The harmful impulse to stifle coronavirus discussion


John McLaughlin made sure his guests knew they were “Wrong!”  (

When did we stop caring what our fellow citizens think? If ever there were a time to remind us that no person is an island or that other people’s choices directly affect us, it’s now.

With a pandemic upon us, the only way out of this crisis is through it — together. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to many of our elected officials or the countless voices shouting about the coronavirus in our state capitals or on Twitter.

Even though the coronavirus phenomenon is still relatively new, tribes have already formed, battle lines have hardened, and plenty of people are fiercely certain that they are right. One side argues that lockdown restrictions must become not only tighter but also implemented for a longer duration. The other side agitates to reopen the country as soon as possible, demonstrating its commitment to “live free or die” by protesting, sometimes without protective masks or social distancing. Both sides have legitimate points to make, but nuance has evaporated.

And while I recognize nuance has long been a stranger to our national discourse, its absence is palpable right now. Without it, we have become John McLaughlin’s America.

I never understood McLaughlin’s appeal, but many people, including my father, saw something in his political commentary. A political science Ph.D., my father’s idea of team sports was politics. So while other children grew up watching Sunday football, my own Sunday ritual was a father-daughter viewing of the political shows.

There was nothing I disliked more than McLaughlin’s shouting, “Wrong!” at his guests. A verbal air horn, it felt totally out of place in the early 1990s. Yet now, it perfectly encapsulates our political culture. There’s no faster way to end a political argument than to shout down (or better yet, completely deplatform) the other side.

That shift away from reason and persuasion has been true for some time, but it’s screamingly obvious as citizens and political commentators engage in verbal combat over plans to restart our economy. It’s also hard to miss that those more comfortable with extended shutdowns include many middle- or upper-class folks who are better equipped to handle them, financially speaking. According to YouGov polling this month, 66% of people with postgraduate degrees are working exclusively from home. Only 22% of those with high school diplomas or less education can do the same.

There’s a lot of pain out there right now. (If there’s anyone who still doubts that, they should take a gander at the miles-long lines of cars waiting at food banks around the country.) Some of that pain is economic, and some of it is emotional, but it is all very real. So it’s anything but helpful when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, governor of my home state, mocks New Yorkers protesting the far-reaching restrictions he’s implemented“Cuomo said, ‘The illness is death. What’s worse than that? This isn’t just about you. … It’s about we.’ He half-jokingly added that if New Yorkers are so desperate to work amid the virus, they should ‘go get a job as an essential worker.’”

As if it’s quick or easy to find work right now — or if losing a job in a crumbling economy were no big deal.

Job loss regularly ranks up with a spouse’s death in terms of how much stress it provokes. And while job loss takes a toll on everyone, the experience is notably hard on men. So everyone, but especially those focused primarily on health considerations, should show some compassion for their fellow citizens who are freaking out about immense economic uncertainty or watching their small businesses capsize.

Those worried that our freedoms are being trampled or that our economy is being demolished have important points to make. However, they do themselves no favors when photos surface of protesters making no attempt at social distancing or wearing masks, as if everything is normal. They look out of touch with medical reality. Why don’t those coordinating these protests take a page from Israeli protesters and protest while also responsibly socially distancing?

A recent poll found that “81 percent [of voters], say Americans ‘should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.’”

Given that, protesters face a steep uphill climb. They need a strategy and a vocabulary to persuade the majority of people to shift back in the direction of normalcy — persuasion is an art, not a shouting fest, and protest organizers going above and beyond to model that people can be trusted to operate safely would be an important starting point.

Police in Raleigh, North Carolina, may not consider protesting to be an essential activity, but patriotic citizens still do. The First Amendment is central to who we are, but implementing it isn’t meant to be a death pact. It’s intended to facilitate the sort of dialogue that a healthy democracy needs, with every individual saying his or her piece.

Social distancing and mask wearing, by contrast, are about the common good. They are means to protect others, at least as much as they protect us. And if any of us want other people to take a leap of faith with us in a particular direction, we’ll need to start by showing that we value and care about others. That means considering how our personal and collective actions affect not only others’ economic prospects but also their health.

As we muddle through this period of immense turmoil, we need to do better at listening without demonizing or silencing those who disagree with us. We’re operating amid many shades of gray — with infinite unknowns. It would help all of us come out better and stronger on the other side if we could only start from the premise that others are perhaps looking at the same problems, just differently. It’s our job not to tell our fellow citizens they’re, “Wrong!” It’s to persuade them why we believe we’re right about the best way forward.

This article appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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