First- vs third-person view of the world and how COVID fits in

The partisan divide in attitudes about COVID makes me very sad. It didn’t need to be this way, and it seems like it never would have been this way if not for the self-centeredness of the president. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe it would have been that way regardless of who is in office. Maybe it’s revealing some fundamental differences in how folks on the left and folks on the right see the world. It seems like it comes down to what I think of as a first person vs a third person perspective of the world. Let’s parse that first and then see how it applies to COVID.

In the first person view of the world, the person is the “norm” (for the most part) and the others are different. This perspective is pretty common in America. Think about how Americans (especially northern Americans) talk about accents in speech. Brits and Germans and Australians and Chinese and Russians and southern Americans have accents, but Dan Rather or Rachael Madow or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity…well they don’t have an accent at all. But that’s just not true. They sound like Americans. Their accent is very identifiable as American, but it’s referred to as “no accent” by Americans. Not by Germans or Australians or Brits…to them, it’s an American accent. This is the first person view of the world. I’m “normal” without an accent, and everybody else is different.

A colleague in my department, during her interview for the job she has now, gave an intriguing talk about this in terms of supermarkets and how we talk about food. For most Americans, our supermarkets (at least the larger ones) have sections that we think of as regular and ethnic. In mine, there’s an aisle marked “Asian” and another section marked “Kosher” and another section marked “Mexican.” But the others aren’t marked “American” and most carry stuff that you’d find at any supermarket anywhere in lots of countries. When we think of restaurants and types of food, we talk about “ethnic” food (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc) and non-ethnic or “regular” food. But what makes it non-ethnic? Are hot dogs and apple pie non-ethnic, or are they American? The framing of them as regular and irregular is part of the first-person view of things.

Although folks on the left have plenty of this first-person view, it seems to be far more prevalent, and more pervasive, in the lives of folks on the right. The clear line between “real America” and other parts of the country is drawn, it seems, by right-leaning politicians. The division of things into what’s normal and what’s foreign, who’s inside and who’s outside, who belongs here and who doesn’t, all relies on the norm being set by folks like them. Homosexuality is bad…until it’s a family member and then the first-person lens allows it to be OK.

So how does this apply to COVID? In so many fundamental ways. Listen to how people talked (and continue to talk) about Trump’s infection and diagnosis. When pressed about the risks of bringing Trump back to the White House from the hospital, his defenders talked about all the things they were doing to keep him safe. Those things are important for a president, and I totally agree that for him, given the facilities available at the White House, he was perfectly safe leaving the hospital. What what I never heard Trump’s supporters talk about was the risk that he posed to others in the White House. It was all about him, and his safety, with no expressed concern that he might get others sick. It was all first person, and no third person. It was all him and no them.

And this seems true when talking about restrictions that are designed to help prevent the spread of COVID. Think about the calls to open things up and get on with life. Are they about protecting others or about deciding that it’s worth the risk to the person talking?

I see posts day-after-day minimizing the risk of COVID, from people willing to take the risk and “get on with their life.” People who say a minority is affected and they’re willing to take the chance. Some of these compare the risks of COVID with risks of other things we do. Things we eat, smoking, drinking, driving, and the like. But they all have the same perspective: They talk about risks we ourselves assume when we drive and what we eat and how we don’t let those risks change our behavior. But we do, in fact, change our behavior because of those risks, and what about the risk to others?

Let’s think about it (as I’ve posted before) in terms of a risk we encounter almost every day, driving in a car.

About 37,000 Americans die each year in car accidents. That number would be much higher if we didn’t require that cars have functional brakes. We mandate brakes, partially because they keep the driver safe, but mostly because they protect other drivers. Many states require seatbelts also, but that’s about protecting the driver, not really about protecting other drivers (I’m going to die all the same if you crash into me with or without your seatbelt). But still, imagine how we would feel about somebody who took a first-person view of risks of driving. Somebody who said they didn’t need brakes because they were willing to put themselves at risk if they couldn’t stop on time. What if they said they should be allowed to drive drunk because they’re willing to accept the consequences if they crash?

What about the posts that talk about food risks and people who eat stuff that’s bad for them? Again, that’s a first-person view. Of course, there are some nuanced third-person considerations here, if you eat stuff that hurts you and causes you to rely on the health system, it costs the rest of us money (in increased insurance costs or in strain on the system in general). But it’s mostly a first person issue. If you’re going to load up on saturated fat every day, it’s you who pays the price. But what if you were forcing others to eat like you also? We would never tolerate that. We would never allow you to force me to endure the risk that you assume yourself, right?

One of the posts I saw today likened the risk to allergies. It drew a comparison to the small number of people who would be seriously harmed by COVID and the number of people who are allergic to shellfish or strawberries, and how we don’t stop everybody from eating shellfish or strawberries just because it’s potentially harmful to some. That’s a classic first person view. But let’s put it in third person terms and think about it then. Let’s use peanut allergies, because about 1% of the population has a severe peanut allergy, and the current case fatality rate for COVID is right around 1%, so there’s at least that in common. But instead of thinking about the fact that we don’t remove peanut butter from all of our shelves, think of how we’d react if somebody walked into a crowded store and indiscriminately started wiping peanut butter on people’s hands. What would we say about that person after he rubbed peanut butter onto somebody who is severely allergic to peanut butter and either died or almost died as the result?

The folks who are taking about wanting to open things up and get back to living are strutting this pride and I’m-not-afraid attitude, but are completely lacking the awareness that their cavalier attitude has the potential to get others very sick.

It also dovetails with another issue I’ve written about before (here), specifically all-or-nothing thinking. What the open-it-up folks seem to be missing is that risk and risk avoidance isn’t binary. It’s not a choice between pretending that it’s October 2019 or shutting down like it’s New York City in late March 2020. The best way to safely resume many of the things we want to do is to change our behavior in ways that make those things safe to do. Wear masks. Maintain distance. Do as much outside as possible and ventilate well indoors when there’s no outdoor activity. And somethings just can’t be done safely, but that’s true with lots of aspects of society. There’s no way to drive drunk safely, so we just don’t allow it. There’s no way (for now) to have large gatherings of people indoors, so we just can’t allow it.

But this isn’t forever, and that’s also part of the problem. There’s little patience. And I understand that. There’s real loss here. My oldest son lost so much of his senior year of high school because of COVID, all while he, himself, was at low risk for harm. But it wasn’t about him. It was about the people he could harm if he behaved irresponsibly and spread it to those who are vulnerable and at more risk.

And it’s not as if we don’t have ways to “get back to normal” or close to it. We do. We’re just not taking the steps needed to get there. Masks, contact tracing, frequent rapid testing. All of these things are means to achieve a closer-to-normal existence. Sure, having to take a rapid COVID test to get into a bar or restaurant is an expense and an inconvenience, but it’s a way to get these things open again while keeping risk of outbreaks much lower.

The fact that folks are not pushing for those things, which are about keeping others safe, and instead just saying we should live our lives and not fear COVID, is such a sad first person lens. Let’s be more third person please. Let’s be more about others and less about ourselves. I think we’d all be better off that way, and, in the case of COVID, would make it go away faster too, so it’s a win-win for everybody.


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