act of loyalty to one’s older relatives, it is an exercise in patriotic togetherness against an invading disease (hopefully without also evoking xenophobia), or it reflects the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness.
Just because we are working to prevent the worst-case scenario of an epidemiological model doesn’t mean we have to also embrace the epidemiologist’s stripped-down moral accounting. Realizing the best possible outcome from this pandemic may rely on us doing anything but.
Despite the barriers to community presented by suburban sprawl, the distraction of digital devices, and a pervasive culture of individualism, people do regularly collaborate to create pockets of togetherness. Mike Lanza’s Playborhood is an important reminder that ordinary people do have the ability to incrementally realize more communal lives for their children.
Although I briefly encountered Lanza’s work as I was doing the research for my first book, Technically Together, only recently did I give it a careful read. Lanza is a staunch advocate of encouraging and supporting free play: getting kids more often away from screens and out of overly structured activities (the endless shuttling between sports and piano lessons) and letting them decide for themselves how to spend their (relatively unsupervised) time. He champions carving out space in neighborhoods for children to structure their own outdoor play spaces and recounts how he and his wife have done so on their own Bay Area block, installing water features, sandboxes, and trampolines in their yard and giving local kids permission to use them whenever they want.
Lanza’s book and motivation no doubt stems from nostalgia for the childhood he enjoyed in a Pittsburgh suburb in the 1960s and 70s. But Playborhood doesn’t simply dwell on a lost past but focuses on what groups of motivated citizens are doing today, covering efforts in New Urbanist neighborhoods, in cohousing arrangements, and elsewhere.
In contrast to a New York Times profile on Lanza’s work, I did not find any evidence of mom-bashing or unawareness of his own privilege in Playborhood.[i] Lanza is a relatively well-to-do white guy. When he describes how he has prepared his sons to ride to school by themselves, he admits that sometimes their nanny rides with them. Any limitations in his perspective comes from the fact that he writes from his own personal standpoint: his own middle-class childhood and those of his young sons. The failure to say enough about how girls and others fit into a playborhood is more a sin of omission than commission and a fairly understandable one at that.
That is not to say that Lanza doesn’t include diverse cases. One of his main examples is Lyman Place, a road in the Bronx that turns into a car-free play street every summer. While to many readers, one case study may not be enough to convincingly demonstrate that playborhoods are not likely to remain limited to more affluent residential areas for the near future, it at least shows that Lanza is making the effort to cast a wide net.
Yet one should not have unfair expectations for works like Playborhood. The book serves as a sort of how-to guide and provides inspiration for concerned parents. It is not a systematic sociological study of free play. While it is clear that Lanza has read widely on the subject—he references Ray Oldenburg and Jane Jacobs—readers looking for insight on the broader structural changes that would make things like playborhoods more the norm rather than the exception will prefer Adrian Voce’s Policy for Play or my own Technically Together. No doubt there is a lot to say about making free play and more communal child rearing feasible for a greater portion of humanity, but I don't think we should expect books like Playborhood to do that kind of work.
Surveying my own street, I find the prospect of a street-level playborhood for my two-year-old son both exciting and discouraging. The closest thing to an already existing playborhood in my town is “Faculty Hill”, a pocket of largely unaffordable homes tucked next to my University’s golf course. Purchasing a home that was walking distance to work and also within my price range meant buying on a road dominated by college student rentals. Yet my street is also relatively free of car traffic and my corner lot backyard seems likely to be compatible with whatever plans my son and local youth would eventually dream up.
Still, part of me wonders if the broader barriers will loom too large. Perhaps my street simply lacks the sufficient density of children. Maybe other parents won’t be persuaded by my case for the value of free play. Already having been warned by one of my neighbors to keep my kid “out of the street”—ostensibly to save my neighbor the trouble from having to watch out for little ones when driving his big truck down it—foreshadows future conflicts.
Yet one never knows what latent needs and desires may lie just under the surface. When looking at any suburban street, I always wonder: What percentage of houses have lonely people in them at this moment, people sitting in their homes wishing they enjoyed more local togetherness but not knowing how or too discouraged to seek out a community beyond their front door. Books like Playborhood remind us that often the biggest barrier is belief. Small groups of dedicated people can sometimes overcome all the barriers and change their neighborhoods for the better. All it takes is someone to get the ball rolling.
[i] I regret taking this profile at face value in Technically Together. It seems to have exaggerated Lanza perspective, if not wholly distort the position he lays out in Playborhood
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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