Depending on the Kindness of Strangers
Has the Internet made us more selfish?
The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last asks, “Would You Wear a Mask on a Plane If Someone Asked You To?“
I’m not really interested in litigating the airplane mask mandate. I’m sure there are good-ish arguments on both sides.
What I worry about more is what the mask wars have done to us as human beings. Let me spin a scenario for you:
You board a cross-country flight. It’s full. Some people are wearing masks. Most aren’t. You aren’t wearing one because you’re double-vaxxed and boosted and basically feeling like Wolverine. You take your middle seat and there’s a little old lady next to you. She politely says some version of, “Hi. I know this is annoying, but would you mind wearing a mask for the flight? I’m immunocompromised and I’m trying to be extra cautious. I know it’s an inconvenience. But would you consider doing it as a favor to a stranger?”
(B) Try to explain to her that, between the plane’s air filtration system, your vaccination status, and her KN-95, there is no reason for her to be concerned, and that you adding a mask would be overkill without providing her additional meaningful protection.
(C) Smile and say, “Sure thing; no worries.”
Based solely on his intuition, he produces a pie chart showing that 45% would decline (some not so politely), 40% would put on the mask, and the remaining 15% would argue.
He then contrasts this with a false equivalent, in which most people would take off their shoes when entering someone else’s home if asked to do so, even if they thought it silly, before transitioning to this:
We don’t really have a “shoes-off” relationship on the issue of masks, do we?
My question: Do we have a shoes-off relationship to anything anymore?
This is only a tentative conclusion, but: I don’t think so. (Agree or disagree with me in the comments. I’d like to be argued out of this.)
If you are somewhere minding your own business and someone asks for a favor—one that entails a minor inconvenience—do people generally smile and grant the favor? Or bristle about their rights?
Another flight metaphor: You have an aisle seat on the exit row. It’s a great seat. But a dad traveling with a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old has their seating broken up. A flight attendant asks if you’d be willing to take a middle seat in steerage so the family could sit together.
My guess is that 20 years ago, 90 percent of us would have said yes without hesitation, but that today that percentage would be much, much lower.
My working theory is that our experience in the real world is now modeled on our anonymous experiences in the digital world.
I think he’s right on the trend if not on the cause. While the Internet has certainly contributed to our sense of anonymity, we’ve simply become less communal as a society even within my living memory.
Back in 1995, before most Americans had Internet access and certainly before most had “online” lives, the political scientist Robert Putnam published the seminal article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” which would be fleshed out into a book five years later. You’re almost certainly familiar with the takeaway of the latter:
Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.
More interesting, though, is the background. Here’s the extract of the former:
Many students of the new democracies that have emerged over the past decade and a half have emphasized the importance of a strong and active civil society to the consolidation of democracy. Especially with regard to the postcommunist countries, scholars and democratic activists alike have lamented the absence or obliteration of traditions of independent civic engagement and a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state. To those concerned with the weakness of civil societies in the developing or postcommunist world, the advanced Western democracies and above all the United States have typically been taken as models to be emulated. There is striking evidence, however, that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades.
Ever since the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the United States has played a central role in systematic studies of the links between democracy and civil society. Although this is in part because trends in American life are often regarded as harbingers of social modernization, it is also because America has traditionally been considered unusually “civic” (a reputation that, as we shall later see, has not been entirely unjustified).
When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was the Americans’ propensity for civic association that most impressed him as the key to their unprecedented ability to make democracy work. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he observed, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.” 1
Recently, American social scientists of a neo-Tocquevillean bent have unearthed a wide range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions (and not only in America) are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. Similarly, research on the varying economic attainments of different ethnic groups in the United States has demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group. These results are consistent with research in a wide range of settings that demonstrates the vital importance of social networks for job placement and many other economic outcomes.
Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated body of research on the sociology of economic development has also focused attention on the role of social networks. Some of this work is situated in the developing countries, and some of it elucidates the peculiarly successful “network capitalism” of East Asia. 2 Even in less exotic Western economies, however, researchers have discovered highly efficient, highly flexible “industrial districts” based on networks of collaboration among workers and small entrepreneurs. Far from being paleoindustrial anachronisms, these dense interpersonal and interorganizational networks undergird ultramodern industries, from the high tech of Silicon Valley to the high fashion of Benetton.
The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the performance of representative government. That, at least, was the central conclusion of my own 20-year, quasi-experimental study of subnational governments in different regions of Italy. 3 Although all these regional governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of effectiveness varied dramatically. Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs—these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.
So, it’s a very big deal. And, again, the trend goes back decades now.
While I’m generally loath to draw larger conclusions from my own, generally atypical, experience, I’m perhaps not all that unusual with regard to this particular phenomenon. Having grown up a military brat and then serving myself before becoming an academic gypsy, I’m moved around a lot and therefore have few communal roots.
I’m coming up on three years in the current house. I don’t know all of my neighbors—and there aren’t many of them—and have never been over to their houses or had them over to mine socially. (I’ve been to an HOA meeting and had various transactional visits both ways but no dinner parties or the like.) I lived in my previous house for fourteen-odd years. I knew most of my neighbors but only socialized with a handful of them.
In August, I’ll hit 20 years living in the Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs of DC. August will also mark my ninth anniversary in my current job, the longest I’ve ever worked in one place. I’ve got some great colleagues and have social lunches with several of them on a regular basis. But I’ve never been to any of their houses or had them over to mine other than for a work-related mass social event. That was true at previous jobs in the area as well. It’s partly a function of life stage but mostly of geography: most of us commute 40 minutes or more one way to work and do so in different directions. It’s simply a lot of trouble to connect outside of work.
Contrast this with the four years I was a Troy State, living 15 minutes from the office. My then-colleague and current co-blogger Steven Taylor got together regularly outside the office, even though he was married with small children and I was single.
Turning back to Last’s essay: Unless they’re muddy, I don’t tend to take my shoes off at the door of my house. But, sure, if I’m a guest in someone’s home, I’ll take them off if asked. If I’ve been there before and know that’s the drill—or if I see that they’ve got a lot of shoes neatly lined up by the door—I’ll do so without being asked.
That’s very different from the other two examples in Last’s essay precisely because of that personal connection. Would I wear a mask to accommodate an immunocompromised old lady? Yeah. Or cram myself into a middle seat to accommodate a father who for some reason couldn’t manage to book seats together with his kids? I’m less sure.
In either case, though, if I’m being honest, I would resent the hell out of being asked.
In the case of the father who someone couldn’t manage to book contiguous seats for his family, I would have very little sympathy. I was a single dad with very small children for quite a few years, flew with some regularity, and somehow managed to book travel accommodations. If I couldn’t secure three seats in the same three-seat row, I would book two aisles and a middle. And, frankly, 8- and 10-year-olds aren’t so small that they need to be within arms’ reach of their dad on an airplane.
I’d certainly be more sympathetic to the old lady. But, really, she probably shouldn’t be flying on commercial airlines during a pandemic in her condition.
More generally, I resent people exploiting our instinctive guilt at denying requests. Whether it’s street beggars, those annoying people who stand around intersections to accost people at stoplights, or even the stores who ask if I want to donate money to their pet charity (so they can claim deductions for money that’s not even there’s) every time I check it, the intent is the same: to shame people into forking over cash.
But, again, this is mostly a function of a faceless society. I don’t really know any of these people or what their backstory is. Someone on the street corner holding up a sign with some sob story are almost certainly scammers exploiting the gullible. But some percentage of them are likely dealing with a real emergency. There’s simply no way for me to know which is which and, because they’re strangers, the default assumption will is distrust.
Conversely, I’m much more likely to help out people that I have some connection with—even if it’s a relatively modest online-only connection—when they’re going through a rough patch. I suspect that’s true of most of us.
I’m skeptical of the broad-based, real-life social intuitions of a journalist and long-time DC resident who spends an inordinate amount of time in the online world.
I think these “intuitions” become expectations, which create reality, which reinforces the “intuitions.” A destructive cycle.
It is possible to not get sucked into it. And to get oneself out if you do. One can choose to be not resentful. To be just a bit kinder and more charitable than one has to be.
These are not platitudes — well, they don’t have to be. They are quite simple to enact in fact. And damn do they make life a lot more pleasant.
And yet we seem curiously resistant* to this resistance. Or perhaps it’s not so curious.
*Makes me think of the frequent reference to Murc’s Law.
The decline of social capital seems quite real to me, and not so hard to make empirical. I believe I have seen the word “atomization” used to describe this. It’s kind of the opposite of the sort of thing I described in small-town life, and while it’s not impossible now in more urban areas, it’s harder to pull people together. Covid has made it even harder, though it’s also possible that it has made people hungrier for hanging out with each other.
Said flight attendant would be fired for ignoring safety protocols.
People seated on the exit row over the wings are expected to be able to operate the emergency exit doors in case of, well, and emergency. Children do not qualify and are not permitted to seat there.
So I’d decline in order to protect my life, the lives of the other passengers, and the flight attendant’s job.
As to the mask question, I cannot picture myself doing something so massively stupid as not wearing one on a plane during a pandemic
Wow, just wow.
Really? That’s what you think they are doing?
Yeah, that right there.
You just said you don’t know but you feel free to assume they are scamming you. Have you ever been in a desperate situation James? Obviously, the answer is “No.” Nice for you to have been so incredibly lucky that you’ve never had your back to the wall with no way out.
Yeah, like maybe 90% of them. Maybe 95% of them. Maybe only 85% of them. But I really doubt that there is any thing like a large number who publicly humiliate themselves just for giggles or because they are lazy. Being poor is a nonstop 24/7/52 a year job and as such is really hard work, not to mention the most stressful job anyone can have.
THAT is your choice James. You want to believe that and therefor you do.
Many years ago when I was young and dumb and full of… piss and vinegar, I didn’t feel so differently. I’m 63 now and over the years I’ve been thru some hard times, dealt with some hard knocks, was even homeless for a brief period. I’ve also dealt with chronic depression, felt it’s haunting presence forever ready to envelope me, once got sucked in so deeply it is almost a miracle I survived. The main thing I learned from the experience? Was that the next time, I wouldn’t. Fortunately I found a few ways to keep it at bay, but today’s success is no guarantee of tomorrow’s result.
In other words, the vagaries of life do not strike us all, equally.
When I see someone standing on a street corner with a sign saying whatever they think will evoke some kind of empathy, I have no idea if it’s the truth. I can’t know another person’s story, it’s not possible.
What I do know is this: What another person does is between them and their god. What I do is between me and my god.
I am not in anyway shape or form a rich man. For me, $5 is like a twenty for someone making $100K a year. But I always have a wad of fives and ones in my pocket and if I see someone on the corner who is in such desperate straits that begging seems like a thing they have to do, the least I can do is buy them lunch. Today, they will eat. Tomorrow…
And if they are scamming me? That is on them. Me? I will be at peace.
Ditto w/ @Kathy. I flew a substantial amount this past week. KN-95 mask on. The great majority wore no masks in airports (even though required) and not on flights either. people were cheering the announcement that masks need not be worn.
Absolutely moronic. We should have a huge increase of cases in two weeks to a month. And of course, people will find a way to blame it on others and not the stupidity of the masses.
Imagine the passengers of the Titanic cheering that the ship is sinking… I totally get the concept of reasonable risk, but when in a crowded airport, packed in lines, during boarding, and a completely full flight for over 2 hours… you have to ask if wearing a mask to prevent possible death or long-term illness effects is really that inconvenient.
What the hell has our politics done to the social mind.
As to the point of the article: Selfishness.
No, the internet hasn’t made me more selfish… the inequality has made me more selfish.
Reading stuff like this makes me feel very wise and very old. And I’m neither. You can be annoyed at coexisting with other people. But trust me on this–you have done the same to others. This is not like a difficult lesson you have to spend 30 years in the desert to learn. Outside of corporate advertising and bigotry, there’s very little that happens in daily life that amounts to a conspiracy against you by other humans. Nobody wants to get you. It’s all daily noise and friction, of which you are an active agent. So if you’re a white male, it’s all in your f—ing head. This is the joke of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Reading how people with no real issues turn their mundane existences into some sort of struggle is like Curb being retooled as a serious drama in the suburbs and without any Jews.
I think the “faceless society” phrase gets at the truth, that people are much more willing to be unkind under cover of anonymity than face to face.
At work, when I have to communicate a message that is difficult or requires nuance, I call instead of email. I’ve found that even when being given an unpleasant message- about late payment or poor performance- the conversation goes much better when it is in person.
This is also why I chose years ago to always comment with my real name and image. I discovered my own comments tend to be more measured this way.
I know there are lots of people for whom internet anonymity is a real requirement for security reasons, but I think if more people voluntarily chose to speak without that veil, the internet would be a better place.
100% this. It’s also the reason that I decided to always use my name as well.
@Chip Daniels: @mattbernius:
I’d use my real name and image, but given the sentiments I routinely express about Trump, and earlier, about Sarah Palin, I really don’t need to have my books given one-star semi-literate reviews by incensed MAGAs. I freely admit to being a coward.
I bet JD Vance could give you a very literate (well-written even) 1-star review. Why deprive yourself of this possibility?
I don’t need publicity that badly.
Indeed. I know nothing about the histories and lives of the people who stand on our street corners holding signs or cruise around asking for spare change. I do know a little about what kinds of work are hard, though. Standing on a street corner in the rain (or the sun, or the wind, or… well, you get the idea) holding a sign asking for spare change is harder work than I’m interested in doing. And despite the story that my dad told me about the panhandler who bought him coffee one day because my dad was broke, I suspect that it doesn’t pay well, either.
Kudos to you, Ozark. I give money to beggars, too, but not often enough, and my wallet is empty more often than not. I should try to do better.
I think resentment is a big factor here. I know I’ve struggled with it. I don’t want it to dominate my psyche, but it does get activated.
What I tell myself these days is that the resentment comes from me needing help and not getting it. That wasn’t good, but I don’t want to pass that along. I’d like to be someone who interrupts this cycle, and doesn’t just transmit and amplify the resentment of the culture.
I think a great deal of this resentment stems from the Great Recession, and our failure to help people much. Maybe we already had problems. We never got a New Deal, though.
I mean, one of Trump’s go-to lines was ‘the system is rigged against you’ I agree with that, the difference being that I see Trump as one of the guys rigging it.
The family can sit together in steerage.
Children are small, they fit in steerage better, and two people in steerage are going to be happier with better seats. And the dad will be happy to be with his kids.
Which probably means this hypothetical old lady has a really compelling reason.
There’s a lot more to unpack in your statement, about how the little old lady shouldn’t be allowed to have any semblance of a normal life if it even mildly inconveniences you, but these are things that are best discussed using a concrete example. Otherwise we are debating whether you should mask up to protect an elderly serial killer on her way to a funeral for her daughter in Cancun where she plans on killing seven other people (it’s just how she grieves).
If you have to walk further to a store because of empty handicapped spots, do you quietly curse under your breath? What if you’re carrying something?
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
A couple of things about panhandlers. Last week I was wandering around Portland, ME and happened to cross a square, where several homeless appearing men were gathered in a small group. I past close enough to them to catch a snippet of their conversation. One was instructing the others, which corners to work and for how long before moving to a different location. In the shopping cart, there were several ‘help me’ signs and I heard a comment about one being particularly effective.
A friend regularly would drop some change for a panhandler, till a woman friend pointed out, that while they’ll simply ask a man for change, they’ll frequently harass women if there is no one else nearby. He reconsidered his charitable ways.
@CSK: I always read that there was no such thing as bad publicity.
And what exactly do you think it means? Because it appears that you think something nefarious is going on. It’s no secret that some corners are more productive than others. It’s also no secret that some messages are received more readily than others. To me it sounds like one guy trying to help out his fellow homeless with a few tips.
As far as harassing women, sounds just like so many other males of our species. Guess what? Homeless women get raped too, and usually by homeless men. Guess what else. Homeless men get raped, beaten, and robbed too. In fact, the homeless pretty much get f*cked every day just for the fact of their existence, and the fact that nobody cares.
I’m not about to stop trying to ease their burdens to whatever small extent I can just because they aren’t all saints..
I gotta tell you all a story about street corner hustlers.
Me and my compadres had just crossed the border into Reynosa. If you have ever been to a border town, you know that every intersection has at least 2 hustlers and as often as not 4. On this trip we had a couple of newbies with us who hadn’t yet been hardened to the desperate poverty that exists in some places.
We stopped at a light and a 8-10 yo legless kid rolls out into the intersection in his wheelchair and starts juggling the one ball he had, and at that he wasn’t very good. B took pity on the kid and gave him some pesos just for trying. We continued to the beer outlet, bought our rations for the day, got some ice and headed out of town.We had gone maybe a block when B spotted the same kid walking down the sidewalk with the wheelchair under one arm and the ball in his other hand.
B started cursing up one side and down the other. The rest of us were laughing our asses off. I made B stop the truck got out and gave the kid another handful of pesos for his chutzpah.
We had a young lady panhandler down here who worked a corner I drove by daily, who was ‘pregnant’ for close to two years straight except for the handful of times she forgot or lost her fake belly. I gave her money every time she asked throughout that whole time. Anybody who can keep that up through two New Orleans summers has more than earned whatever extra cash I had on me.
It depends, really. For someone like Donald Trump, there is no bad publicity because even the worst publicity makes his devotees that much more devoted to him.
I didn’t believe it was nefarious at all, in fact I chuckled to myself. The idea of a panhandlers guild, puts the occupation in a different light. Often in Portsmouth, there is a panhandler in front of the the Starbucks, sitting under the store’s, large, help wanted sign, lots of irony there.
That other men may harass women, doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable for the women being bothered by panhandlers.
Yeah, why does Starbucks require a person to have a physical address and a phone # they can be contacted at?
Nobody said it did, but the way you first said it was like “Some panhandlers harass women therefor you shouldn’t help any of them.” and that doesn’t make any kind of sense. Secondly, I have to wonder exactly what it is that counts as harassment. Is it a guy who just won’t take no for an answer? OK, I’ll go along with that. Or is it a guy sitting on a shady corner who holds up a cup every time somebody passes by? Nope sorry, that don’t count.
@Sleeping Dog: I’ma just stick with my assumption that begging is harder work than I’d be willing to do for the money. On the harassing women part, our friend Ozark identified the salient point adequately enough for me to have no additions, but yes, it would be nicer if all the people who need help were “good” people (and we had the ability to measure that condition–and I don’t even have working gaydar, so…), but my observation has been that the God who, according to one proverb somewhere, makes his sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike also permits misfortune to fall in the same random manner. That situation causes me to simply try to do small charities without regard to analysis. YMMV.
In closing, I will recall a conversation that I had with a pastor from a third world country about giving to street people. He advocated for giving them what they ask for rather than trying to come up with a “safer” substitute (for example, offering to buy food for them rather than giving them money). When challenged about “what if they spend my give on liquor or drugs,” he answered that the challenge of grace is give or don’t, one’s responsibility is only to choose, not shape the outcome. Again, mileage varies.
@Sleeping Dog: ” Often in Portsmouth, there is a panhandler in front of the the Starbucks, sitting under the store’s, large, help wanted sign, lots of irony there.”
Maybe not as much as you might expect. In Portsmouth can people whose “address” is a homeless camp/shelter/rescue mission be hired by Starbucks? I ask because I’ve been told in the past by managers of fast food outlets that some companies don’t hire people without permanent (as in mail is delivered there as a common standard) addresses. The world isn’t the one that Todd and Buz lived in while traveling Route 66 back in the day. And probably wasn’t much then, either.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Absolutely agree; giving with strings attached is not really giving. And who are we to say what the best use of a gift is? If I’m giving somebody money it is theirs, to do with as they please.
I know it used to cost $10/night to stay at the New Orleans mission (dunno if that has changed in the last couple years) which includes a hot meal, a bed, and access to bathrooms and washing facilities. Giving somebody food gives them just a meal; giving them money gives them access to more. So folks may think they’re doing the “right” thing by directly giving food to avoid the money being “wasted”, but the reality is that’s just taking away choices and we rarely have the full story. Somebody being homeless is something that happened to them, not who they are, and it doesn’t mean they’re not a person who deserves to make their own choices.
I find the Last piece irritating.
– He really did draw a pie chart to display his data. Data he just made up. Facepalm. Illustrating a point with an anecdote, or in this case data, the author just made up seems common on the right.
– The airplane seat thing is badly constructed. As others have noted, the airline can’t put children in an exit row. But also the guy likely paid extra for the good seat.
– No one has made a political football out of taking off shoes or airplane seats. TFG, FOX, et al did make a political football out of masks. Last doesn’t seem to find this worth mentioning.
My mom is dying. I’m immunocompromised. I flew last month to see her, knowing this might be the last time I’ll ever see her in this life. I felt safe only because I’m double boosted, wore an N95 mask, and the mask mandate was still in place. But now, if I need to go back, I’m a lot more nervous about it with the mask mandate gone.
But according to James, I shouldn’t be traveling to see my dying mother at all, so people like him don’t feel resentful.