How to talk to people who aren’t taking social distancing seriously

(CNS photo/Caitlin Ochs, Reuters)

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, many of us are increasingly frustrated by divisions over whether or how long to shelter at home, as well as how to see the trade-off between rescuing the economy and saving lives. While most Americans are complying with orders to stay mostly at home, others are attempting to live their lives with minimal disruption.

On social media, the hashtag #StayAtHome (often with an expletive added) expresses understandable fear and frustration. But deepening existing divisions among us is not the way to inspire the actions we desperately need people to take. Instead, we need to look for opportunities to rethread the ties that bind us together, and we need to do it quickly.

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If social distancing can be disentangled from politics, many more can be persuaded to do the right thing.

As the author of Hope for Common Ground: Mediating the Personal and the Political in a Divided Church, I am aware of the skepticism over attempts to encourage dialogue and compassionate listening. In normal times, civility can seem like a cover for maintaining the status quo even when it is unjust. Now, the potential loss of life from the pandemic can make the very idea of common ground seem absurd. Why not call out those who are not on board with social distancing and tell them to just stay home?

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

I am reluctant to declare that people with whom I disagree on political issues are undeserving of mercy, and I am not convinced that doing so is effective. People do not often change their minds on political questions because politics is increasingly linked to identity. Making adjustments to behavior for the sake of health, family and community comes more easily. If social distancing can be disentangled from politics, many more can be persuaded to do the right thing.

Admittedly, dialogue will be difficult because this crisis has broken along lines that already divide us. As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic, the first major clusters of Covid-19 cases were in Democratic enclaves like New York City and Seattle, which may have reinforced partisan views of the seriousness of the crisis and shaped behavior. Trust in academics, including scientists, is lower among Republican voters, and many without college degrees have long felt disrespected by the more educated classes, like “strangers in their own land.” While many people with more education, money and flexible jobs embraced the social distancing recommended by experts, others (old and young, rich and working class) declared they would continue with their normal lives.

Many without college degrees have long felt disrespected by the more educated classes, like “strangers in their own land.”

In recent years many organizations have tried to mend the brokenness in American society. The People’s Supper brings neighbors together for a shared meal and offers rules and topics for conversations. Difficult Dialogues take place on college campuses across the nation, and the University of Michigan offers training for those seeking common ground. Krista Tippet’s Civil Conversations Project attempts to gather signs of hope amid division and provide strategies for making progress when political change seems out of reach, and Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life brings diverse panels of Catholic experts together for public conversation.

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To be sure, sometimes we need to call each to account. Brady Sluder, the young man who has apologized for an irresponsible comment he made on a Florida beach during spring break (“If I get corona, I get corona”), is an example of productive dialogue. Rod Dreher’s pointed critique, in The American Conservative magazine, of those refusing to acknowledge the necessity of social distancing was sorely needed.

But what we know about difficult conversations suggests other strategies will be more appropriate for most. Leave big-picture narratives aside because they are harder to change. Focus on narrower, specific questions that are less contested. Move to the “space between” or the local, which tends to be less polarized than national politics. Assume good will. Be curious about why people think the way they do. Offer your own narrative. Be willing to criticize your own side. Lead with what you’re for. Look for overlap and try to build on it, leaving the rest behind.

Instead of shaming those who go out to bars or beaches, ask questions, express concern, share stories, affirm positive steps, and offer alternatives and hope.

What would this mean for Covid-19? Instead of shaming those who go out to bars or beaches (or attempting to outdo the Italian mayors who have angrily scolded their constituents for going out), ask questions, express concern, share stories, affirm positive steps, and offer alternatives and hope.

We could start by listening to the fears of those going to work sick and advocate for the paid sick leave they deserve from their employers or from the government. While we organize and wait, local communities could witness their concern by raising funds for those who want to stay home but feel they can’t. To curtail trips to grocery stores, neighborhoods or apartment complexes could order supplies together, as communities did in Wuhan.

To sustain those who can’t imagine not showing up at church, believers could showcase the options now available online, from Mass to lectio divina, from faith sharing to choirs. To make room for everyone to spend time outside, we could help community gathering places set up reasonable ways to stagger or limit use. We could help those without the means to shelter in place or social distance find the spaces they need. We could form networks for reaching out to those who live by themselves so they know that they “are not alone” even if they do not go out.

In the face of the exponential growth of the virus, it may seem that we do not have time for steps like these, but they may be our best hope for transcending our divisions and, ultimately, slowing the spread of Covid-19. And empathy for the tough choices people face will get us farther than condemnation.

Christians have every reason to lead in seeking common ground with those who are not yet embracing the sacrifices we need to make. As people convinced of the reality of sin, we recognize the limits of our own abilities to grasp truth and act in accord with it. Sin, we hold, is alienation from God and each other. We understand why people prioritize themselves and their families over broader bonds, and if we’re honest, we know that impulse in our bones. Yet the belief that God created us for communion fuels our hope. Interconnection is the deeper reality. As the current crisis reveals, it is the struggle of our lives, and right now it requires us not to alienate people but to find ways to reach them, as quickly as possible.

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