The pandemic of highly contagious mutual shaming


One of my friends forbade her extended family from having no-mask non-distanced chai-pe-charchas with family elders; they excommunicated her. I judged a different friend for ricocheting between three different cities in a single month; we argued for two hours. Another friend group I’m in had a 3-hour video-call fight because N felt judged by S and R for her brief, rare socialising. Welcome to the Covid Shame Spat.

It would help to have clear instruction or example set by leaders about how to do all this, but they themselves swing between shaming some communities for holding gatherings, then holding gatherings of their own, leaving us to figure it out ourselves. And as if doing daily risk-reward calculations to keep ourselves alive, motivated, and provided-for weren’t enough, there’s the added fact that no two people’s math works out the same.

So we’re drowned in the concern-guilt-envy cocktail of the discrepancies, we’re worn down and scared, and any argument beginning with the implicit or explicit allegation that “You’re literally killing people!” is bound to get really intense, really quick.

Weirdly, I keep thinking about the building secretary I spent my mid-twenties feuding with. I, in his words, had “all sorts of people
coming and going at all times”; he, in my words, was a cranky, power-drunk asshole who got off on shoutingly, spit-flyingly moral-policing me. I didn’t even throw wild parties — my friends and I are too lame. We’d just sit around drinking tea for hours. It so happened that those hours often spilled past midnight, and those friends were a mix of genders.

I couldn’t understand why he had such a problem with my embarrassingly tame social life until, one evening, our cat ran away and my flatmate and I rang his doorbell to ask for access to the building’s CCTV footage. I caught a glimpse of his life — his grey, quiet life, in a flat filled with Benson & Hedges smoke and radio news, dusty from an enduring lack of company. It struck me, through lost-cat panic, that anybody who too-keenly watches the lives of others and deems them immoral is protecting themselves from finding their own lacking. It’s my turn now to sit in company-less smoke-clouds, and there’s one particular life I’ve been watching too keenly. One influencer’s. Per her own Instagram, she’s gone regularly to parties, travels with a different group every fortnight, and was recently dancing at a crowded bar without a mask on. When my friends and I are feeling snarky, we joke about her — maybe she missed the news of the pandemic? When we’re in a serious mood, we use her name as shorthand for The Irresponsible And Unconscientious Citizens Of The World.

I know this paints us as slightly terrible people but come on; to post about social revelry during socially distanced days is to brag about a feast to the starved. And besides, gossip and judgment have always been the funnest way confirm in-group morality, the implicit epilogue to every “Can you believe she did
that?” being “Let’s agree not to do that.”

That secretary uncle didn’t choose a life of colourlessness, nor did my friends and I choose to spend our late twenties deprived of travel and social lives. But once an unhappy life has been thrust upon you, you need to make your peace with it any way you can, and a solid go-to coping strategy is to point to others living differently and, without a chutki of self-awareness, deem them Irresponsible And Unconscientious Citizens Of The World.

(When that influencer finally posted that she’d tested Covid-positive, we guiltily caught ourselves being a bit glad. It was proof, after all, that we hadn’t been idiots for not Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani-ing all year ourselves.)

It’s a separate matter that even excluding the pandemic, there are a lot of ways to objectively be an irresponsible, unconscientious citizen of the world. At the risk of sounding too cheerful: Covid isn’t the only thing killing us all. There is, for instance, the small matter of the dying planet. But to judge others for complicity in climate change, one would have to do a lot of self-intervening first — give up plastic-wrapped everything, switch to veganism, install solar panels, research manufacturing processes prior to each purchase. In that sense, the pandemic is a moral grandstander’s dream. All you have to do to bridge the gap between talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk is… sit at home.

Of course, sitting at home this long isn’t actually easy for anyone, and is particularly difficult for the millions locked down in toxic company, or who rely on the outside world to make livings or to make living meaningful. Anyone judging others too harshly for laxness (including myself) reveals a unique overlap of privileges — professional, familial, infrastructural, temperamental. A recent tweet pointed this out and one friend alerted the rest of us influencer-judgers of it, sombrely dispatching: “Listen, people are now judging the judgers.” So the hyper-careful have to judge the less-careful to feel ok. The less-careful have to judge the judgers to feel ok. This web of mutual shaming is a coping mechanism — an unhealthy one, sure, but what’s healthy nowadays? — and over it hangs a globe-dome of highly contagious death. This is all very pleasant, no?

I should tell you a bit more about that 3-hour video-call fight. It got ugly. There was shouting and interrupting; attacks, counter-attacks; bitter silences and quivering lips. When WhatsApp overlaid “poor connection” onto our faces, it felt like a cruelly valid diagnosis. Then, when the raging was done, we sat quiet through a tone-shift. Voices softened, brows did too, and we switched to reconciliation mode. We took accountability for our individual mistakes. We extended understanding for the uniquely difficult positions others were in. We apologised, we forgave. Maybe the Covid Shame Spat is unique in its contents, but not in how its playing out reflects on a relationship. Irritating times make irritating people of us, and if we can’t own up to our shit, apologise, and forgive, we don’t stand a chance at making it through this or any crisis with closeness intact.

And when the sorrys and it’s-okays are said and we need to switch back to Normal Mode, it might be ok to punch the heaviness with a: “Anyway, did you all see? That Objectively-More-Irresponsible-And-Unconscientious-Than-Us Citizen Of The World was at another party last night. Can you believe she did
that?”

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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