Watch out for the Chicken Littles gleefully pushing panic and doomMarch 26, 2020
We are living through what may be the worst and most elemental fear human beings can experience — the fear of invasion.
And the invader isn’t a human aggressor that can be repelled with military force — but an invisible and not-exactly-alive viral contagion that somehow gets inside your body or the body of your loved ones and attacks from within even as it continues to spread its damage from without. This is the horror of the novel coronavirus.
For Americans especially prone to that specific fear, there is almost no piece of coronavirus news that doesn’t trigger a renewed sense of panic. Unfortunately, the explosive growth over the past decade of social media has given rise to a kind of panic loop, a second-by-second retailing of the worst possible scenarios raised by the outbreak.
There is something peculiar going on in the way certain people are discussing the coronavirus — journalists, pundits and the armies of “influencers” endowed with a blue checkmark for no obvious reason. It’s almost as though they are taking a salacious pleasure in the grimmest and most haunting possibilities.
It’s like Chicken Little is secretly thrilled the sky is falling.
Social media is full of those who are gripped by a perverse hunger to convey their unshakable belief in the transcendent seriousness of the present crisis by slathering any and every horrendous possibility it raises on our daily bread — and then sating their hunger by gobbling it up with salacious zest.
This is an obscenely effective way to make precisely the impression social media is designed to make — which is just that, to make an impression. These horror-mongers are determined to break through the 280-character limit or your friend’s cat video and compel your attention.
All children know, and all parents learn to know to their sorrow, that negative attention is still attention — and so while bad behavior may create unwanted consequences, the spotlight is still exactly where the perpetrator would wish it to be.
The Chicken Littles have gone it one better. They are compelling your attention while being able to claim noble motives — hiding behind their lubricious fearmongering through the pose that they are performing a public service.
No, no, they’re not trying to freak out their followers or friends like someone telling a horrifying campfire story about a runaway prisoner with a hook to a bunch of small children at a summer camp.
No, no, it’s nothing like that. They’re just trying to make sure you stay inside and socially distance. Stay inside — or else.
It’s unclear who appointed them the guardians of public safety, but, again, the nature of the virus gives them an easy out — since everyone is a potential spreader of disease, we are all policemen now.
But what is the nature of the message being conveyed? It’s essentially despair, especially for New Yorkers. The curve isn’t flattening. The tsunami is coming. There’s nothing you can do. You know all that social distancing we’ve been doing here for the past couple of weeks? The nightmare is upon us nonetheless.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s haunting briefing on Tuesday had something of this quality — a passionate message that New York was screwed and that the pretty extreme measures some of us have taken to be good citizens over the past three weeks weren’t really going to protect anybody.
Fortunately, the governor seemed determined to correct some of that impression on Wednesday with the news that the growth rate in the number of hospital admissions had slowed significantly over the past two days.
“The theory is,” Cuomo said, “given the density that we’re dealing with, it spreads very quickly, but if you reduce the density, you can reduce the spread very quickly.”
It’s not exactly good news, but it’s not paralyzing doom, either. And maybe that’s the best we can hope for right now.
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