To me the entire story of America and COVID-19 is such a densely fogged event that I honestly don’t know how we’ll ever learn anything from it. I’m not sure how you extract meaningful lessons from a disaster about which there is almost no uniformed agreement: whether regarding causes, or Who Was to Blame, or how to respond, or even what the accursed virus even is! I am, however, coming around to one conclusion. I’m starting to believe that at some point in this whole saga at least 50% of the information that politicians, pundits, and even health officials were operating on was incorrect. As the virus and its suffocating political and cultural effects linger far longer than most of us ever thought we or the nation could endure, it’s becoming clearer that important people with their hands on important levers have been getting important questions wrong.
This should not be a particularly scandalous thing to say. People get stuff wrong all the time, and important people with official channels are not less human than the rest. I don’t even think it’s particularly important or relevant that, say, the CDC was wrong about masks, or that WHO was wrong about the nature of the epidemic. Yes, those blunders had consequences. But what relevance do those mistakes have now? No amount of recriminations can undo loss of life or livelihood. Excepting those who may have intentionally misled the world for some kind of gain, I don’t see the point of making COVID “about” the people or institutions or governments that got stuff wrong.
But I’m starting to realize that increasingly few people agree with me. To say, “I don’t think it matters that [group X] got this wrong” is to be met immediately with incredulity, perhaps even suspicions of malice. It seems to me that we’re losing, as a culture, the category of error, and we are replacing it by greatly expanding the category of malevolence. In the political and social context of today, nobody is just wrong. To be wrong is “actually” to be ignorant, or naive, or untrustworthy, or unqualified, or just plain wicked. It seems like just about everyone is operating under the assumption that meaningful errors are too implausible to be honest, and people who make them are too smart/elite to have made them sincerely.
This is one of the fundamental assumptions behind social media’s cancel culture. Every misstep on social media, even a thoughtless joke, is transposed into a situation of “speaking truth to power,” and hardly anyone bothers to spell out what kind of “power” the object of the outrage mob actually possesses. Regardless, the impossibility of restoration for someone who’s been canceled online is integral to to the nature and function of online mobs, because the most important element in a cancel culture is the shared belief that nobody except genuinely bad people could ever do something that would garner a mob in the first place. There are no “mistakes,” there are only disqualifying sins…because nobody who was worth keeping around would/could say/do that.
In one of my favorite journalism movies, Shattered Glass, there’s a key moment where Stephen Glass (a reporter for The New Republic) is on a conference call with another magazine’s editors, who are bit-by-bit destroying the claims Glass made in a piece. Glass fabricated the piece almost entirely, but nobody knows this yet. The story of Glass’s downfall is true and the dialogue in this scene is allegedly almost word-for-word lifted from a real conference call. Watch to the very end:
As Glass realizes that his story is combusting, he makes an amazing pivot:
“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”
To appreciate the magnitude of this sentence, you have to understand that nobody in that conference call assumed that Glass made it all up. They assumed instead that he had used a shady source for the story and had reprinted the source’s descriptions without actually verifying them or doing actual journalism. For a reporter to be exposed like this would be almost career-killing. Almost. Just at the moment Glass seems on the verge of a confession (of some sort), he despairingly admits to having been fooled. That’s a journalistic sin, but it’s not the journalistic sin.
Glass knows that if he confesses to making anything up, he is done. He’ll be fired and unlikely to have a career in journalism again (in fact, that’s what ends up happening). So instead of owning the discrepancies, he owns the naïveté. He’s been duped by a malicious source, and his mistake was trusting, not lying.
The gambit ends up working, at least temporarily (only later does Glass’s editor realize that the story has no legs at all, and that even the details Glass swears to are phony). Glass knew the meeting would end only one way: with nobody believing the story he had written was legitimate. The question was why would they believe that. There was only one “why” that would let him keep his career, his job, his reputation. If he confessed to that, he might survive.
Bad input. Wrong information. “I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”
Of course, Glass’s problem was that he was always lying. But not everybody gets their work or their views destroyed for the same reasons. Some people lie, but a lot of people just miscalculate. They misconstrue what they see, or they impose a presupposition onto the evidence, or they just miss facts. The question is not how to respond to somebody who is clearly lying—almost everyone would respond the same way—but how to respond to someone who is clearly, yet honestly, wrong.
And here’s where the cultural dynamics of making repentance impossible matter. To the extent that people feel that owning up to their mistakes will only result in being destroyed without mercy, they will almost always try to frame themselves as victims. If you dangle people’s jobs and reputations on a string in front of them, they’ll get the message. There are only two options: either they are bad, or they are victimized; depraved, or duped. And that’s what we’re seeing at work in a lot of contemporary culture and politics. Everyone can either be perfect, or else deceived.
This ecosystem makes it extremely unlikely that any valuable lesson will be learned from things like COVID, or the storming of the Capitol, or QAnon. You see some exceptions, like this wonderful and refreshing piece by Hunter Baker. Yet the fact that Baker’s piece is remarkable is evidence of what I’m talking about. What possible lessons will there be from the aftermath of an online conspiracy cult whose claims have been coddled by people trying to own the libs, if those people think that confessing their moral misjudgments will send them into exile? What are they going to do? The less courageous ones will keep their heads down and persist and hope the political weather changes. The more courageous ones will look for somebody who told them something wrong. “I was duped!” That kind of posturing is worthless beyond description. Imagine the healing and restoration that would be possible if more of us took Hunter Baker’s approach and said, “Yes, I was wrong to ascribe bad motivations to those I disagreed with. That was my moral failure and for it I am sorry.”
I’ve got a strong feeling that in the coming months and years we’re going to learn that a lot of powerful people made a lot of miscalculations and misjudgments about COVID-19. We know some of them already. If all you’re looking for are the missteps that confirm your priors, you’ll find them! But I’m assuming that people who believe the gospel have different motivations. I’m assuming that those who are forgiven can look at others with forgiveness. I’m assuming those who sing that their worth is not in their righteous deeds can ascribe to their political opponents worth and value that doesn’t bottom out with a mistake.
We must bear witness to this. American society is fraying and public trust is evaporating. I’m convinced that a major reason for this is that post-Christian culture jettisons the concepts of atonement and forgiveness and consequently has nothing constructive to do with the realities of moral guilt and responsibility. Sometimes evangelicals only talk about the sexual libertinism of post-Christian society, but the reality is that, at its core, post-Christian society is ruthlessly legalistic and punitive. A punitive spirit does not elicit honest confession and restoration of trust. It elicits blame-shifting in the name of survival, and doing victory-laps when the walls close in on your enemies. A culture defined by this is not going to learn from the horrors of 2020. Neither will a church.