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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Needless cruelty

by Brenda Looper | September 15, 2021 at 3:29 a.m.
Brenda Looper

There are times I have to cut myself off from the world. Usually that means I settle in for a "Doctor Who" marathon.

In those episodes, amid the humor and sometimes trite storylines, I find something that seems to be missing or broken in too many people now: a moral compass. The 10th Doctor especially, portrayed by David Tennant, struggled with decisions that might mean the extinction of a species, and when he went too far, he knew he'd have to accept the consequences, and he felt remorse.

Meanwhile, in the real world, I see too much of people being needlessly cruel to each other. I wish I could feel confident that this is a temporary condition. However, as the last several years have shown us, it apparently was just waiting for the chance to come out as soon as someone broke down societal mores to the point where selfishness became a virtue.

I wasn't sure that I wasn't imagining what I was feeling. And then an article from The Atlantic popped up in one of my social media feeds, titled "On Top of Everything Else, the Pandemic Messed With Our Morals."

"We're only beginning to understand pandemic trauma," wrote Jonathan Moens. "Every covid-19 death has unleashed a river of grief still flooding over the bereaved. Millions of coronavirus survivors are still ravaged by what the disease did to them. Even those who haven't personally been touched by the virus have had to contend with lost jobs, anxiety, and missed opportunities. But for some people, the past year has also fundamentally broken their moral compass."

The article dealt primarily with those who have been working on the front lines of the pandemic, and their feelings of guilt over following guidelines even when they feel they wouldn't in ordinary circumstances, such as not letting family in the room to say goodbye to a dying loved one. But there are other ways that our moral compasses have wobbled.

Many of us who encourage vaccinations feel bad when we offend a friend or family member by asking them to get vaccinated for their safety and everyone else's. Then we get mad that we were made to feel guilty for encouraging something that should be a given in a public health crisis. Then we feel guilty that we got mad about it.

Then there are the people who intentionally cough on others or otherwise flout public health measures, or those who muse that perhaps unvaccinated covid patients should not be admitted to hospitals at all instead of taking up rooms needed by others.

I'm not saying that concerns about the unmasked and unvaccinated aren't valid, because they certainly are. I'm also not saying that it's OK, ever, to intentionally cough on someone (what did your mama teach you?).

Twenty years ago, we accepted restrictions in the wake of 9/11 because we knew they were for the common good. Some balked, of course, but relatively few refused to follow the new rules.

Now, we're in year two of a pandemic than has killed more than 4.55 million people worldwide, and we have people who not only refuse to follow public health guidelines, but are crowing about it, and encouraging others to do the same. They have decided that it's OK to be selfish and cruel. They think that spreading misinformation, and possibly an infectious disease, is to be admired as long as you "own" someone with whom you disagree.

Some of the meanness can be accounted for by stress. The pandemic was declared more than a year and a half ago, and shows little sign of abating soon (which is why vaccination is encouraged). Some people lost their jobs or continued as "essential workers," while others of us work from home, isolating ourselves for the protection of ourselves and others. That and pandemic protocols can take a very large toll on mental health, and sometimes, we snap.

But in what world is it ever morally acceptable to purposely try to infect someone, sell fake vaccination cards (for something that is free), threaten to harm someone for following the rules, or lick produce at a grocery store (just . . . ewww)?

Not this world, last I checked.

We all have the capacity for cruelty, but most of us have moral grounding that tempers that. We know that cruelty and other baser instincts go against social mores, and we stop ourselves, yielding to our better nature.

We know in our hearts what we should do when confronted with something that affects so many other people; we know we should err toward the common good, and right now that means following public health recommendations.

What will it take to convince those who seem to delight in dark behavior to change for the better? No, really, I'm asking. Appealing to morals and the science hasn't worked, and seems in some cases to exacerbate their behavior.

Vaccines and other measures have been proven to end pandemics in the past, such as cholera and smallpox (the first to be ended by a vaccine), which is a much better way of ending it than infecting everyone and hoping that they survive and develop antibodies.

Don't we all want this pandemic to end? I'm starting to think some people don't.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

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