Will a year of judging each other permanently change our society?

The pandemic has triggered an era of finger-pointing and shaming. As we return to normality, are these new social rules here to stay?

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It started earlier than most of us may remember, even before the first official UK lockdown was announced a year ago. The supermarkets were emptied – news footage showed shelves bereft of fresh food, dried goods, toilet paper and cleaning products. Grocery delivery slots were booked up for weeks and though people were actively told to stop stockpiling, they didn’t, and a race began to avoid being the one left facing empty shelves. Here was the first whisper of what was to come: these stockpilers were (perhaps rightly) deemed as selfish. 

Selfishness is subjective, as is irresponsibility. But at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the rules of good and bad pandemic behaviour were more clear cut. Anyone egregiously breaking lockdown rules in late March or April would have been frowned on by their peers. But as the country opened up in early summer, even perceived-high risk behaviour suddenly became legal. It became harder to understand where the line lay between right and wrong – and even harder to gather, via social media posts, gossip and personal anecdotes, on which side of this nebulous, self-determined line most people sat. 

From this uncertainty came one of the pandemic’s only constants: judgement. As we had to increasingly rely on our own sense of what was safe, fair or morally right, the choices other people were making became more difficult to avoid. The last year has since been characterised by judgement, finger-pointing and moralising over what other people are doing; calling strangers on the internet murderers, snitching on neighbours, or photographing and shaming random people in the park. 

[See also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

But with the vaccine roll-out promising a return to normality, our pandemic-era behaviours may be coming to an end. It may be that in a matter of months, case numbers will be so low, and immunity will be so high, that we’ll be keen to pretend the pandemic didn’t happen. But will we be able to simply move on? To forget how friends, family and colleagues acted in the face of uncertainty? Or will a year of moralising about each other’s behaviour have longer lasting effects?

Mary Holmes is a professor of emotions and society at the University of Edinburgh, and her work focuses largely on emotional reflexivity: the way in which we interpret our own and other’s emotions, and how that ultimately influences our actions. In particular, she looks at how emotional reflexivity works in the face of rapid change. Holmes believes many of the emotions we typically rely upon to guide us through social situations are irrelevant in the face of the pandemic’s disruptive, life-changing uniqueness. 

“Of course, we've never been in this situation before,” she says. “We have no precedent for it. So how do we navigate that uncertainty? We fall back on how we feel about things – do I feel comfortable meeting my friend? Do I feel comfortable going into this particular shop or not?” 

She explains that with varying comfort-levels, based on uncertain (and often conflicting) science, people have to manage complex risk, essentially, based on their gut. “We try to navigate and negotiate what the hell we should do and how we should feel in this situation,” she says, “And that’s where you get people judging each other.” 

From this fractious point, Holmes says, new social norms are being written. “There's a concept in the sociology of emotions called 'feeling rules',” she explains. “They are shared, and we might not talk about them, but people know – or used to know – how to feel and behave because of them in certain situations.” She gives two examples: that we would know how to act at a funeral or at a birthday party, because of long-standing societal norms that most of us typically adhere to in our lives. But a pandemic “throws all the previous feeling rules into doubt,” Holmes says. “The old rules no longer apply.”

[See also: Does the end of lockdown mean a return to normal office life?]

Holmes predicts the new rules will likely be determined by those doing the moralising and shaming. But a meta, and in some cases permanent, change is happening at a secondary level: judgement about moralising itself. When I asked friends if they felt differently about anyone as a result of their behaviour in the pandemic, the vast majority told me their views were most dramatically and negatively changed in the case of people who were critical of others or who were hypocritical (such as shaming rulebreakers while rule-breaking themselves). 

And of course, not all moralising is petty – one friend who’s been shielding said she stopped speaking to a friend who argued old and vulnerable people should have been kept indoors while everyone else lived normally. Another, suffering from a year of “long Covid”, said he has struggled to understand a medic friend, who keeps choosing to socialise with a variety of people despite lockdown restrictions. 

It may feel like a year of pandemic judgement has only hurt our personal relationships. But Holmes notes that not every aspect of these new norms is negative – that in some cases, it has forced us to be more considerate. She explains that she and her students have found that, particularly among people living with limited physical space, many have gained a renewed sensitivity of other people’s needs – anticipating each other’s behaviour. She explains that this has manifested even in small ways; for example, making someone in their household a cup of tea unprompted, or going for a walk to give them needed space in a cramped flat. “It can help people rethink and remake their relationships, and create an opportunity to rethink what's important in their lives,” she says.

Although it’s hard to know what characteristics will persist in the long term, it doesn’t seem our pandemic behaviour will be forgotten quickly. “I think it will always change how I view her,” one friend told me of a particularly judgemental family member. “The lack of accounting for other people’s circumstances – not accepting that they’re actually in a really privileged situation – is quite telling about someone.”

Holmes says that it’s hard to know which of these conventions will endure – and that while we may know how they work in the pandemic, or how they could have worked before it, we have no idea what a post-Covid world will look like. “We are always remaking the social rules, it's an ongoing process,” she says. “But it’s important to think about how conflict and difficulties with others brings change. And it can bring change for the worse, but it can also bring change for the better.”

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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