As you know, people have been bat-poop crazy lately. We’ve discussed this a good bit.
It’s complicated by the fact that we’re looking at two separate developments, and sort of running them together.
I’ve been searching ever since 2016, trying to understand how this country elected — to the presidency — someone who at any previous time in our nation’s history would have been laughed off the stage the first time he stood up and said “I’m running.” A guy who had been known as a famous doofus since the ’80s. Elected to be the most powerful person on the planet.
I still haven’t arrived, although I did feel I got a lot closer to the answer when I heard that “Rabbit Hole” podcast.
Over the last year or two — starting in 2020, the year we (at least for a little while), corrected the 2016 insanity — we’ve been talking a lot about something else, which is the deleterious effect of the pandemic on human behavior.
I just read another good, thoughtful piece on that in The Atlantic: “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” It begins:
Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now. Last week, a man was arrested after he punched a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. (The gate agent looked like he was about to punch back, until his female colleague, bless her soul, stood on some chairs and said “no” to the entire situation.) That wasn’t even the only viral asshole-on-a-plane video that week.
In February, people found ways to throw tantrums while skiing—skiing. In one viral video, a man slid around the chairlift-boarding area of a Canadian resort, one foot strapped into his snowboard as he flailed at security guards and refused to comply with a mask mandate. Separate footage shows a maskless man on a ski shuttle screaming, “There’s nobody wearing masks on any bus in this goddamn town!” before calling his fellow passenger a “liberal piece of shit” and storming off.
During the pandemic, disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton. Bad behavior of all kinds —everything from rudeness and carelessness to physical violence—has increased…
You see what happened there? As you will find if you read on, most of the piece is a discussion of what’s happened “during the pandemic.” But the political problem that predates the pandemic by four years comes up as well: “…before calling his fellow passenger a ‘liberal piece of shit’ and storming off.” Do you wonder who that guy voted for? I don’t. I mean, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I know.
So yeah, behavior has been pretty bad during COVID, but that doesn’t explain 2016.
However, I did pick up something interesting that I hadn’t though of before, in terms of explaining the pandemic craziness, and that’s why I’m posting this. It comes up here:
We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us
The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”
The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too….
Though it’s been a lifesaving tool throughout the pandemic, mask wearing has likely made this problem worse. Just as it’s easier to scream at someone on Twitter than in real life, it’s easier to rage at a masked flight attendant than one whose face you can fully see. “You don’t really see a human being so much as you’re seeing someone masked,” Sampson said. Though one study found that face masks don’t dehumanize the wearer, another small experiment found that they do impair people’s ability to detect emotions….
I read that, and it hit me: Whoa! They mean the Raskolnikov Syndrome! Why didn’t I realize this before? After all, I’ve been thinking about it, and sometimes talking about it, since I was in college — although I don’t think I actually wrote about it until 2012. Here, in part, is how I set out the idea at that time:
I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.
Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.
This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.
I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.
Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.
His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level…
So yeah, the piece in The Atlantic is referring to a form of that Syndrome. Which is cool, and helpful. I feel like I understand the pandemic-behavior problem a bit better now.
This is particularly an eye-opener to me because, as an introvert, I haven’t minded the isolation of the last two years at all. I haven’t found it stressful, and in many ways — such as not going to an office every day (or at all, really) — I’ve seen it as pretty awesome.
But I had forgotten about my own theory about Raskolnikov. Now I get it.
But to repeat myself, that still doesn’t explain 2016, or the fact that so many millions of people did that again in 2020, and can’t wait to do it again in 2024, whether the pandemic is still affecting our lives or not.
So, I’ll have to keep looking. Because helpful as it is, “Rabbit Hole” doesn’t explain it all — does it?