COVID-19 is a social disease. What does this mean? Unlike the sociality of something like depression or addiction, COVID-19’s sociality is tied to its ability to spread. With a potential incubation period of 14 days, asymptomatic carriers, and rapid evolution, COVID-19 is able to spread before it is even detected. Testing exists, but tests do not prevent transmission as much as people would like to think.
Why does the mask represent sociology? Why are people rejecting the mask? The answer to these questions requires that we situate the coronavirus in our actually existing society.
COVID is also a social disease in the sense that is highlights the anti-intellectualism that has taken root in world society. Anti-intellectualism is the rejection of science and scientific principles and expressing contempt toward science, the arts and humanities. This is not always explicit and obvious, making detection somewhat tricky.
COVID-19 emerged at a point in history marked by anti-intellectualism, in politics, economic thought, and education. These three dimensions of our social world are illustrative in explaining the origins and spread of the coronavirus.
In anti-intellectual society, basic ecological principles of biodiversity as essential to the sustainability of life are rejected. These systemic principles are replaced with basic economic principles. Ecologies are turned into the means-end relationship of profitability. For example, agriculture and livestock production come to reflect factories more than farms.
Agriculture and livestock production are characterized by homogenized environments that breed sickness. Industry seeks to control this ecology rather than complement it. At the other end of the food system are consumers, most of whom are now living in highly concentrated urban areas devoid of accessible green spaces. These too are homogenized environments.
Two processes are happening, those in a place and those across space. Agricultural production expands further into more rural, biodiverse areas and people travel for business or pleasure further and more frequently than ever before. This is the scientific narrative provided by Dr. Rob Wallace, author of Dead Epidemiologists.
We live in a world that has rejected the social. Anti-intellectualism accelerated under neoliberalism. In a sign of the times Margaret Thatcher stated “there is no such thing as society, there are individuals and there are families” in a 1987 interview with Women’s Own. The idea that the social does not exist is a distortion of objectivity in science that defaults interpretations of objectivity to the person with the most authority. Neoliberal economic theory, Western imperialism, conservative politics, and capitalist white-supremacist patriarchal masculinity (pick your terminology) all situate authority firmly with white men of high status and their allies.
Anti-intellectualism has come to encompass our society, even among those who think they appreciate science and genuinely do. This is the more subtle side of anti-intellectualism. For example, conflict avoidance with the retort “that’s just an opinion” is often used to invalidate scientific authority, especially in everyday life. The coronavirus pandemic is couched within a society that has come to reject rigorous, empirical observation.
Science takes on diverse perspectives and theoretical orientations. On the fringes sit the systemic sciences, those most capable of addressing the crises of our times. Understanding coronavirus or global warming requires an understanding of social systems.
The rejection of scientific principal begins and ends with the social.
Anti-intellectualism is most notable among those who reject masking, maintaining a distance of 6 feet, closing venues where distancing cannot be maintained or enforced, and the COVID vaccine. This demographic will be referred to herein as anti-maskers in order to be consistent with terms used in popular media. To understand anti-masker’s responses to COVID, we need to delve further into the social context of contemporary society.
The political environment dominating global society today is most characteristically captured in the image and public persona of Donald Trump, acting president of the United States from 2016-2020. In the lead up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump was thought of as a joke by those on the liberal and left side of the political spectrum. But for those on the conservative and right side of the political spectrum, Donald Trump was a hero and an outsider. The truth of the political right’s ideas about Donald Trump are irrelevant. To reiterate the point: liberals and the left had the *idea* that Trump was a joke but conservatives and the right *knew* that Trump was a hero and an outsider. Ideas can change, but knowledge stands firm. [Note: Knowledge as used in the previous sentence is not referencing scientific knowledge. Rather it references the popular knowing of everyday experience and is explained in more detail below]. Remember, authority is firmly situated with white men of high status and their allies.
Contemporary society is reflected in the image of Donald Trump because he represents business interests, or the interests of capital. He also represents white patriarchal masculinity. Note that I do not mention the United States in these statements. The U.S. is irrelevant because Trump’s personal, individual interests are himself. We might include his family as well, who benefited from his position as president of the United States and upon whom he depended in his term as president (although Trump would never admit that).
While the position of president traditionally meant a job of public service, the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s altered public opinion worldwide toward a rugged individualism based on extreme competition (no assistance whatsoever). This hyper-individualism is couched in an older structure of knowledge, one that derives from social processes laid down since the 16th century, that assumes white masculinity as an ideal and norm for social conduct.
Shame, degradation, and punishment are motivation under white patriarchal masculinity. Neoliberal ideology blamed the victim while celebrating the supposed virtues of successful individuals. Homelessness was not a problem of rising rent and food prices, offshoring of jobs, or gentrification; homelessness was a problem of laziness, lack of ingenuity, and paucity of entrepreneurial spirit.
Donald Trump represents a successful individual to those who voted for him. His public persona draws on notions of white masculinity for mass appeal. While his success in terms of doing business is invalidated by the data, his success as a persuasive and influential public image cannot be doubted. His persona represents capitalist white patriarchal masculinity. White masculinity is about entitlement–to a job, sex, other peoples time, to speak first and make demands, to taking up physical and social space, the right to use violence to get your way–and among the working classes physical strength, hands on work, dominance over others, the idea of rugged individualism, etc. These qualities change over time to be sure, but many of these qualities overlap with neoliberal ideology.
Important here is that for conservative-leaning people, certain religious sects (not limited to Christianity), blue-collar workers, conspiracy theorists, they are personified in Donald Trump. These broad factions came together under the Trump as Republican political project. I use the term project to emphasize that those in power are conscious about what they do and that their intentions remain hidden from the public. C.W. Mills has a whole book about it, The Power Elite.
As a political project, neoliberalism is broadly conceived as a set of interrelated policies promoting the privatization of public industries (think postal services and road construction), the deregulation of labor and environmental legislation (think undermining labor unions and poisoning Flint, Michigan residents), and the creation of free-r markets (think lower taxes for the rich and their business enterprises and scaling up business size through consolidation).
This pro-business economic theory was put into practice and led to the flight of high paying jobs protected by labor unions to places with lower labor costs. Neoliberalism led to the erosion of environmental standards in places like Appalachian coal country where underground mining was replaced with mountaintop removal, a practice that severely hurt the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) while contaminating waterways with removed mountain and local air quality with coal dust and blasting chemicals. Workers that lost their jobs, homes, and at worst families were blamed for not being forward thinking. If you think this is an individual problem, take a drive through Detroit, Michigan. Espousing this hyper-individualized position most recently was a Mayor in Texas responding to neoliberal disaster with a private responsibility mantra.
The children of formerly well compensated workers–many who are now unable to attend college or must take on immense debt loads to access an education–are today’s celebrated hustlers engaged in the “sharing economy,” where companies like Uber or AirBnB claim profits while their workers are without benefits, unions, and are considered contract workers who have to personally calculate and set aside taxes to pay at the end of each fiscal year. These workers’ children are also the impressively clever youth who generate brilliant memes on social media.
Today’s youth are more accepting of critiques of capitalism and have an understanding of capitalism rooted in experience. Yet their comprehension of the science behind capitalism is lacking. Again, this is tied to neoliberalism and brings us back to the image of Donald Trump.
Anti-intellectualism has grown in popularity. Anti-intellectualism is a rejection or mistrust of scientific expertise as well as harboring negative attitudes toward philosophy and the arts. It rejects theory and the pursuit of knowledge. Anti-intellectuaism has gained traction under Donald Trump to such an extent that conspiracy theorists associated with QAnon invaded the U.S. capital building on January 6, 2021. After their failed attempts, they recorded themselves crying in disappointment and came up with a new date–March 4, 2021–to restore order to their fantasy world. While we might characterize this group as extreme, we cannot ignore its popularity and movement toward the mainstream.
While the anti-intellectualism of today has gained traction in relation to all sciences, it has long been popular as a way to invalidate the field of sociology. Sociology is the science of society and a founding assumption is that the social precedes the individual. At its base this is evidenced by the existence of language, laws, and the rules for social conduct. Anti-intellectualism is responsible for the rise of psychologist Jordan Peterson, who entirely rejects the field of sociology as a science. The problem with Dr. Peterson’s critique is that it comes from the place of a political opinion and has no roots in science. His popularity depends on the emotional appeals, false equivalencies, and other logical fallacies used to project and conjecture on subjects of which he has little if any knowledge. Jordan Peterson’s rise to fame was on this basis, not his scientific expertise.
Recall above, when I distinguished ideas and knowing. Knowledge is rooted in science and experience. Knowledge is about the science of ideas, testing ideas, finding patterns, and reformulating ideas to arrive at more precise knowledge. Yet the knowing referenced above in relation to conservatives and Trump is about *feelings*. This knowing is possible because of the anti-intellectualism that has prospered in recent decades under neoliberalism. The inability to distinguish between knowing and knowledge, feelings and science is a product of neoliberal development. Over time, education has transformed away from knowledge and toward job training. Science has gone by the wayside. Youth are taking on incredible levels of debt to access an education that is merely job training. The working class is being trained under neoliberalism to know its place in the hierarchy without knowing why the hierarchy is arranged the way it is.
Anti-intellectualism allows authority to choose what is true and rejects the science of experts. While many can accept the biological fact of the coronavirus, people struggle with the sociality of the virus. COVID biology has an image, it is represented by the microscopic image of the virus with its spiked proteins. It is physically observable. Yet its behavior is what counts when it comes to epidemiological spread.
COVID-19 spreads in a population via invisible droplets in the air or on surfaces. Those droplets are created by breathing. It is transmitted between people on a scale that has closed down countries and brought air traffic to a trickle. The part anti-maskers struggle with is the idea that you can be infected, spreading the disease without knowing it and without it showing up on a COVID test.
The lag time between infection, infectious spread, and symptoms is straight forward. Yet the ideology of neoliberal economic theory is strong. I am an individual. I can think for myself. I can make judgements about my safety. None of these popular anti-masker (dare I say conservative) ideas acknowledges that your being infected impacts other people. COVID, like sociology, is not about you. The mask is the image representing sociology.
The rhetoric of anti-maskers has recently been couched in children’s wellbeing and the health of the elderly. Kids are sad, depressed, suicidal because they are locked in the house or the elderly are lonely in nursing homes and their physical-mental health is suffering. These vulnerable populations are being used as objects of governance in the political game of predominantly white anti-maskers. Very little ink has been spilled acknowledging that the warehousing of the elderly in nursing homes and long term care facilities depends on low income workers whose sole job is the physical body of the elderly or infirm. Anti-intellectualism is being unable to identify the issue while using the situation to promote a political agenda.
Spaces of close confinement–schools, colleges and universities, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, hospitals, urgent care centers, elder care facilities, psychiatric facilities, group homes, airports–are breeding grounds for COVID spread. Spaces of rapid throughput such as shopping centers, grocery stores, hardware stores, fast food, restaurants, airports, and the like are places where large numbers of people are touching large amounts of stuff. The workers in such retail outlets are frequently uninsured and low paid. They are handling and interacting with each person that comes through their line, potentially exposing them to COVID. These populations do not have the option of staying home.
Neoliberal ideology is so deeply embedded in society that the idea of a universal basic income or universal healthcare is unfathomable, despite the fact that other countries have successfully delivered on both fronts for decades while maintaining their status as world leaders.
COVID is about other people. There is no room for individualism in the spread of coronavirus. You cannot will your way out of it and you cannot determine whether you act as a spreader of the virus. This disease is not about the individual. It is a social spreader. This is why sociology as a field of scientific inquiry is represented by the mask. The mask ensures other peoples’ safety, just as it ensures your own. Your safety is secondary to that of the general public when it comes to mask mandates.
The social comes before the individual. We are born into a society with rules and norms. For those born in the past few decades, they were born into a society shaped by neoliberalism that blames individuals for their failures even as schools have been underfunded and police budgets have soared. The iron hand of the state is a heavy burden. Those perceived as the problem–the poor, indigent, people of color– are warehoused in prisons and overpoliced tenements, in nursing homes and care facilities, in schools and universities. Meanwhile education is touted as an opportunity worth fighting for without reservation. Take on the debt, it will pay off in the future through higher earnings potential. Yet when you take on the burden of debt, you are still blamed when employers fail to compensate you adequately to cover even your basic expenses.
This essay opened with an image of a mask with the word sociology written underneath and an image of a COVID particle with the word biology written underneath. One of these is accepted scientific fact. The other is constantly questioned. As a society, we need to ask why people question the mask. My answer: We need to revitalize a respect for knowledge, to revitalize the liberal arts, and to encourage the incorporation of sociology into everyday life.