Another COVID communication post May 17, 2020 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Recently, I've seen several AskMe posts where posters have felt the need to engage in harsh critique of self or others in order to fend off AskMe judgment concerning their taking actions during the pandemic that are clearly driven by need (even potential life-or-death emergencies) and not frivolous. This troubles and saddens me.

For the most part, I try to stay out of general discussions of site tone and atmosphere, as I haven't been here that long in comparison to many and also it is frankly not my metier--in most areas, at least, the mods are clearly far more skilled at managing discussion and building a good site atmosphere than I am. But I can't help but feel the strongly absolutist strain of AskMe responses on COVID questions since things got serious in the U.S. made a substantial contribution to people's fear that they would be condemned and not helped by us. It would be different if the advice tracked the legal requirements imposed by the various U.S. authorities or the CDC, but it doesn't. (The posters seeking help would not have been breaking any emergency order I'm aware of.) While I know some Mefites are living in true quarantine, either voluntarily or because of medical necessity, it's also clear that many of us have at least some form of (legal!) outside contact--e.g., going to the grocery store, distanced exercise outside--so the extreme tone taken by a number of people doesn't even necessarily reflect most people's actual risk assessments.

I know I'm not the ideal person to advocate for less strong opinions or judginess on Mefi. I live in NYC near an epicenter of dumb privileged young people, and, yes, I get angry when I see a few of them standing together outside a bar with takeaway cocktails or whatever. Hey, I'd like to meet friends for drinks in person rather than sit inside my tiny apartment staring out the window! I'd like the vulnerable low-income senior citizens in my neighborhood (there are many) not to be imperilled by their foolishness! I find the "then perish" approach of the states abandoning restrictions terrifying. I'm really not trying to single anybody out (in all honesty, I don't have a single username in mind); I really think everyone has been speaking in good faith. The lack of clear and competent guidance by the authorities coupled by the inevitable shortage of information and changes of approach in a rapidly-developing medical scenario have made it difficult for anyone to be confident they're giving good advice. I appreciate that it's especially hard for those in high-risk groups who feel terrifyingly vulnerable and may suffer emotionally from hearing even about people doing legal things they judge that they can't. But it feels to me as if we've created an atmosphere where people in bad situations beyond their control in the midst of what (for many places, at least) is the great crisis of a couple generations are afraid of our judgment in asking for help. I'm not asking for a change in policy. I just wish that, going forward, people would think about the possible unintended consequences when making "if you go outside, you're the dumb guy in the alien horror movie who breaks the quarantine"-style comments. As a practical matter, in the U.S. especially, the undeniable risks of human contact nonetheless require a harm reduction, not an abstinence, approach--especially over such an extended period. I was just reading that old Hazlitt post about the amazing story (new to me!) of the trafficked young women Mefi was so generously able to help (and other help the community has given each other) and I hate the thought of people in need now being afraid to ask for help lest they be harshly judged.
posted by praemunire to Etiquette/Policy at 3:06 PM (120 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

Thank you for this post. I agree with you about harm reduction over abstinence at this point. The immediate strong shutdown was vital to stop places being overwhelmed but I agree that emotions are high and reactions are extreme. Thank you again. I will mull over what you said.
posted by biggreenplant at 5:01 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Thank you for this post. As this stretches on, we need to all remain open-minded to new information, and to the different circumstances by location.
Our priority when people ask for help should be compassion and assistance and that should be the tone of whatever message on these challenging topics.
posted by meinvt at 5:58 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]


Thank you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m reluctant to participate in some discussions and especially the “check-ins” because I feel I will be criticized or judged, although I am following quarantine as best as I can.
posted by areaperson at 6:10 PM on May 17 [11 favorites]


Thank you for this.
posted by thivaia at 8:08 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


I'll briefly take a counterpoint; I think the harsh reactions are still necessary. There are certainly life-or-death situations where breaking quarantine is necessary, such as spousal abuse and other circumstances. (Even in those cases, it's certainly possible to do so at least moderately safely with masks, etc.)

But the fact is that we currently don't have an instant (stimulus)-(reaction to stimulus) sequence going on with breaking quarantine; you break quarantine to go to Wisconsin's capitol to protest that it's time society lets you get a haircut, and then two weeks later, you show symptoms, having silently infected people throughout the interim. Those people don't know anything about you except a brief memory of "that woman who sneezed while she was a little too close to me." You don't see the damage until it's way too late and has spread several generations beyond your problem.

I think we are doing what we apes have done since ook-ook days when we try to gauge safety; we look around our environment and gauge how our monkeysphere is reacting. As such, we're seeing people congregate, we're seeing a big societal push by the Orange Moron which despite his moronity is seeping into the mainstream culture, and we're feeling as if it's a little safer because that's what we do with any danger, we acclimate to its presence.

I think it's a very common, understandable, and very often good reaction to stem away from absolutism and towards relativism. This is, I would advocate, an exception to that rule. Viruses don't take into account relativism. I think absolutism is still the best course. And, moreover, none of us are really the right people to make that call. People have brought up on MetaTalk how the practice of us laymen (for the most part) answering medical, legal, and other professional occupation-level questions has its real dangers. It's especially so here where we're talking about epidemological issues that affect not just one person's medical welfare but all the generations that spread outward exponentially from them.

But to play devil's advocate to myself, all this having been said, I am ready to slam dunk a host of idiots' heads onto spikes by this point, I am so angry at my fellow humans and how absolutely asininely stupid they've been, and thus, what is that? That's anger. And a lot of that anger is coming out at misdirected sources, namely the people OP is asking about. So ... there's that.
posted by WCityMike at 8:56 PM on May 17 [29 favorites]


People have brought up on MetaTalk how the practice of us laymen (for the most part) answering medical, legal, and other professional occupation-level questions has its real dangers. It's especially so here where we're talking about epidemological issues that affect not just one person's medical welfare but all the generations that spread outward exponentially from them.

It seems to me that that's an argument for AskMe not taking such questions at all--which is not a totally unreasonable position and I believe was put forward by some people earlier. It's not an argument for taking a harsh line. The opposite, really (more uncertainty should generally mean less dogmatism).
posted by praemunire at 9:09 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]


Yes, thank you for making this post.

In a more general sense, the absolutist, judgmental mentality that you're describing has been an undercurrent in MeFi's culture since long before the coronavirus. It's been noticeable for as long as I've been a member, and it has directly resulted in quite a few good contributors bailing out over the years -- never mind the chronic toll it takes on our collective mental health.

Please, everyone: be kind to each other.
posted by teraflop at 9:22 PM on May 17 [64 favorites]


Yes, thank you for posting! I don't have much else to say really, only that I was just thinking about this very issue, so I'm happy to see it brought up here.
posted by marlys at 10:03 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


It makes me really sad to see people amping up their anxiety level to 11 due to coronavirus-related situations where it's my considered belief (living in a hotspot, and carefully trying to understand & quantify the risk to myself and others associated with my actions) that the situations warrant anxiety level, like, 6, or something. It's a cruel outcome to see the people who are probably doing the best job altruistically-speaking, suffering the most. I wish I knew how to help.
posted by value of information at 10:44 PM on May 17 [18 favorites]


I have lots of thoughts about all this, which may not be surprising — but I won't go into all that ... or, well how much time do you have? No, I'll say briefly that I agree with the point of this post, and that people should be as compassionate as possible, and more open to nuance rather than simply latching onto some received wisdom or best practice as the unquestioned alpha and omega of any and every situation. Also, if anyone is browsing Ask Metafilter in order to find grist for their scolding mill, that is a terrible use for a great resource.

That said, I am someone who obviously reads a lot of Ask Metafilter, and I will say that, by far, most people are kind and genuinely caring and helpful. It's easy to lose sight of that sometimes, because the negative always seems to have so much more impact and seems to be more memorable, even though it's far outweighed by positive contributions.

As for the less positive exchanges, I'd like to remind everyone that many OPs on Ask Metafilter are posting under some amount of stress, or fear, or confusion, or sadness, or illness, or frustration, or desperation, or lack of information, or lack of Very Online levels of awareness about various issues, in addition to necessarily using a very limited text-only toolset to get across the crux of the issue, so it's a good idea to keep this in mind before leaping to the worst assumptions. And when it seems necessary, there are ways of gently helping posters become aware of blind spots, or social issues, for example, along with good, helpful advice about their problem, and if we can navigate that line most of the time with good will and good faith, we are showing by example how better things can be. A lot of our members do that every day.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:07 AM on May 18 [36 favorites]


posters have felt the need to engage in harsh critique of self

reluctant to participate in some discussions and especially the “check-ins” because I feel I will be criticized or judged, although I am following quarantine as best as I can.

Yes, and yes. It does feel like a certain level of judgmental tone has crept outside of Ask, into the Check-in and Fucking Fuck threads, where people are preemptively self-deprecating and/or simply judging themselves harshly. I dislike this in threads that are supposedly about "we're all doing the best we can and all in this together. (For MetaFilter values of "we.")" Folks should feel comfortable checking in without feeling they have to include "obviously I'm a disaster waiting to happen but I can't do anything else" disclaimers.

It would be different if the advice tracked the legal requirements imposed by the various U.S. authorities or the CDC, but it doesn't. (The posters seeking help would not have been breaking any emergency order I'm aware of.)

Eh. I mean, a lot of the problem (and not just in the US), is the wide variety of legal requirements by various authorities and best practices suggestions by health authorities and experts.

Which means however much some folks might like to have . . . how do I put this? clearer boundaries for determining appropriate answers - "would not have been breaking any emergency order", as one example - I would question both the practicality of that and . . . and . . . and . . . I dunno, how it sort of violates the "spirit" of Ask?


I appreciate that it's especially hard for those in high-risk groups who feel terrifyingly vulnerable and may suffer emotionally from hearing even about people doing legal things they judge that they can't. But it feels to me as if we've created an atmosphere where people in bad situations beyond their control in the midst of what (for many places, at least) is the great crisis of a couple generations are afraid of our judgment in asking for help.

I've bolded this quote, because to me, this is the crux of the matter.

With the additional complication that . . .

Well.

Watching the effects of COVID-19 on MetaFilter has reinforced a suspicion that I've had for a while - that MetaFilter skews more anxious (medically diagnosed or not) than the general populace.

Being anxious right now is certainly understandable.

I am not in any way supporting the "Open Now!!11!!" crowd.

I am not in any way suggesting that folks defaulting to "NO. Bad. Wrong." answers or comments are NOT medically vulnerable or ignorant of the personal or collective risks or (again) even unjustified in being anxious.

I AM asking that folks maybe be a little more mindful and self-aware - to consider the extent to which your answers or comments may be being driven by your personal anxiety; especially anxiety about your personal physical or mental health. To be more willing to assume, when possible, "good faith" - in the sense that people asking questions or giving updates on their personal situations are themselves anxious, and scared, and getting conflicting information, and trying to do the best they can in situations that may be different than yours.



People have brought up on MetaTalk how the practice of us laymen (for the most part) answering medical, legal, and other professional occupation-level questions has its real dangers. [. . .]

It seems to me that that's an argument for AskMe not taking such questions at all--which is not a totally unreasonable position and I believe was put forward by some people earlier.


This has been put forward many times in the past in various ways, and been pretty thoroughly shot down as, at the very least, impractical - the tl:dr being that to do so would either ask the mod team to set themselves up as experts in a wide variety of fields or require some kind of community "expert panel" for certain questions, which is a whole other level of community vetting and organizing.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:11 AM on May 18 [32 favorites]


Maybe this only provides a little comfort, but if anyone reading this has been the recipient of harsh judgment/attacks, I would bet there are many more of us here sympathetic to you and who don’t judge you, but who aren’t participating in COVID-related threads for whatever reason (I dislike discussing medical advice here and life is basically one big medical advice discussion these days).

Responding on Ask or Mefi at large is self-selecting, and the people who choose to type and post angry, chiding “advice” are likely doing so as a coping mechanism (not a healthy one!) for the stress, fear, and loss of control over life that we’re all experiencing. As the Asker I’m sure it feels like someone throwing a pail of cold water on you, or worse. But there are many more of us who would like to give you a hug (from six feet away...).

To me, there is no legitimate way to defend making a harshly judgmental post on a medical topic because none of us will have sufficient information about an Asker, due to the nature of this forum. Even if you are a world-renowned medical expert who believes in the power of “tough love,” no Asker is your actual patient, and you’re only ever hearing a select part of the story.
posted by sallybrown at 5:49 AM on May 18 [19 favorites]


In a more general sense, the absolutist, judgmental mentality that you're describing has been an undercurrent in MeFi's culture since long before the coronavirus.

The strangely overdetermined opinions on AskMe are a real problem. People clearly bring their personal shit to questions and their answers often reflect the anger or anxiety they have collected along the way.

But there is a BIG difference with coronavirus, and that is that this time shit really is personal. Every — literally every — risk someone takes may kill me or someone I love. It just takes one person to keep coronavirus on the move; we’ve all seen the evidence for how fast and how far it spreads.

"No exceptions" is a reasonable rule in this case. People SHOULD know up front that the bar for participating in a pandemic that has killed 315,000 is very very high. They SHOULD have to present a strong argument right out of the gate for how they’re going to protect other people, including me, from the potential consequences of the exemption they’re seeking.

The vitriolic tone of answerers is a problem, but the basic message is not: you had better have a very very very good reason to risk the deaths of me and my family.

I’ll close this with a picture of a mass grave in New York, just in case anyone has forgotten that this shit is real. 315,000 dead is just the number so far — the estimated final number is still 2,000,000 and at the rate we’re going a lot of those are going to be in the U.S. The bar needs to be very high for helping that along.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:03 AM on May 18 [15 favorites]


There increasingly seems to be evidence that some of the excess mortality right now is actually coming from people dying of things other than COVID. They are dying unnecessarily from things like strokes and heart attacks, because they are afraid that they'll get coronavirus if they seek urgent medical attention. There was recently an AskMe where both the OP and (apparently, because they'd been deleted) some posters shamed someone, the OP's friend who was the subject of the question, who had an urgent, life-or-death need for medical treatment. Apparently, it was her fault that she let herself get into a position where she would die without medical treatment, thereby forcing other people to break the purity of their quarantine to help her get to a hospital. And I want to be really clear about this: people who need medical treatment should get medical treatment. If you need to go to the ER, go to the ER. If you need to go to the ER because your mental health issues have caused you to neglect your physical health issues, still go to the ER. Do not feel bad about going to the ER. If your friend or family-member needs medical treatment and can't get it without you, it is ok to help them get it, even if it means leaving your house. And if you shame someone for needing urgent medical treatment, you're a jerk. If you do it publicly, you're contributing to a public health disaster, because people who die unnecessarily of strokes and heart attacks are just as dead as people who die unnecessarily from COVID-19.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:14 AM on May 18 [98 favorites]


I will say that, by far, most people are kind and genuinely caring and helpful. It's easy to lose sight of that sometimes, because the negative always seems to have so much more impact and seems to be more memorable..

I have to agree with taz. It's our same old difficult family, people! Always gonna be some trouble, always gonna be some negativity, and often from people who are suffering, depressed or lack control over their own situation.

Which is not to say it is a bad idea to remind people to think about their intentions before commenting, and try to remember that others are suffering more or in different ways that we can't know.
posted by Glinn at 7:34 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


"No exceptions" is a reasonable rule in this case.

But it is not, at all. Even in places still under stricter quarantine rules, there are all sorts of cut-out exemptions (like: go get medical treatment if you need it; go to the store if you need food; a wide range of essential business activities; outdoor recreation; helping people who need more support; etc) and lots of places now have much looser requirements (some of which are actually science-based). We'll have sit down restaurants and hair salons again soon here, for example.

That doesn't mean "go ahead and have that huge sweaty dance party," but it does mean that the stated limits have to be judged against someone's actual situation, and being empathetic and understanding how people are navigating confusing, conflicting, and often impractical advice is something we should all be doing.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:40 AM on May 18 [45 favorites]


[One deleted; I understand everyone's under a lot of stress, but a) don't tell other mefites to fuck off or similar and b) mental health right now is REALLY IMPORTANT, because we're all under a lot of stress from an international crisis, so people's feelings matter and we all need to take care of ourselves -- and each other.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 8:05 AM on May 18 [13 favorites]


That said, I am someone who obviously reads a lot of Ask Metafilter, and I will say that, by far, most people are kind and genuinely caring and helpful.

I hope my post didn't suggest otherwise. I have read some really great thoughtful and compassionate AskMe answers that have helped me understand people's situations that I otherwise might not have.

I’ll close this with a picture of a mass grave in New York, just in case anyone has forgotten that this shit is real.

I live in NYC, and my life has been completely disrupted since March 13. Friends have had it, (extended) family has had it. I also spend part of my work day dealing with people trying to take advantage of other people in this crisis. I considered including that in my original post, then I decided that feeling the need to do that--to prove in advance that I am not a complete ignorant moron--was an illustration of the problem.
posted by praemunire at 8:40 AM on May 18 [32 favorites]

But it is not, at all. Even in places still under stricter quarantine rules, there are all sorts of cut-out exemptions (like: go get medical treatment if you need it; go to the store if you need food; a wide range of essential business activities; outdoor recreation; helping people who need more support; etc)
Yeah, I think that a lot of what's going on is that many people haven't actually read their locality's lockdown rules, because they don't need to. They have no truly pressing reason that they can't just stay at home almost all of the time. And they have been reading a lot of social media posts along the lines of "stop looking for loopholes, assholes, and just stay at home!" So you can be absolutely, 100% obeying the lockdown order and still have people yell at you about how you're looking for loopholes and should just stay the fuck at home. You can be going out because a medical provider told you to (and I promise you, I am in more-frequent contact with a wide array of medical professionals than almost anyone not working in the medical profession is right now), and you can still have people shriek at you about how dare you defy science and doctors to leave your house in the midst of this international emergency.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:44 AM on May 18 [21 favorites]


I think more than usual AskMe commenters have been seeing other AskMe commenters as proxies for the people in their own lives making bad decisions, speaking without thinking, participating in dangerous behavior, or just being ignorant of the local or national or global scale of what's been happening. It's really hard for everyone at once and it's made it more difficult to be compassionate for people who are struggling because the bar for what is struggling is one that many if not most of us are above. That said I've also seen some AskMe folks who,because they're under enormous strain, have been saying things that might not otherwise fly in AskMe (question askers and responders) and that's been its own sideways issue, a little confusing and complicated to untangle.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 9:07 AM on May 18 [46 favorites]


Maybe add a “Remember: ACAB” to the preview window.
posted by rodlymight at 9:16 AM on May 18 [9 favorites]


That particular order is considerably less vague when you read the additional full page of definitions and clarifications that follow the paragraph you quoted. It is not bad-faith-interpretation-proof, but I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to be assuming bad faith on the part of AskMe posters.
posted by praemunire at 10:20 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


There is definitely a larger problem in that this situation is being poorly and unevenly handled from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and there is a dearth of useful information (we don't even know how it spreads!) and also a lot of socially-transmitted noise being passed around locally/regionally. People are having to wing it real hard here, and it is super stressful and also prone to creating a sort of culture shock.

I've seen many people here and elsewhere talk about not buying groceries for weeks or months or pre-apologizing for buying groceries - not because it is personally too risky for their bubble but in a sense of "we're not supposed to do this" which, you know, had never crossed my mind, I immediately go to a place of "wha-WHAT??" and I get it that other people are going to have that same reaction to things that startle their personal internal framework.

Maybe this can serve as a reminder that you don't HAVE to say the "wha-WHAT??" out loud, you can consider it silently and see if, on second thought, it's truly outside best practices.

But sometimes that's going to mean people think things are okay that - as far as reasonable scientific minds are saying at this point - maybe/actually aren't, and that is a problem of sometimes deliberate misinformation. The whole outcry about "opening up" has been that a LOT of people are going to think "my state wouldn't do that if it wasn't safe" and that is not the case. Just reading one's local guidance may not be incredibly informative, trustworthy, or even phrased in parseable ways. (And given that Texas politicians have gone out of the way to publicly violate/negate Abbott's EO, including Abbott himself, even the above example is not as simple as what's on paper. People are confused because confusion is being deliberately sown.)

If that's the case, if someone is up in here going "can I go back to choir practice now", the correct tack to come at this needs to be a whole lot more oh honey no that's a lot of spit and a lot less you are murdering me right now. I get it, the stakes are incredibly high here, I have an immunocompromised person in my bubble and another one I'm too far away to help, I am real fucking angry at randos and acquaintances and a friend's murderous now-ex-roommate and my mother's governor and the sushi chef at takeout last night who didn't have his nose covered and it's a lot of rage and I very much would like to firehose that shit at somebody but here is not the place for it.

Flagging/flag with note is probably the best place to direct that ire (be kind in your note, it's not the mods' fault), both in cases of difficult questions and inappropriate answers. Honestly, most of the people who need to be told to chill out aren't going to read this.

I've seen a lot of kindness and help untangling difficult situations here, too, which I think is absolutely AskMe at its best. I think as the summer goes on some of the difficult situations are going to be unimaginably complicated with no real right answer, and that's going to be really hard to navigate here. I don't know what the answer to that will be, aside from the flagging and moving on when necessary.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:40 AM on May 18 [21 favorites]


There is an undercurrent of oneupsmanship and "well actually" at Metafilter that I have noticed ever since I joined 5 years ago, that I guess has been part of "site culture" for years and maybe used to be even worse? I don't know the reasons for this and frankly don't care. I obviously find enough value in this place to hang around, there are a lot of smart and kind and funny and interesting people here, but the air gets sucked out of a thread more often than not.

I still vividly remember posting a fun little FPP about some women playing "giant xylophones" and someone derailed it with "well actually those are marimbas" and then almost the entire thread became Marimbagate. I even commented right after that in an attempt to redirect, with my thought process being "yeah okay but can we engage with the substance of the post or just... not post" It felt gross and I still don't like it. I'm sure a mod would tell me to flag the post but it wouldn't have been deleted so idk.

I recently posted something in the Strange New Worlds FPP and then the very next post was " well actually this character still has the most per episode appearances" and it's like... okay?

AskMe is even worse and the level of "here are my snowflake requirements please do not tell me to do X, Y, or Z or interrogate the premise of the question" has been a problem I've noticed for a long time and COVID has not done this impulse any favors. At least here in the States we are all making this up as we go and doing the best we can and man idk can we all just... assume good faith of each other as a starting point?

If I sound frustrated, I guess it's because I am frustrated.
posted by Automocar at 10:48 AM on May 18 [25 favorites]


AskMe is different because people frequently don't answer the question posed. This happens more than when AskMe first started and many of us have trained ourselves to try to head it off at the pass, which makes it easier to flag those who are deliberately not answering the question asked.

As far as covid posts, I can see the variety of responses with some being pretty harsh so I hear this MetaTalk.
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:58 AM on May 18 [7 favorites]


I think that's a big part of why people are pushing for others to stay at home, because for some states, the lockdown orders are so vague that it's really down to the honor system.

Here's the thing: it was all only ever down to the honor system. There is no enforcement mechanism sufficient for even a small percentage of the population deciding to ignore social distancing measures. There's probably not any enforcement mechanism short of martial law sufficient to identify that even 1%of the population has decided to ignore it. So your choices are all on the continuum between honor system and having the entire populace under armed guard. I am given to understand from your posting that you are not a huge fan of the latter, and it mostly doesn't seem to be on the table regardless.

At that point, isn't it better if people have the best chance of doing the honor system usefully? If I think I have information that will allow others to behave in ways that will help others behave in ways that are safer for both of us, it makes sense to me to want them to trust me so that I have the best chance possible of communicating that information in a way that will affect their behavior. If I ask people to do things that they understand to be impossible, they typically will start ignoring me, which does not lead to trust. People usually have some set of duties they understand as mandatory. They will typically treat ignoring such duties as impossible, especially at first examination. Therefore it behooves me to work to understand at least some part of what they take as mandatory acts, so that I may make my requests compatible with those acts. If the background information is vague and uncertain, this just becomes an even more essential component of harm reduction in as much as building trust is that much harder.

I have never in my life shamed someone into changing their behavior longer than I was in the room. Maybe you have.
posted by PMdixon at 11:34 AM on May 18 [5 favorites]


As a practical matter, in the U.S. especially, the undeniable risks of human contact nonetheless require a harm reduction, not an abstinence, approach--especially over such an extended period.

I cannot emphasize this enough. I read a good article the other day comparing the idea of telling people to never see friends/family to abstinence-only sex ed. It doesn’t work, and it results in riskier behaviors. It’s better to teach people what is lower risk and what is higher risk, so they can make better decisions. This is a flawed metaphor of course, since seeing friends/family right now has some inherent risk and potentially endangers others, and safe sex doesn’t - but the the point is that we can’t expect people to stay 100% isolated from in person social contact forever and we need to teach people how to do it more safely (outside, masks, from a distance, not too many people, not too often, etc).

you break quarantine to go to Wisconsin's capitol to protest that it's time society lets you get a haircut, and then two weeks later, you show symptoms, having silently infected people throughout the interim

True. But no one is using Ask to ask if they should go protest. If someone was asking that, or was asking about something obviously wrong (50 person party in their apartment or whatever), it’s totally appropriate to tell them that they’re risking lives. If someone says, hey, my mental health is not great, would it be reasonable to have a drink with my neighbor?, it’s not useful to say “absolutely not and if you even think about it, you’re killing people.” It’s both kinder and more helpful to say, it’s not zero risk, think about whether you or your neighbor are particularly high risk, think about whether either of you are likelier than average to have been exposed already, ask your neighbor if they are doing something similar with others, if you decide to do it sit outside and not too close, etc.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:03 PM on May 18 [40 favorites]


I'm a lawyer. Legal orders are necessarily issued under the assumption that words have some degree of shared meaning. Just because someone can make up a bad-faith interpretation of "minimize" does not mean that most people think getting a non-emergency-related haircut would be permitted under those orders--or that, if the state chose to enforce the order, it could not do so successfully against your neighbor. And, again, we're not supposed to be assuming bad faith on the part of AskMe posters.

And to reiterate, that's why some people encourage people to stay at home as much as possible- to offset the number of people who will interpret their state's lockdown orders as loosely as possible.

I don't particularly care what people "encourage" other people to not do. There are plenty of answers to various COVID AskMes that boil down to "I don't think that's a good idea, I don't think I would/advise someone I loved to do that." Whether or not I agree with the particular position, that's fine. But draconian pronouncements to the whole world, which inevitably includes people trying to decide how to manage actual emergencies with safety, because some people are acting in bad faith, strikes me as badly ill-judged. Your neighbor would not be influenced by AskMe regardless of what the tone was, because he's a jerk. Meanwhile, known commenters are hesitating over helping someone to seek badly-needed medical aid.
posted by praemunire at 12:08 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


But there is a BIG difference with coronavirus, and that is that this time shit really is personal. Every — literally every — risk someone takes may kill me or someone I love. It just takes one person to keep coronavirus on the move; we’ve all seen the evidence for how fast and how far it spreads.

I wanted to highlight this comment because I think it really gets to the crux of how people are feeling very personally affected by others' actions that they read about. It is also false in any meaningful sense, and I believe that understanding why it's false is really important to avoiding the kind of harsh, judgmental atmosphere this thread is discussing.

I am not an epidemiologist. I am a professional biologist who is capable of reading and understanding epidemiology to a certain extent. It simply isn't true that "it takes just one person to keep coronavirus on the move," that's not how epidemics work. Which is a really damn good thing; if that were true, then it would be literally impossible for us to stop this thing. The purpose of extreme social distancing measures like stay-at-home orders is not to ensure that no individual ever infects anyone else. Rather, it is to create an environment such that each person on average infects less than one other person. This is all that is required to defeat the pandemic. The term epidemiologists use, "R0" (usually pronounced "R-naught" or "R-zero"), describes this parameter. When each infected person passes on the infection to more than one other person on average, infections spread exponentially. When each infected person passes on the infection to less than one other person on average, infections decline exponentially. R0 is a complicated parameter, sensitive to the intrinsic infectiousness of the virus (which for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is very high) but also to behavioral factors like hygiene standards and the rate of contact between people. Socially distancing, when practiced broadly by enough people, can bring R0 below 1. Unfortunately, the real world is complicated, and there isn't really a single R0, but lots of them for each community and subcommunity, which is why we need epidemiologists to help understand these complexities. But this basic insight, that defeating an epidemic does not require stopping 100% of infections, is critical.

So the really good news is that bringing the average transmission rate R0 below 1 does not require universal compliance with social distancing. The bad news is that if there are concentrated pockets where social distancing is not practiced, these can be sufficient to sustain the epidemic for much longer than would otherwise be possible, which is why the anger at those in the right wing who make a point of flouting social distancing and hygiene (e.g., masking) guidelines within their communities is justified. But the good news again is that if you are not part of one of these pockets and you are maintaining even imperfect compliance with social distancing practices, you are still doing your part even if you have to go to the grocery store from time to time.

The frustrating aspect of this is that if 90% of people do proper social distancing while 10% deliberately refuse to do so (these numbers made up from whole cloth, by the way, actual values may be very different but the principle holds), we still can defeat the pandemic, which means the 10% of noncompliant people essentially are freeloading on the sacrifice of the 90% of people doing their part. For me personally, and I think implicitly for a lot of people, this is a source of anger and frustration: here we are overturning our lives and making huge sacrifices for the greater good to try to save as many lives as possible by stopping this thing quickly, and meanwhile they are over there refusing to do any of this, and still benefiting from our sacrifice. It's not fair. But unfortunately that's the way it is: some fraction of people will freeload, and as long as it's not too high a fraction they'll get away with it, but if it is too high a fraction we'll all suffer as a result.

I really think some of the judgmentalism and black-and-white thinking about social distancing that seems to have become more common on Metafilter is at least in part a reaction to our implicit recognition of this fundamental unfairness. It is absolutely unfair that some freeloading jackasses get to benefit from my sacrifice while refusing to sacrifice anything themselves. And because it's unfair, it feels wrong: that jackass had better sacrifice too, or else all of this will be for nothing. But it's not wrong. Those jackasses can be jackasses, and as long as there's not too many of them they'll get away with it, and so will the rest of us. And that's important, because not all of those jackasses are jackasses. Some people are unable to comply with social distancing guidelines for a variety of reasons, and that's okay! Some people have respiratory problems that genuinely prevent them from being able to wear a mask: as long as they practice good hygiene and maintain physical distance as much as possible, they're not putting anyone at significant risk, and as long as a large enough majority of the rest of us who are able to follow this hygiene guideline actually do so, the small number of folks who can't will have no real negative impact on us. Some people (most people!) have to leave the house occasionally to buy groceries and run other essential errands: as long as they limit these trips to truly essential ones and comply with stay-at-home and other social distancing procedures the rest of the time, these trips incur minimal risk, and have only a small impact on the overall spread of the virus, still allowing us to pull R0 below 1. And some people have terminally ill parents they're caring for, as one Mefite recently related in another thread, and the fact that they should feel judged or shamed by this community for doing what they need to do in that trying situation I think says some very negative things about us.

So again, it is not the case that "Every — literally every — risk someone takes may kill me or someone I love. It just takes one person to keep coronavirus on the move". Epidemics are big, complicated phenomena with messy chains of causality, but the single risks taken by some individuals who you will never physically interact with are not going to kill you. Absolutely worry about the individuals in your life who may place you at risk through their carelessness or indifference to your safety, but personalizing the decisions of people on the other side of a keyboard in some other part of the world to make them individually about you and your safety isn't healthy for anyone. Far better, I think, to adopt an attitude of feeling good about the fact that our collective sacrifice in staying home and not doing the things we want to do is allowing the few among us who cannot fully follow social distancing procedures to continue doing what they need to do, whatever their needs are. And yes, let's reserve and hang on to our anger at those who absolutely could make the same sacrifices we are, but are choosing instead to freeload for purely selfish reasons: that anger is well-placed, and those individuals ought to be shamed. But we need to be absolutely clear about the difference.
posted by biogeo at 12:09 PM on May 18 [176 favorites]


The Washington Post has some guidance from experts about how to live and weigh risks as U.S. states reopen.

I think none of them are saying we must remain in absolute quarantine indefinitely.
posted by NotLost at 12:51 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


This is a very stressful time, on so many levels, for everyone. People are very sensitive, people are very worried. Try very hard to view every post and comment as charitably and positively as you can, be as kind as you can in your own responses. I'm in my 60s and went grocery shopping last week, followed best practice, proceeded to freak out last night. Hugs to anyone who would like one or a few.
posted by theora55 at 12:57 PM on May 18 [9 favorites]


I think I gave a pretty judgmental answer in a COVID-related ask me during week 1 or 2 of shutdown (I'm in NYC). I don't know if I would go back and time and change my answer, but I will acknowledge that my perspective has changed at the beginning of week 10.

Everyone has a different situation and while I recognize that some people are really pushing the limits, most of the exception questions on AskMe have come from a place of people facing really difficult decisions. I haven't seen anyone asking how to start a speakeasy or illegal salon. Everyone is trying their best.

My family is in PA and starting to relax some of their limits for staying away from each other - it can be frustrating but they are all just doing what they can. Expectations from work and stress and mental health has pushed a lot of people to their absolute limits. My cousin and her husband are lawyers and expected to keep up their 60+ hour a week workload, mostly in the office. They have been relying solely on my other cousin (a teacher) to babysit their 2 toddlers. This past week the teacher cousin has been expected to do 4-5 hours a day of online meetings and instruction, so they needed to bring my 66-year-old aunt back into the house to help with childcare. Without one of the parents resigning, there was no other option.

We all need to understand that it is an unbelievable privilege to keep a 100% strict quarantine and go 3 months (no end in sight) without major disruption to our income, mental health, physical health (COVID issues aside), and general well-being. The very least we can do is to be kind to each other.
posted by elvissa at 1:06 PM on May 18 [16 favorites]


I think I gave a pretty judgmental answer in a COVID-related ask me during week 1 or 2 of shutdown (I'm in NYC). I don't know if I would go back and time and change my answer, but I will acknowledge that my perspective has changed

Probably most of us who gave several would like to go back in time and change something about one of our COVID-related answers. I haven't reviewed mine, but I'm sure there's something in there to make me wince. An important reminder of humility, for me at least.
posted by praemunire at 1:22 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't change a fucking thing, some of you people in AskMe are INSANELY reckless.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:57 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


I feel that there's two sort of problems and because people are apes with pants sometimes we have trouble sorting our reaction to things. 1) especially early on some folks in askme DID. NOT. GET IT. in a way where if their questions were not slapped down you could see them or others dying because of their actions. In this case a harsh response could save lives. This is largely not the issue anymore, but folks are still responding as if it is.
BUT ALSO 2) not so much early on, but more now, as we go into month 3/4 of this real deal needs and exceptions and emergencies are popping up that need compassion and kindness to deal with because it's not just "I want to have dinner with Grandma and 5 of her friends 500 miles away after I've interacted with 15 gas stations and rest stops oh and also I have a fever" It's "This is a medical/personal emergency, I know I'm exposing myself/others, I have no choice, what's the safest way to do that?"
So like- early on and yes- even with the one that caused a buttoning- I think the reactions were warranted. But unless the question now is "dear askme how do I throw a cough-in-peoples-faces party with 50 of my friends and the mayor?" I think we can tone down the vitriol.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:04 PM on May 18 [14 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. I see a similarly judgy tone in some spheres in social media, in particular with the "NY Strong" garbage propaganda. Saying New Yorkers who left the city are awful people with way too much money and therefore are not Real New Yorkers. Yeah, whatever a-holes.

I've gotten judginess from a friend who looked down their nose at me because we are doing shopping and trash-taking-out for an elderly immediate relative who is months overdue for a hip replacement. We are taking every precaution we can and we wish we could do more. They are in a lot of pain, and there is no end in sight.

And on the other side, I've got friends out west who are driving halfway across the state to go fishing, or have moved *up* their wedding date to be an at-home affair with "only" six or ten attendees. I have to hold my tongue, because we are all doing what we can to cope.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 2:24 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I mean, that might depend on the mayor in question.

Joking aside, though, I agree with Homo neanderthalensis. I do think it was valuable early on to be really clear about how serious this pandemic was (and still is, obviously). And as I write these words I'm hearing music from a fucking ice cream truck somewhere in my neighborhood, so yeah, some people still don't get it. But here on Metafilter that isn't really where we're at any more, at least in general.
posted by biogeo at 2:43 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


The frustrating aspect of this is that if 90% of people do proper social distancing while 10% deliberately refuse to do so (these numbers made up from whole cloth, by the way, actual values may be very different but the principle holds), we still can defeat the pandemic, which means the 10% of noncompliant people essentially are freeloading on the sacrifice of the 90% of people doing their part.

I don't see how we can possibly "defeat the pandemic" in this scenario if the refusers happen to hang out together, socialize, live, and mate with each other at much higher rates than they do with the compliant 90%.

In that case, the 10% would become a subpopulation in which the virus will circulate around indefinitely and reach some kind of relatively higher equilibrium. That subpopulation would probably have shorter lifespans in general, and lose lots more of their young people to asthma and juvenile diabetes at least initially, and they would have to have a higher net reproductive rate than the 90% in order to maintain at least their 10% status, but those obstacles don't seem to me to be remotely insuperable. And white Trump supporters already seem to meet many of the criteria for a subpopulation of this kind.

But the effect on the 90% would at least be that the virus breaks out of the 10% periodically and often, with devastating effect, which could only be minimized by perpetual lockdown. Which is simply not sustainable.

So I think the possible effects of a significant fraction of the population declaring an end to precautions isn't necessarily merely delaying an inevitable favorable end to the pandemic even when R0 remains less than 1 for the entire population, but may in fact amount to choosing a much darker future for all of us.
posted by jamjam at 2:54 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Herd immunity isn't if there are two herds?
posted by polymodus at 4:28 PM on May 18


And as I write these words I'm hearing music from a fucking ice cream truck somewhere in my neighborhood, so yeah, some people still don't get it.

As long as people aren't crowding around the truck, and the truck is following good protocols (ie, hand cleaning, mask, ideally touchless transactions, etc.) then this should be no worse than any other kind of to-go food from a restaurant or food truck. Most of the food trucks here have been operating as normal all along; they had probably the easiest transition since they were already operating as take-out only.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:55 PM on May 18 [21 favorites]


I don't see how we can possibly "defeat the pandemic" in this scenario if the refusers happen to hang out together, socialize, live, and mate with each other at much higher rates than they do with the compliant 90%.

Yes, this is what I was trying to describe when I said "Unfortunately, the real world is complicated, and there isn't really a single R0, but lots of them for each community and subcommunity, which is why we need epidemiologists to help understand these complexities." and "The bad news is that if there are concentrated pockets where social distancing is not practiced, these can be sufficient to sustain the epidemic for much longer than would otherwise be possible, which is why the anger at those in the right wing who make a point of flouting social distancing and hygiene (e.g., masking) guidelines within their communities is justified." And indeed, this kind of complex clustering of our population into subpopulations with different values for R0 makes things a lot more complicated, past the point where I as a non-specialist feel comfortable speculating. As far as I understand, the exact effects of this kind of clustering depend strongly on the details: how large are the clusters with high R0, how low is R0 outside those clusters, how do things dynamically change over time, etc. These details do matter, and no matter how you crunch the numbers, sizable clusters of people who refuse to comply with social distancing and hygiene best practices do make things take longer for everyone. This is why we should be angry at those who foster communities of noncompliance.

But again, the good news is that despite what your intuitions might tell you, epidemiologists who have expertise in this do not actually seem to think that this problem dooms us to an eternal pandemic. The thing is, R0 will eventually fall even within the clusters that refuse to behaviorally manage transmission due to herd immunity. The phrase "herd immunity" might trigger negative flashbacks to a month or so ago when dumbasses like Donald and Boris floated the idea of doing nothing and letting herd immunity sort things out. This negative reaction would be justified, as this was (and is) a monstrous idea from a policy standpoint, as it dooms many hundreds of thousands or millions more to die than otherwise would with better management over contagion. But that doesn't mean that the herd immunity idea is incorrect. As pockets of the larger population experience higher rates of infection due to noncompliance with social distancing and hygiene guidelines, they'll also experience (alongside the greater number of deaths and long-term health complications) an increased number of people with full or partial immunity to the virus. While as far as I know it is still unclear whether you can catch COVID-19 again after having recovered from it, it is nevertheless true that having antibodies in your system will reduce the likelihood that any given exposure to the virus will result in an infection. This mechanism, ultimately, will reduce R0 even within communities that refuse to do anything behaviorally to reduce it. I don't want to downplay the shittiness of people refusing to socially distance: herd immunity is the slowest, cruelest way to stop the pandemic, and their pockets of infection will make all of this take longer for all of us. But herd immunity only needs to reach a certain level within those pockets before transmission rates are brought low enough even within those communities for them to no longer serve as reservoirs of the virus for the rest of us.

Finally, since you seem to be thinking on the timescale of generations and lifetimes, there is another mechanism to remember, which is the evolution of the virus itself. Remember that SARS-CoV-2 doesn't want to kill us: from an evolutionary perspective, it's not in its interest for us to die from infections. This disease is deadly because it is new in humans, and the virus has not had time to really adapt to its new host. For the virus, the best outcome is to make us sick enough to do things like cough, sneeze, and do other things to spread droplets to increase transmission, but not so sick that we change our behavior and reduce transmission. Killing its host is not an effective strategy for spreading. An example of a group of viruses that are really well adapted to humans is the rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold. Like this coronavirus, they are super contagious, but unlike SARS-CoV-2, they rarely cause serious enough illness to change their host's behavior all that much, meaning the window during which they can be transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected one is much, much longer. The danger of SARS-CoV-2 comes in part from the fact that it's a brand new virus in humans, we have no current herd immunity to it, and the virus itself has no adaptations to maximize its contagiousness while minimizing its deadliness. As new strains of the virus evolve, ones that do a better job of "flying under the radar" so to speak by not causing as dramatic symptoms will tend to outcompete the current, more deadly strain. Again, from the standpoint of public health policy this all will come too late to be useful (although virus evolution of this sort happens on the timescale of months and years, so we absolutely will see it in our lifetimes), but is maybe a small comfort to keep in mind if your mind is turning to dark scenarios of an eternal pandemic lasting for the rest of your life and haunting future generations. Not that there won't be future pandemics with another virus, but this one will absolutely end, one way or another.

Things suck right now. They've sucked for a good six months or so at this point (pandemic-wise, at least). They're going to continue sucking for quite some time longer, months, maybe years in one form or another. The jackasses who make a point of refusing to comply with basic public health guidelines will make it take longer than it needs to. All of that is true, but it won't last forever, even with the jackasses. In a year, or two, or five, the pandemic will absolutely be over. SARS-CoV-2 will still be around, but it will cause local epidemics and seasonal flare-ups, not a pandemic. The sacrifices all of us are making, right now, by doing the difficult, tedious, boring work of staying home and taking obnoxious precautions like wearing masks, these are making real differences in how long it takes us to get to that point, and how many people have to die along the way. It is working, and all of us who are making these sacrifices should feel good knowing that.
posted by biogeo at 5:00 PM on May 18 [61 favorites]


As long as people aren't crowding around the truck, and the truck is following good protocols (ie, hand cleaning, mask, ideally touchless transactions, etc.) then this should be no worse than any other kind of to-go food from a restaurant or food truck.

Yeah, you might be right. I'm grumpy about the ice cream truck because A) I'm skeptical that the truck is actually following good protocols, just because in my area there is a significant population of people who resist doing so, and my wife, whose shitty retail job opened back up last week, is experiencing first-hand the gap between what a store says its policies are for protecting its employees and customers, and what they actually do in practice; B) an ice cream truck seems different than other food trucks to me because everything is refrigerated, meaning the whole retail stock is being kept at temperatures optimal for prolonging the half-life of a virus outside the human body, although I admit I know of no specific data suggesting that ice cream trucks are actually more dangerous than other retailers in this regard; and because C) the stupid music is so goddamned annoying why can't they change it up instead of replaying the same 10 bars over and over and over again it's been going for hours and I want to throttle someone. But I admit (C) has relatively little to do with good social distancing and I shouldn't let it color my judgment here. Outdoor food services are probably safer overall than indoor, anyway.
posted by biogeo at 5:08 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Here in Oakland, city government recently found it necessary to prohibit food trucks near parks because people haven't been maintaining appropriate distance.

The last time I walked near Lake Merritt (midday on a weekday) it looked like people were using the shutdown as an excuse for mass picnics. Lots of groups, too close to each other, and crowds around the food trucks. (Part of why now when my spouse and I go out we've been going for walks in our neighborhood, where people seem more willing to maintain space and wave cheerfully from across the street.)
posted by Lexica at 6:24 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Homo neanderthalensis: 1) especially early on some folks in askme DID. NOT. GET IT. in a way where if their questions were not slapped down you could see them or others dying because of their actions

As a poster outside of the US in a place that has experienced Covid-19 as a social and economic catastrophe, but happily not a health one, I will say this about my once-frequent, now very infrequent activity answering Covid-19 questions in AskMe:

- I did my best to try to gently remind posters of the risks because we were experiencing them here, or simply provide advice to them based on our experience at the time

- When a question seemed particularly poorly informed or not well thought out, I was firmer, and I'm not sorry about this; I hope someone read an answer I wrote and did something that spared them or others around them from contracting Covid-19

- AskMe cannot replace trusted government sources, civil society organisations, and valuable personal relationships that I wish we could all draw on in a time of crisis but which I'm sure we all lack in some ways, yet posters frequently ask serious questions that only these institutions can manage; I skip these questions now.

Keep washing your hands, everyone.
posted by mdonley at 9:13 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]


the point is that we can’t expect people to stay 100% isolated from in person social contact forever

Every time I hear someone say that, I feel really strongly insulted, because there’s a lot of us that are doing that, exactly that, and have been since the start of this. I am not asking or hoping for anyone to do anything I’m not doing. I haven’t seen a single friend or family member I do not live with for three months. I expect I won’t see any of them in the next three months either, possibly the next nine. It’s hell on my mental health, which was already bad, but not worse than “there’s sickness that can kill anyone you love at any time.”

But it’s absolutely something that can be done, and when people say it can’t it feels like mocking that sacrifice, which we aren’t making for ourselves, but for others.
posted by corb at 12:00 AM on May 19 [7 favorites]


Thank you for this post! It feels like a lack of control and in person socializing has often been a bad combination for online communities but I have been heartened lately by reading a lot more AskMe than I normally do and seeing so much compassion and insight.

I do have to disagree with this: AskMe is even worse and the level of "here are my snowflake requirements please do not tell me to do X, Y, or Z or interrogate the premise of the question" has been a problem I've noticed for a long time and COVID has not done this impulse any favors

Yes, this has been a thing for a long long time and discussed a lot — it’s because it can be difficult to get useful answers unless you lay out very precise parameters up front. I write very long questions to try to anticipate users who weigh in on anything they might have a passing interest in (and they often comment early on and skew future answers) and people who treat each question like a front and write tough love answers about what you’re really asking. Then others seemingly delight in following the lead of this person who psychoanalyzed your question about, like, what to make for dinner and trust me, once that’s happened once or twice you’re going to start wanting to preempt that shit.

I don’t blame question writers in the slightest for being overly specific in what they don’t want to hear and I absolutely understand why this is happening even more now. This post perfectly lays out why people feel defensive on AskMe, and I think the answer is for all of us who answer questions there to lean towards less suspicion of the premise and more reflection on whether you’re answering a question to feel good about yourself, especially if you’re answering to chide someone for Being a Bad Person as a proxy for all the really bad people we might witness flouting proper social distancing and long to yell at. (I’m guilty of it all the time, but more often than not I catch myself doing it as I’m typing an answer and decide to erase what I wrote and close the page instead.)

If someone writes a long question with a lot of specifics, assume they’re doing it because they feel vulnerable and judged already.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 12:47 AM on May 19 [10 favorites]


After all the advice about not advocating absolutism/being unkind in AskMe responses, somehow we are back to where we started - prescribing things that absolutely can be done.
I don't live in the USA. I live alone and was already struggling w/anxiety, even before this. I haven't met anyone from the beginning of this situation as well. I will likely have to avoid meeting family for a good while longer because most of them are high-risk one way or another. And even as a card carrying introvert, I can feel myself beginning to crave some version of human contact. This is normal. It's an extraordinarily hard situation for many (most) of us, and not everyone has the same, best-practice coping mechanisms. It's one thing to say please keep trying your best or even nudge in that direction kindly, but saying that people's legitimate and normal need for human contact/interaction needs to be suspended for an indefinite period of time and any break in it is wrong and unnecessary and absolutely shouldn't be done no matter what the situation and precautions taken...that's a pretty hard and high bar to constantly meet.
Even metatalk says that everyone needs a hug. Let's please be kind and assume good faith. Thank you for the post.
posted by Nieshka at 12:55 AM on May 19 [18 favorites]


The recent "y'all, I just asked about the dimensions" response to the derails in the thread about eye catching web cam question really sums up the AskMe impulse to answer around the question, and while it's sometimes useful, often not really required or welcome.
posted by freethefeet at 1:05 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]


AskMe is even worse and the level of "here are my snowflake requirements please do not tell me to do X, Y, or Z or interrogate the premise of the question" has been a problem I've noticed for a long time and COVID has not done this impulse any favors

I also don't see this as a problem. It's often what you have to do to get a useful answer. And people will STILL chime in and say they don't really believe you can't tell your mother XYZ or that you can't leave your job and I get that you're allergic to pecans, cherries, and fish, but the answer to your question is cherry and pecan–encrusted fish.

Being very specific about your needs is the best you can do to end up with the most useful answers. The only "problem" I see is that it may discourage people who can't answer your specific question from answering it anyway, and I think that's a good thing. To me, the emphasis on getting answers to the question you actually ask is one of the best things about Ask. I wish that other websites would be better at that. I think a lot of people really, really want to be able to answer the question - I notice this tendency in myself - and sometimes I have to force myself to take a step back when I know that others will be able to provide better answers. I've regretted a few times when I've answered questions that I really should have left to someone else (and I've wished that people would step back on grammar questions - my area of expertise - because those always elicit a lot of wrong answers).

I haven't noticed any push-back or criticism on the check-in threads, and that may be because people are self-censoring. There are certain subjects I would never raise in an Ask because I'd be afraid of a potential pile-on. I do think that once the tenth person says "no, that's not safe in a pandemic," we don't need twenty more people to say the same thing. There is some value in seeing that a lot of people lean toward a particular answer, but there's a point where it seems like a room full of people shouting, and that can be hurtful.
posted by FencingGal at 8:18 AM on May 19 [6 favorites]


But it’s absolutely something that can be done, and when people say it can’t it feels like mocking that sacrifice, which we aren’t making for ourselves, but for others.

The post you're responding to said it can't be done FOREVER. Nobody (nobody here) is arguing that it can't be done NOW.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:23 AM on May 19 [6 favorites]


I haven’t seen a single friend or family member I do not live with for three months.

I live alone, and have been working from home and strictly social-distancing since mid-March. As a borderline introvert, my lifestyle hasn't changed as significantly as some, and I'm managing the effects well enough. However, I do think there is a difference between staying completely alone and living in a household with other people and that needs to be recognized. For some people, the negative mental health effects of the former are very significant.

I'm glad to see this post and I hope the discussion encourages people to take a kind and nuanced approach in responding to questions. That doesn't have to mean never challenging a poster or the assumptions behind a question, but it should include recognition of the fact that what is doable for you might be very difficult, or even impossible, for someone else.
posted by rpfields at 8:55 AM on May 19 [23 favorites]


yeah, sorry! but I'm super-tired of the genre of comment that's like "my six-person household hasn't seen anyone else in 2.5 months, and we've coped with this by playing fun board games together, grilling in the backyard on sunny days, taking long walks in the secluded forest nearby, and doing lots of hugging."

That's harsh I know, but like others I've been strictly social distancing alone, in a apartment, in a city where it's challenging to even socially distance at a park, and it is absolutely starting to seriously affect my mental health. I'm not mocking your sacrifice by saying that.
posted by lalex at 9:38 AM on May 19 [62 favorites]


One piece that is missing from all this is that some of us are required to do the impossible. I'm immunocompromised and live alone, with no pets or other humans, and this is it, man: I am stuck, until there's a workable treatment or vaccine. I don't want to end up in the hospital; I don't want to almost die again, like I did when I had H1N1. That sucked. And while I do agree that the isolation situation is not sustainable on a mass scale, it still kind of hurts to have my own emotional and physical experience of the pandemic seem less important or serious or worthy of consideration in the discourse. And that's my own thing to deal with and to work out, obviously, but it isn't necessarily fun.

It's interesting to me that the call here is to make sure that we soothe the people who are breaking quarantines, that we feel for their plight and try not to get upset when they feel like their exception should really be prioritized. Yes: some exceptions should be prioritized! If something is wrong with you, you should still go to the doctor! People need to get food! Sometimes people fall ill and they need a caregiver to travel to them to help! These things are real things, and weighing the virus against them is something some of us do have to do and will continue to need to do as things go on. I will note that we know more now than we did in the early days about the virus, and I have seen responses change in kind. There are fewer "what the hell, absolutely not" responses now than there were in March, I think.

I don't know. Everyone has it hard these days, everyone needs a hug, this is bad all around.
posted by k8lin at 9:49 AM on May 19 [26 favorites]


I'll also leave a link to this recent question here, the responses to which demonstrate that many mefites think that people with disabilities should essentially "make peace with it" and simply tell our friends that our feelings are hurt when they talk about breaking quarantine or isolation, and so that topic should be avoided.
posted by k8lin at 9:59 AM on May 19 [7 favorites]


Every time I hear someone say that, I feel really strongly insulted, because there’s a lot of us that are doing that, exactly that, and have been since the start of this. I am not asking or hoping for anyone to do anything I’m not doing. I haven’t seen a single friend or family member I do not live with for three months.

Yes, please remember that many of us are spending quarantine completely devoid of in-person human companionship. I haven't been touched by another person since March 17. I haven't seen any friends or family members since March 17. I live alone in a 400 square foot apartment.
posted by Automocar at 10:09 AM on May 19 [16 favorites]


Oh my, some of the answers in that Ask, k8lin, are really hard to read and pretty much changed how I feel about the topic of this MetaTalk. I think there is a place to be compassionate with question askers but I also think it's entirely shitty to take a question like that and reply that it’s inevitable that people won’t even think about their vulnerable friend when they’re breaking quarantine, so don’t take it personally. It isn’t abstract — when people talk about breaking quarantine, they do put people at risk, and I think we do need to continue to make people feel uncomfortable with that behavior, though yes, as always we can choose to do it in a civil way.

I think some of the answers there are more about people assuaging their own guilt about quarantine fatigue than actually giving the question askers a helpful answer. That is really upsetting and I’m going to be stewing over here all day thinking about it, to be honest.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:21 AM on May 19 [5 favorites]


And I realize that not every place is under official quarantine orders but I think it’s pretty clear we should all be acting as if we were, and while of course people need to go out and do essential errands, that particular question specified they were upset with people going out and doing non-essential things.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:23 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


And I realize that not every place is under official quarantine orders but I think it’s pretty clear we should all be acting as if we were

This kind of absolutist way of talking is a big part of what this MeTa post is about, and it would be great if people did less of it. People in places where the outbreak is getting under control do not need to be following the same restrictions that apply (or should apply, because not every place has competent government) in places where the outbreak remains fully uncontrolled.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:48 AM on May 19 [22 favorites]


I’m sorry for posting on anger, Dip Flash, but I am genuinely under the impression that just because places are getting their outbreak under control, the best thing we can do is keep on with a fairly strict social distancing (essential tasks, which I realize are broader than many of us acknowledge)? I am honestly asking, isn’t that the case so we can prevent a resurgence in places that were starting to recover?
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 11:01 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]


With the caveat that even experts disagree, no, I would not say the best we can do is keep up with strict social distancing in places where the outbreak is getting under control. The practice was framed as a way to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID patients, not as a medium to long term mitigation strategy. You can make whatever personal decisions you'd like (I will not be going to the movies for a long time, for example, even if they reopen under capacity restrictions, which sucks because I love going to the movies) but as strict "lockdown" orders expire, certain things will be permissible again.

You can see this in countries that have good contact tracing operations.
posted by Automocar at 11:09 AM on May 19 [8 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that people don't necessarily have the same thing in mind when they use the phrase "social distancing." It's been a really useful term for helping people to understand the ways in which they need to change their behavior, but it's also a pretty big umbrella, and some social distancing practices should absolutely continue while others can, and probably should, be relaxed as we have better options available.

I am not a public health expert, so I don't feel comfortable making specific recommendations about what is and isn't okay for people to do in various areas. Part of the challenge here in the U.S. at least is that we don't have competent government leadership everywhere to help lay out good guidelines based on the evolving conditions on the ground. If you're in a country or U.S. state that does have clear, evidence-based messages from your government about what to do, follow those for your local area. If not, well... it's helpful perhaps to think about quarantine practices like shelter-in-place and going out only for essential services as being on one end of the spectrum, and wearing masks when going out and maintaining 6 feet of distance from other people as being less far along on the spectrum. This whole spectrum might be classified as "social distancing," and all of these practices make a good contribution to limiting the spread of the virus. But as we talk about reopening things, it's not just a binary, all-or-none thing -- I think everyone gets that. I think it's best that everyone try to err on the side of stronger distancing measures even as they start moving away from full-on isolation and quarantine. If in your mind "social distancing" means only "stay at home", that's fine: just keep doing the other practices as well, whatever you call them. But I think a lot of folks are using "social distancing" to mean the whole spectrum of practices we've been adopting over the last few months to limit the spread of the virus. If that's how you think of it, keep on social distancing, but the needle of where you are along that spectrum may have to move in response to changing conditions in your area.

And yeah, it's also important to keep in mind that lockdown/quarantine/stay-at-home/shelter-in-place were necessary not as the only or best method to control the spread of the virus, but because we had a total failure of leadership in preparing for and responding to the pandemic. Had testing been available rapidly in all areas, had contact tracing programs been ready to roll out, etc., etc., we probably could have managed reducing the spread of the virus without these extreme measures that have all sorts of negative effects. Now that testing is finally becoming more widely available and contact tracing programs are being implemented, we may not have to go back into lockdown even if the spread of the virus begins to increase again. Social distancing is only one way of controlling the virus, and its more extreme versions are not the best way, just the best way we've had so far.

As a side note, if you're an American, next time a dumbass Trumpist whines about "the cure is worse than the disease" or whatever other phrase they're parroting from Fox News, remind them that this particular cure was the only option we had because the Republicans have consistently underfunded science and public health infrastructure for decades, and the Trump administration specifically abolished the government task force that the Obama administration had put in place for planning for and responding to epidemics. A competent response from the federal government in January and February could have prevented most or all of the need to lock ourselves in isolation for the last two months. Social distancing alone is the worst option we had for controlling this thing, but it was also the only option we had. That doesn't have to remain true.
posted by biogeo at 11:41 AM on May 19 [25 favorites]


I am not asking or hoping for anyone to do anything I’m not doing. I haven’t seen a single friend or family member I do not live with for three months.

Unless you are living all by yourself, which the question implies you don't, yes, corb, you are asking everyone who lives by themselves to do something you are not doing. I don't "hang out physically with no one but my roomie/partner/polycule." I hang out physically with no one. I've seen only one friend, from the proper distance, for a few minutes the entire time since March 27, and the only reason it isn't since March 13 is that we did an emergency Costco run together when she had a car (and even then we were masked and gloved and didn't touch). I am an introvert and far from a touchy-feely person, but the other night I hit a point where I was like, man, I could just really use an actual, physical hug right now, and of course I couldn't have one. Unless you, too, are in a situation where you can't get any kind of human physical contact when you need some, you are asking me to do something you're not.

(I'm also not sure how it's insulting to say people can't stay isolated forever. You may think it's not accurate, but it's not insulting.)
posted by praemunire at 2:15 PM on May 19 [30 favorites]


I think some of the answers there are more about people assuaging their own guilt about quarantine fatigue

I am not feeling and will not feel guilty about finding abstaining from all normal human in-person social contact over an extended period to be strenuous. Human beings are social animals. Most of us suffer from extended isolation. I think I'm better-placed mentally than many to tough it out, but I don't feel bad that I find it painful nor do I think people who find it significantly harder are somehow weaker or less virtuous.

(But if the embedded assumption here is that people who are advocating for a more nuanced harm reduction approach are doing it because they themselves are breaking the rules and trying to feel less guilty about it, rather than as a matter of their judgment of human nature and risk levels, that would be a mistaken and, frankly, extremely uncharitable, assumption.)
posted by praemunire at 2:32 PM on May 19 [16 favorites]


However, I do think there is a difference between staying completely alone and living in a household with other people and that needs to be recognized.

Yeah, for many people, staying completely alone during this time would be an amazing luxury and vastly preferable to never being able to get away from their newly unemployed or working from home roommates or family members (with bonus pandemic-related conflicts heaped onto pre-existing ones!)

I'm actually moving this month to a 400 square foot apartment myself because I can't take it anymore.

I'm not making light of the toll of isolation though, and I agree with the point that this post makes and many comments have reiterated - to be kind and less judgmental. And I will myself try not to judge and try to remember I don't know the difficulties of other people's lives.

On MF and in real life I mean. I definitely see in myself instinctive tendencies to criticize which aren't always fair or rational. Like I'm annoyed by people who don't seem to be taking social distancing seriously enough AND by people who seem too harsh and shame-y in their criticism of those people. By people who get food delivery frequently without seeming concerned about the ethics of Instacart, etc. AND by people on ask metafilter who seem super judgmental about the choice to get groceries delivered. Etc.
posted by dogwalker3 at 2:50 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


I am not feeling and will not feel guilty about finding abstaining from all normal human in-person social contact over an extended period to be strenuous. Human beings are social animals. Most of us suffer from extended isolation.

Yeah, so while I've been very careful in this thread to make it clear that I'm not an epidemiologist, I am an expert in the physiology (especially neurophysiology) of social behavior and cognition in humans and other primates -- this is actually what I study professionally. I am peripherally involved in a project right now to study the effects of social distancing on people's social cognition more generally, and one of the parameters we're most interested in is exactly this: are you quarantined with other people or alone, and if with others, how many. There are all kinds of reasons to expect that the experiences and effects of social distancing and quarantine are very different for those who are totally isolated versus those who have family or roommates with them. Even a single person you can interact with face-to-face on a daily basis has a huge effect, not just emotionally but physiologically as well. praemunire has said it better than I could. And no, it's not the same for everyone: individual circumstances matter, and some people who are stuck in bad home situations really will be better off alone (dogwalker3, I'm glad you're going to be able to move out of a bad situation!). So I think all of us should be cautious in extrapolating from our own experiences to others'; there may be all sorts of reasons we haven't thought of that our situations really aren't comparable.
posted by biogeo at 3:07 PM on May 19 [30 favorites]


So but why is it necessarily right that "harm reduction" is better than "abstinence"? And I'm not asking about plausible logical explanations/exegeses, anyone can come up with that. I'm asking about scientific consensus on this, e.g. which scientists, health officials, WHO, etc., who are making this distinction? And are they not discussing this and evaluating different strategies? It could be worthwhile to reframe or challenge the apparent dichotomy that quarantine is the same as advocating abstinence, as that would help people understand what different opinions being aired really mean (rather than people picking on what was literally said).
posted by polymodus at 3:09 PM on May 19


It's interesting to me that the call here is to make sure that we soothe the people who are breaking quarantines, that we feel for their plight and try not to get upset when they feel like their exception should really be prioritized.

I don't see that the call is to soothe people who are breaking quarantine and frankly I find that paraphrasing problematic.

Nobody's asking to excuse others' bad behavior, to look the other way or justify someone breaking current rules or laws or even best practices - what I see is being asked here is to recognize that not everyone can quarantine the same way. Complicated by the fact that not everyone (or maybe anyone) knows what the "right" way to quarantine is. Not everyone can work from home (either practically or due to employer policy), people have child custody arrangements that need to be accounted for, people are caregivers for sick relatives or friends, people have been trapped in living situations that have turned out to be unsustainable, on and on and on.

And I see that you're acknowledging that in the later part of your comment - which doesn't change the social dynamic that if there's an overwhelming "NO. No. Matter. What." chorus via multiple comments and multiple commenters in Ask or MeTa, then folks here start to feel guilty about doing necessary things that they have little or no control over.

It seems to me that's what's being asked here, to get people to attempt to consider the absolutism of their answers or comments, given that we're all dealing with our own individual circumstances and difficulties.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:27 PM on May 19 [10 favorites]


praemunire, my comments above were in response to this Ask that k8lin posted, I’m not sure if you realized that (because I don’t really feel like what you wrote makes sense in response to my comment that you quoted, apologies if maybe I just don’t understand.)

Some of the answers given to that anonymous asker were hurtful — and I am struggling with this feeling that asking people to consider the most vulnerable people in their life comes across as overly judgmental and absolutist. Notice I said feeling, not fact, and I wish we could let people talk about how they feel even if you don’t understand it, as happened with corb above — she wrote she feels insulted, and it’s okay if that doesn’t make sense to you, but dictating how people should feel feels shitty too.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:53 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


thorn, maybe we are thinking about different references, and I don't think it would help the discussion to dig into them, so let's just assume we're not quite getting each other here and leave it at that.
posted by praemunire at 5:59 PM on May 19


So but why is it necessarily right that "harm reduction" is better than "abstinence"?

I feel like this is an important question, but I don't think I quite understand it. If you feel like elaborating I'd be interested.
posted by biogeo at 6:35 PM on May 19


So but why is it necessarily right that "harm reduction" is better than "abstinence"?

I am not an expert but this reminded me of sex ed where I think it has been shown that teaching kids about birth control resulting in less teen pregnancy than teaching abstinence.* When I was thinking that, at first I was like “could that research possibly relate?” And then I realized it actually might really really relate in that wearing a mask and staying outdoor with friends might end up as a better strategy than lockdowns.

* As someone whose sex education included “a new disease, AIDS” I do feel the similarities here too.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:44 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


So but why is it necessarily right that "harm reduction" is better than "abstinence"?

There must be something, but I can't think of any public health issue where abstinence has turned out to be more effective than harm reduction as a strategy. Sex ed, HIV prevention, drug issues -- those all create better outcomes when a harm reduction approach is used. At this point, the burden of proof would need to be on the abstinence promoter, not the other way around.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:52 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


biogeo, we have beefed in past threads but I really appreciate your ability to provide the full step by step explanations in this thread that you have, as they are things that I would like to be able to say myself but do not at present have the composure to.

Most people in this thread, including people competing to find the most absolutist version of social distancing, would not expect "abstinence only" sex ed to effectively reduce sexually transmitted infection rates. The exact exact exact same reasoning applies here. Harm reduction is the only moral approach, anything else is self righteousness at the expense of others. Argue about what will reduce harm more, by all means, but please never lose sight of that.
posted by PMdixon at 7:33 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


I don’t think anyone is competing here to find the most absolutist version of social distancing. It’s frustrating that this thread started as a reminder to be more considerate of everyone’s own approach to this pandemic but is now feeling super black and white. I think this kind of language can be really inflammatory because you assume people who are really scared and possibly very medically vulnerable to be performing their social distancing.

I know it’s very difficult to reach a common ground. For me personally it feels scary for people to advocate loosening up social distancing because I think of the considerable number of at-risk loved ones that I have and worry that it’s too soon to make decisions about how a novel virus is going to react. You can call that irrational but I’m not saying it as a judgment, I’m telling you that I am really scared. And I bet a lot of people feel just as scared as I do but are making a different call. One of my favorite sayings when I’m feeling like someone else’s choice is a judgement on me is: “Good for them! Not for me!”

We’re all talking about what decisions are good for us, and I just don’t see it as performative.

And I recognize the parallels to the comment I left above about people (in that Ask I linked) that I thought were answering a question just to assuage their own guilt about quarantine fatigue. I apologize for the assumption behind that comment. Like, I absolutely think some of the comments on that question were off the mark because they ignored the details given and think they did harm to the OP, but I also realize that it wasn’t helpful to assign motivation. And my comments were not about anything occurring in this thread and that was a mistake because they came across as if they were. I apologize and hope I don’t contribute again to making people feel incorrectly characterized.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 8:43 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]


Because this crisis is so enormous and universal, and because we all have our own personal experience with it, there's maybe more than usual risk of falling into the trap of thinking that everyone is in more or less the same boat, and thus should rationally be making more or less the same choices we are - and that if they're not, they're either acting in error or in some way casting aspersions on our own choices.

As others have pointed out, though, there's a huge variety in circumstances, including but not limited to the size of the outbreaks in various communities, people's personal living situations, their physical and mental health, their financial and other resources, their duties and responsibilities, and their own needs and personalities.

It's not all that hard to imagine the scenarios that would drive two people to make very different choices. One person may have chosen to, or have had no choice but to, remain completely in their home for the past few months. Maybe they're in a high-risk category, or live with someone who is, or don't have any reasons for going out strong enough to justify taking the risks of doing so. Another person may not have access to grocery deliveries, or a home washing machine, or a yard for their dog, or a job they can work remotely. Or they may find going for walks absolutely crucial to their mental health, or want to put on a mask and get contactless takeout from a favorite, struggling restaurant.

It's tempting to see these choices as so antithetical as to invalidate each other, but I don't think they are. Someone who goes outside more often, taking reasonable precautions, is not doing anything so risky that it negates the actions of those going out less, nor is the person going out less being unreasonable or overly stringent. We're all facing a set of competing, contradictory needs to fulfill and values to uphold. Most of us are doing the best we can, which is not always going to look the same as the best that someone else can.
posted by eponym at 8:58 PM on May 19 [22 favorites]


You articulated what I was thinking but couldn’t figure out how to say, eponym :)
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 9:05 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


From my perspective, I don't think there really has been advocacy for 'abstinence,' because at least from my view, there is recognition and support for people who have to meet essential needs and find ways to minimize risk. I think the more challenging issue may be related to what constitutes "essential," especially if that point is not being made clear in an answer, which probably could lead to a perception that an answer is taking an absolutist hard line.

But the harm reduction approaches being deployed right now include stay-at-home orders and recommendations to avoid large gatherings and nonessential travel, wearing masks, etc, so that essential workers can be more protected, ICUs are manageable, PPE is available, and chains of transmission are reduced. We do have ample information from public health experts to help us talk about why and how to implement harm reduction, and I think it is important to recognize that we have resources available to help us, and we can share these resources with each other. I look forward to adding 'widespread reliable testing' and 'contact tracing' to the list of harm reduction approaches everywhere, but in the meantime, we're all trying to figure out how to navigate this crisis as best we can.

I also think the FAQ on Coronavirus and MeFi linked at the top of the site offers guidance that reflects a lot of what has been discussed here and may be good to emphasize as a reinforcement of the discussion:
Answering/commenting about COVID-19/Coronavirus?
Please link to pertinent information from high quality sources, and don't give top-of-the-head "it seems to me" sort of answers. If you have particular professional expertise in the subject, feel free to identify yourself that way when answering, but if you don't, please don't phrase your answer in authoritative way. The best information will sometimes be different from country to country, or even region to region or state to state, so don't assume that conditions where you live are the same everywhere. Please try to keep your tone and response relatively calm. Maybe you're frustrated with someone in your life who is not taking things seriously enough / overreacting / fatalistic, etc. but please don't assume everyone needs the same "truth-bomb" you want to lay on them. People are afraid and confused; good information carefully cited can help. Hyperbole, swearing, and bullying don't help.
also, k8lin and the thorn bushes have roses, thank you for calling attention to this Ask. Just because something may be "legal" doesn't necessarily mean that it is safe or that it is something we can't keep talking about.
posted by katra at 9:28 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


PMdixon, thank you for the kind compliment. For what it's worth, I actually don't remember what specific disagreements we've had in the past, though I certainly believe you that we've had them, and probably will again. All of us can get overly set in our opinions sometimes, myself included, and so I just wanted to let you know that if we've argued in the past, my overall opinion of you based on your comments on Metafilter is nevertheless quite positive, and I really appreciate your contributions to this site and its culture.
posted by biogeo at 9:40 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


As a big supporter of harm reduction over abstinence in general, when considering how it might relate to this crisis in particular, I think it's useful to allow that to frame the choice in those terms itself presupposes a kind of choice about what kinds of harm can be said to matter, about what kind of world we want to live in. To feel trepidation about a loosening of measures is I think not just an expression of concern about quantifiable risk, but also an expression of concern about how that loosening reflects on what we morally condone as a society, about the ways we show each other that we care about one another. That is ultimately a matter of conscience, which is not something that's easily quantified or measured in terms of expected or realized risk.
posted by dmh at 10:11 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


about the ways we show each other that we care about one another. That is ultimately a matter of conscience, which is not something that's easily quantified or measured in terms of expected or realized risk.

In that regard, the people in the U.S. who do not actually run self-sufficient households but are staying in fully (the vast majority of those who are) are only able to do so because of brutal mechanisms of capitalism that permit them to displace their risk onto a long chain of other people, who might, given free choice, prefer to stay in themselves. I haven't wanted to touch forcefully on this point, because it's somewhat tangential here, but to my view it significantly complicates the morality of an individual's choice to stay in, at least for those not actually medically contraindicated from/physically incapable of going to pick up their own pizza or groceries or prescriptions. The complication counsels some caution about how sharply one wants to pitch this as a case of conscience.
posted by praemunire at 10:55 PM on May 19 [36 favorites]


So my point was there's a big difference between debating abstinence vs absolutism vs related concepts, by giving logical reasons why you personally think what is essentially an abstract policy position, versus finding an actual scientist or public health official who is explicitly arguing for this position. That's basic science.

If you think X is the right way for Y, produce the science. Meaning, by citing an actual expert in the past month, who said X is the right way for Y. That's concretely different than an actual expert/source who has said that X is the right way for Z and you think Z and Y are similar. To me, this is what evidence-based science communication means. We've been listening to experts on social distancing all along; unless some of them have actually drawn comparisons between COVID and sex-ed, any such comparisons amount to people's lay theses. That's fascinating for debate or general discussion (sure, having to do with morality or cultural values, etc.), but in context of an Ask Me, that's abstract advice as opposed to actually sourced information based on science that came out of at least one scientist's mouth on the actual subject as opposed to a different public health issue. And the whole, broader situation has been a cloud of misinformation and uncertainty.
posted by polymodus at 11:03 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


Without talking about specific examples of "harm reduction" and "abstinence" advice on offer, I am not going to take a side. But I don't agree that "abstinence" advice is a privileged default which may only be supplanted by science, in a narrow sense of science. There's nothing about this topic which prevents people from having valuable evidence about the best advice-giving strategies based on reason, analogies, and their experience giving and receiving advice. If you also have peer-reviewed studies of what happens when you give advice in some similar situation, all the better, but that's not the only way to know anything about anything.
posted by value of information at 11:32 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


In that regard, the people in the U.S. who do not actually run self-sufficient households but are staying in fully (the vast majority of those who are) are only able to do so because of brutal mechanisms of capitalism that permit them to displace their risk onto a long chain of other people, who might, given free choice, prefer to stay in themselves.

I want to gently push back on what seems like an extreme characterization that doesn't account for actions that many people are taking to reduce risk for other people and the community, including through adaptations like contactless curbside pickup and mutual aid networks, which can help reduce chains of transmission and increase safety for the community. I had meant to stay out of this MeTa, because it included an assumption that felt difficult to talk about in the context of this discussion, but decided to participate after the exact point got raised, but in any event, I think making broad generalizations is unfair and unhelpful to promoting a kinder community that is more willing to consider nuance and the diversity of experience.
posted by katra at 11:57 PM on May 19 [8 favorites]


I do not see how one escapes the fact that most people are only able to stay inside because other people are semi-coerced into working outside the home to produce and bring to them needed goods. Because it is a fact. It's a function of the terrible system we live in rather than of individual poor moral choices; I don't think most people desire it to be true; but it's true nonetheless. You can (and should!) do what you can to assist your neighbors, but that fact doesn't go away. If one wants to talk about "what kinds of harm can be said to matter"--and, again, I think this is a bit of a tangent from the point of the post, so I guess I'll shut up about it after this--one really needs to take in account harms to those people.
posted by praemunire at 12:58 AM on May 20 [19 favorites]


praemunire, based on conversations I've had with essential workers and what I've read about their experiences, many sound tired and stressed out by customers in the stores, and at least some of them would prefer to send things like prescriptions and have people pick up groceries outside of the store if possible. I think we can help mitigate the risk to essential workers by reducing chains of transmission, by listening to the workers, and by advocating for their safety.
posted by katra at 1:33 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]


Abstinence should be mentioned in a sex-ed program, in my opinion.

Is anyone here suggesting that "stay home" should be removed from any advice? Because I don't see that.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:35 AM on May 20


I'm insulted (yep, *insulted*) that so much of this conversation here is drifting towards whether people should be allowed to perform risky behaviors if they want to and not enough about the ways in which risky behaviors people choose to perform will increase the risk to others who don't have much choice in whether they have to endure someone else's risky behavior

I'm really sorry your girlfriend's boss is such a jerk, and I feel how stressful that is. I do feel like you're taking it out on people in this conversation though.

I have the opposite situation in some ways...we are just entering Stage 1 and so my business is still shut down, but there's a large possibility that we will not be reopening for a long time. If it does reopen, it will be with a lot of investment in both changes to the space and PPE. For Reasons including my age, I'm probably looking at struggling to get a job for a while whether we open or not as I'm overhead, if I even could while schools are shut down.

So with that background in mind, that is, I have lost my second career.

I don't personally think this conversation is drifting that way.

I think this conversation is about a) how to meaningfully exert social expectations that we take care of each other while b) taking care of each other on this site by answering with some compassion.

If your answer is the ONLY way to take care of each other is by staying home then I think there are ways to say that, for sure, but it's not an insult if people want to talk about other possibilities (I mean, your feelings are your feelings.) If that's the case though, your girlfriend should quit her job. You probably are about to tell me why she can't...and if so, I extend that compassion and understanding for the situation she's in to her too and support you both in your decision-making.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:46 AM on May 20 [12 favorites]


I do not see how one escapes the fact that most people are only able to stay inside because other people are semi-coerced into working outside the home to produce and bring to them needed goods.

This is true. It's also true that most people are only able to survive at all because other people are semi-coerced into working outside the home to produce and bring to them needed goods. This was just as true last year as it is now.

Staying home and getting grocery employees to deliver your food or prepare curbside pickups isn't any more capitalistic or harmful to the employees than going to the grocery store in person where the same grocery store employees work. Quite the opposite - it will directly decrease the risk to all essential workers (and anyone else who is unable to stay in) if we can reduce community transmission by encouraging those people who DO have a choice to make safer choices.
posted by randomnity at 7:23 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]


I think that the direction this thread has taken is a useful illustration of the extent to which the Metafilter consensus has moved the goalposts of 'staying at home' toward a maximally restrictive interpretation. Every time I've heard an expert explain what people should be doing right now, it's been some version of "stay home, go out to buy groceries, for medical necessities, and take walks outside". But here we are having an argument that takes it as a given that actually, people shouldn't be buying groceries, they should be having their groceries delivered, and by buying groceries they're putting everyone at risk. Or giving answers like in this Ask, where people suggest that the OP should perform a medical procedure on themselves at home rather than go to the doctor.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:40 AM on May 20 [32 favorites]


People suggest that the OP should perform a medical procedure on themselves at home rather than go to the doctor.

And I have someone telling me to ignore my toothache.
posted by NotLost at 7:53 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]


here we are having an argument that takes it as a given that actually, people shouldn't be buying groceries, they should be having their groceries delivered, and by buying groceries they're putting everyone at risk.

I am not sure if this is directed at me but to be clear, it was not my intention to say this. Delivery is a safer choice but not strictly necessary or even possible for everyone and I don't get grocery deliveries myself.

I phrased it poorly but I was more responding to the suggestion that getting things delivered is somehow exploiting the people who work in essential jobs to produce and supply basic necessities like groceries.
posted by randomnity at 8:22 AM on May 20


Not even trying to fight or anything, but if someone holds the opinion "People shouldn't be buying groceries in stores, they should be getting groceries delivered because buying groceries in stores increases the risk of illness for grocery store workers", what is a way to express that opinion that wouldn't make you think "The person expressing that opinion is taking it as a given that everyone should be following their advice"?

That's a really good question and, honestly, I'm not sure I have a good answer. Because, fundamentally, when you're talking about opinions about what people ought to be doing, you are taking it as a given that everyone should be following that advice, at least implicitly. Otherwise that wouldn't be your opinion!

I guess I just think that lots of us (myself absolutely included) are giving too much weight to our own opinions about what people should be doing. There are certainly people out there who are being irresponsible and not doing they best they can in challenging circumstances, but those don't really seem to be the people posting on MeFi.

I am not sure if this is directed at me but to be clear, it was not my intention to say this. Delivery is a safer choice but not strictly necessary or even possible for everyone and I don't get grocery deliveries myself.

Not at you, just the general drift of the discussion.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:24 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Thank you for this post and acknowledging this behavior. I was on the receiving end of it, and without going into how and why, I'm deeply taken aback at this place and quite resentful. Pretty likely to just button, honestly.
posted by Dashy at 8:26 AM on May 20 [9 favorites]


I've thought a little more about the harm reduction analogy in the context of how advice is handled on AskMe, and have been thinking that if there was a question, for example, about concerns related to a friend drinking alcohol to the point that it creates risks to their health and safety, there might not be many answers along the lines of, 'it's legal, don't worry about it' or 'make peace with how you have a medical condition that stops you from drinking like that,' etc. I think it would be far more common for many in the community to try to offer constructive advice about how to communicate with the friend, maybe to express concern about the larger risks to the community that might exist, and to offer resources from credible sources that could help provide guidance, and to express compassion and empathy for the poster trying to figure out how to both care for a loved one and navigate their own feelings.

In the context of the pandemic, there are questions with concerns related to risk-taking, but it's a very new context with different ways of understanding risks to individuals and the larger community. We've got credible sources, but we don't have a canon like we do for other activities that can still create risks of harm even if they are technically 'legal.' To borrow a phrase I've read elsewhere, we're trying to 'build the plane while it is in the air,' and maybe that also contributes to the feelings of tension, uncertainty, and sensitivity around judgment. But askers are always free to disregard whatever is said and make the best choices they can after checking in to find out if the community has anything useful to offer, and maybe this MeTa can serve as a reminder of that as well.
posted by katra at 8:54 AM on May 20 [11 favorites]


That's a really good point, katra. I have appreciated your evidence based, link heavy comments in many of the covid threads to date.

We are also learning more over time, which contributes. Time dilation is definitely a part of the experience of this pandemic for many, and I think that people gave advice in early or mid March that really did make sense then, given what we knew (or more accurately, did not know), nearly total lack of testing, and the low availability of PPE. Things were even more uncertain and more frightening in early and mid March. It may feel like yesterday and/or a thousand years ago when that advice was given, especially because time already crystalizes differently online than it does in meatspace.
posted by k8lin at 9:06 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]


I'm not exactly sure if we're all talking about the same things here. If I understand the OP correctly, it's pointing out that a culture of pre emptive defensive behaviour, where people seem to be defending themselves from possible harsh judgment.
But in this thread, we're touching on many different cases. One is when people read into someone else's question and answers something that hasn't actually been asked because the asker seems to be indulging in risky behaviour. Another is when someone explicitly asks advice on how to avoid risk. Maybe it's helpful to treat those as quite different situations.
posted by Zumbador at 9:14 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Absent clear scientific / epidemiological evidence (which I think we can agree is lacking) I'm not confident that any particular model maximizes harm reduction. In the example given for groceries, I don't see how delivery is any better. A body still needs to pick inventory from shelves in and transport them. If that body is mine and I exercise due caution, and outside of that have basically zero human contact, it seems logical to me that the risk is assigned proportionally (and it seems like the medical risk is reduced, which would be bringing in close quarters people who have very little overlap with other people for a short period of time and then returning to quarantine). If I have my groceries delivered, the entire process is repeated, except by someone who has a much higher level of intersect, in an enviroment with people all with the same elevated risk profile. The main difference is I can exercise the economic privilege associated with having my groceries (or any other service) delivered.

If we could immediately switch over to a model of warehouse sourced inventory, that might be an improvement (except: who runs that warehouse? WalMart? Amazon? The government? Is any one of those entities going to exercise *any* caution regarding worker safety?). But as it stands, most of the labor is repeated if you are using an intermediary service. There are some scale and expertise efficiencies, but I would assume that nets out against the fact that all the people involved have large intersect numbers.

But the fact that it certainly seems implied in some quarters here that even sitting down and trying to puzzle over that calculus (or the same for my picking up a refill of my daily medicine) is equivalent to showing up to a Subway with a rocket launcher is bad faith at a galactic scale.
posted by 99_ at 9:42 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


In regards to link-heavy comments, they can definitely come across as perhaps unnecessary heavy-handed absolutist truth pounding in Ask Me questions. Especially when the same poster posts them FOUR TIMES in one question thread.

Just saying.
posted by Dashy at 10:19 AM on May 20 [18 favorites]


Reading between the lines, I think when most people here say "abstinence" they are using as a shorthand for "abstinence-only education/practices", by analogy with abstinence-only sex education versus comprehensive sex education. At least, with the benefit of some additional context now, a number of comments that I didn't quite understand initially make a lot more sense if I assume there is an implied "-only" following the word "abstinence". I think at least some arguments here are predicated on confusion over this point rather than substantial disagreements, and I'd like to suggest that people take a charitable read of each others' language here in case this is the only real issue at stake.

polymodus, I agree with you that we're currently in a situation where we don't actually have great scientific knowledge about what kinds of education/recommendations actually work well from a policy standpoint in achieving the aim of reduced viral transmission. The analogy with sex education may seem attractive, because we do actually have a wealth of information that abstinence-only sex education is less effective than comprehensive sex education at reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections. However, you are correct that I don't think there is actual research demonstrating that "quarantine-only advising" is more or less effective at reducing contagion than "comprehensive harm-reduction advising" is. But, science is slow. As I said in another thread a few weeks ago, in situations like the one we find ourselves in right now, we often have to make decisions about how to behave or what policies to choose before scientific research has had a chance to fully evaluate our options. But, that doesn't mean that we are actually without guidance in making these choices. Like value of information I think we can rely on sources of information other than just peer-reviewed studies, including making inferences from other sources of scientific knowledge. (And indeed, in general we should be cautious about relying only on individual or small numbers of peer-reviewed studies; while this is in general a high-quality source of information, individual studies can and often are wrong for all kinds of reasons. Peer-reviewed research needs to be an important part of our portfolio for understanding and making decisions about hard problems, not the only investment.) In this case, inferential reasoning from what we know about abstinence-only sex education seems like one reasonable way to try to make decisions, but it is certainly not the only approach. Reasonable people can and should disagree in the absence of stronger direct evidence.

(In case anyone is not aware, comprehensive sex education includes education about a wide range of evidence-based strategies for avoiding pregnancy and STIs, including abstinence as the only 100% certain method but recognizing that most people will find themselves unwilling or unable to rely solely on abstinence. The analogy then is that abstinence is like full self-imposed quarantine, abstinence-only sex education is like telling people that remaining in self-imposed quarantine is the only good or acceptable option, and comprehensive sex education is like telling people about ways they can reduce their risk of contracting or transmitting the virus if they are unable or unwilling to stay in quarantine.)
posted by biogeo at 1:28 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]


some people who are stuck in bad home situations really will be better off alone

Yes. I think of this a lot. This situation worsens everything and amplifies every angle of oppression. I can't tell you the number of heterosexual women I know in relationships with heterosexual men who are currently quarantined with them and how absolutely worse off they are on multiple levels than those who are alone. I think it's really easy to assume that people who are in a household are 'better off', but the benefit is often on some members of the household while the burden is on others. In these cases, the heterosexual men are often doing much better than others, while the heterosexual women are often doing much worse.

I think my perspective on this is absolutely shaped by how many of those women are staying inside despite the fact that all of their support network is outside, and how many of the calls to open up the house or to go take on more risk are driven by men who are actually suffering far less than others. I'm not saying this is everyone! But this is the dynamic that I see.

And what makes this difficult I think - why it matters that we all have our different opinions - is that society is structuring its resources based on what is perceived most broadly to be best. Areas where everyone is convinced of the moral worth of staying home are less quick to open up than areas where people are convinced that it's important but not really that serious. And -speaking of the capitalistic systems mentioned upthread - a lot of people are only able to survive right now off the pandemic unemployment assistance, and that only comes to them if their workplaces are shut down. And their workplaces are only shut down so long as the state thinks most people will tolerate it.
posted by corb at 2:41 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]


Especially when the same poster posts them FOUR TIMES in one question thread.

Yes, taking a look at the thread in question, I think that was pretty bad behavior and I believe should have been subject to moderation. The answerer's point was already well made after the first one.

I have been mostly avoiding Ask questions about quarantine and COVID. If that thread is typical for how they've been going, I think it's little wonder people are fed up with the heavy-handedness. There should be a clear line between being firm or even passionate about what you know and believe, and simply berating people. I understand that the answerer in that case felt very strongly that you should not travel, and I don't really disagree with that position at the time the question was asked. I also understand that the mod team probably wants to err on the side of letting people encourage others to follow quarantine rules. But I think repeatedly responding to the same question with link-heavy "truthbombing" answers that mostly focus on generalities rather than the specifics of the question asked, while also using strongly morally-weighted language, is not only unhelpful but also unkind, and contributes to the atmosphere described in this MeTa of people feeling anxious or unwilling to discuss their specific cases that really are special cases to which general advice doesn't necessarily apply.

Sorry you felt attacked, Dashy, and I hope you do end up deciding to stick around.
posted by biogeo at 2:57 PM on May 20 [15 favorites]


I think the harm reduction vs. abstinence-only analogy is a good one. Some people just can't support anything other than encouraging abstinence because they think it's morally wrong to have sex before marriage or to use illegal drugs and that we should never give anyone the idea those things are okay. Some people think those things are wrong but are willing to go with a harm reduction approach because they believe it works better to protect people. And some people support the harm reduction approach because they don't actually think it's morally wrong to have premarital sex or use heroin. I think what praemunire may be suggesting - and if not, I'll suggest it myself - is that when we're giving advice about coronavirus we should not only consider that a harm reduction approach may work better from a practical standpoint but also be less quick to judge other people's choices as morally wrong.

Right now all of us are wrestling with the moral question of whether it's okay to do anything less than the absolute safest thing. And if so, how much less? Is it morally wrong to visit your mother in another state? Or shop in person for something non-essential? Or put your kid in daycare? Does it matter whether or not those things are officially allowed in your area? Some people have really strong feelings about those questions, but they're just feelings. They can't be proven right or wrong. We can cite experts on the question of which approach is the safest but the question of how far we're obligated to go to keep each other safe is harder and science isn't really going to help us answer it.

There are quite a few people on Metafilter who seem to think we're morally obligated to go as far as possible. They answer questions by explaining what the safest thing is and saying that because it is the safest, it is what must be done. Their moral certainty makes people afraid to admit that they want to do something that may not be the absolute safest or to say anything that could be seen as encouragement for others to be less than maximally safe. I personally think a little less moral certainty would be helpful.
posted by Redstart at 3:17 PM on May 20 [17 favorites]


It's very weird and indicative of a problem we're talking around the whole sidebar conversation about grocery delivery is happening without using the words "disabled" but okay.
posted by colorblock sock at 4:12 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]


23skidoo, you are correct: I drew a few inferences in writing my comment which may not be warranted, and I appreciate you pointing them out clearly. This is exactly the kind of thing I think we all need to be careful about. I should have said that I'm sorry that Dashy feels resentful about how that thread went, and I can understand it.
posted by biogeo at 6:09 PM on May 20


It's very weird and indicative of a problem we're talking around the whole sidebar conversation about grocery delivery is happening without using the words "disabled" but okay.

It is important in dismantling coercive systems to make sure people's needs continue to be met. I do not think it is inherently impossible for delivery services and dignity for the workers to coexist. The fact that some folks who are disabled do not have the option of self service does not mean that the deliveries aren't still being carried out by a fundamentally coercive and abusive situation. Multiple people can be getting fucked over in the same interaction.
posted by PMdixon at 6:38 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]


Dashy, based on your most recent comment in your Ask, it looks like you regret not leaving, and I am very sorry that you feel resentful now, because my goal was to provide you with information and perspective to help you make decisions. I do appreciate feedback on my commenting style, and I will take your reaction into account when I post in the future. I hope that other commenters will not feel intimidated from posting credible sources to help other people make difficult decisions, but I think someone still being upset nearly two months later is an important reminder about why it is vital to take care with the framing of the information.
posted by katra at 7:38 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]


my goal was to provide you with information and perspective to help you make decisions.

I am pretty sure I would have felt a combination of shamed and condescended to if the approach you took in that post had been directed at me, FWIW. I am tremendously sympathetic to the feeling expressed in Dashy's most recent comment because I think the fact that there will be no useful federal response has to be factored in. I don't think that is happening in a lot of cases, I think people are being told to engage in behaviors that only make sense if you can reasonably expect central authorities to Do Things. It is manifestly clear now and I think manifestly clear at the beginning of April that the US central authorities are not going to do things. In fact I think citing the surgeon General who has engaged in as much denialism as anyone else in the administration would feel like mockery if it were me receiving that message. I really see a lot of people in this thread and on Mefi generally acting as if the major obstacle to suppression is individuals refusing to engage in safe behavior rather than government failure to ask for it (or do anything else). That's going to come across as cruel in a lot of cases, pretty close to victim blaming.

I get where you're coming from, I understand the desire to be useful by sharing information with others, I just don't think you're going to achieve what you want the particular way you went about it in that thread. People need to trust you before they are going to listen to you, and if they don't feel empathized with they typically don't trust.
posted by PMdixon at 8:19 PM on May 20 [17 favorites]


So respectfully- Katra- your "wall of links w/quotes" style comments are something that have bothered me for a while. It's the complete dissociation from opinion or empathy- no matter the content you're posting about. Some things, such as say, abortion- are topics that are often wielded like a cudgel, and without some editorial framing of a comment I don't know if clicking a link would be safe for my mood at the moment. Also- without the framing, I'm not sure where you're going with what you're posting. It's like the opposite from my problem of editorialising in posts which has on occasion gotten them deleted. Posts are best to be links w/quotes and perhaps framing- comments should have more opinion, more empathy, more soul. If you post 8 links in three comments with nothing more than a headline and a quote- it gets very aggressive-feeling, even if that's not your intent. It feel sometimes like you want to beat your fellow mefites into submission, and I'm sure that's not your intent. It might be better in the future to write with your own words your own opinion or feelings or beliefs on an issue- and then link your source afterwards or as some of your words. Then you could maybe at the end of the comment do a little footnote with regards to what you're linking too. This is wholly my opinion, and I find your multiply sourcing technique to be very effective in your own fpp's but in other posts and especially in askme's that aren't asking for multiple sources specifically, it can feel VERY jarring. (in askme's that ARE asking for multiple sources your answers are godsends tho) just my two cents- and I mean no disrespect.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:45 PM on May 20 [11 favorites]


There's nothing about this topic which prevents people from having valuable evidence about the best advice-giving strategies based on reason, analogies, and their experience giving and receiving advice. If you also have peer-reviewed studies of what happens when you give advice in some similar situation, all the better, but that's not the only way to know anything about anything.

also

But, that doesn't mean that we are actually without guidance in making these choices. Like value of information I think we can rely on sources of information other than just peer-reviewed studies, including making inferences from other sources of scientific knowledge.

This has little to do with insisting on peer-reviewed studies for the purposes of Metafilter. What I am saying is there are levels of information quality. Further, "reason" is a trap; this is why scientists exist, empiricism being the antidote to reason. Again, the quality of one's information for the purposes of Metafilteron an issue is, I would envision, is something like: international scientific consensus > government institutions and policies > … > an expert's publicly written/explained op-ed > substantial journalism piece > your personal applied hypothesis > an idea/bullet-point that you heard from others. Nothing in that chain requires library access to journals. Yeah, logic is great (my studies were in computer science and logic, I would know). Logic is also the most mentally costly and least reliable way to figure out and convey the truth. Analogical reasoning, for example, needs to be verified so that you haven't fallen in the trap of conflating key differences.

I also think there's a critical difference in approach between talking about a policy, vs explicitly advocating a policy, vs implicitly advocating an policy in a way that makes it a presupposition. A lot of time, propaganda has the semblance of reason: people assert X because Y implies X is a well-known pattern of rhetorical, just-so thinking. It's not actually careful reason! It's a shortcut that looks like reason, used to produce talking points that lets people echo a packaged idea. And you see this play out on Metafilter, in political issues threads, where the issues being discussed aren't as immediate. But when it comes to important, urgent public policy and health current issues, I am suggesting that the standard of discourse perhaps needs to be higher. We can increase the signal:noise content of discussions by taking care about what we're saying, how we're saying it, finding better arguments with concrete and critically available information rather that be content with easy logic-based arguments that are typically presented in a single pseudo-inferential sentence. And the whole distinction here is that the more you try to argue a position off the bat, the less easy it is to listen to and understand from others. And one way doing that is to acknowledge one's own uncertainty, that's a metacognitive capability, and it's tempting to forgo it in stressful situations. In the OP was:

As a practical matter, in the U.S. especially, the undeniable risks of human contact nonetheless require a harm reduction, not an abstinence, approach…

That is actually a strongly stated thesis, and I think it's a factual issue of whether scientists agree or disagree with such a thesis. Repeating the inference doesn't turn it into the complete truth.
posted by polymodus at 10:09 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]


international scientific consensus > government institutions and policies > … > an expert's publicly written/explained op-ed > substantial journalism piece > your personal applied hypothesis > an idea/bullet-point that you heard from others.

Cool cool where do I find this scientific consensus that exists around a topic of study that literally didn't exist 9 months ago? Which US institutions should I be looking at, because they all contradict each other? How do I choose between experts' op eds? What's it take to be an expert, anyway?

People have to make decisions about how they are going to live their lives. Every single day every single person makes a decision as to whether they're leaving their domicile. They do not have the option of waiting until there is an international scientific consensus to make their risk assessments. They have to exist in the world today in the present state of ambiguity. I have to exist in the world today in the present state of ambiguity. I have to make decisions about when the supplies are at a point to go to a store. I do not have the option of waiting until there is an authoritative consensus to go to the store because I will starve in the meantime.

The reason people are talking in terms of logic and not empirics is that we do not have the empirics we would need to be able to accurately evaluate what risks are incurred towards whom by doing what. The decisions those evaluations would inform still have to be made. What information are you suggesting people use as a basis for evaluating risk?

I really really fucking hate the fact that I am groping in the dark here. But the fucking eff fucking dee fucking ay is signing off on hydroxychloroquine in a timing that sure makes it seem like it's in response to Trump's advocacy of it, and the CDC is behaving in seemingly sketchy ways wrt the discrepancies with state numbers. At the point the FDA and CDC's credibility can be reasonably questioned, exactly which authorities am I supposed to trust?
posted by PMdixon at 10:44 PM on May 20 [8 favorites]


PMdixon, I think it is easy to look back to March 24 when the Ask was posted and make judgments about one part of one comment (i.e. the Surgeon General stating “I want America to understand: This week, it’s going to get bad,”), in the context of what we know now, but back then, it was #StayTheFuckHome season in the US, and from my view, it seemed reasonable to consider that even a Trump administration official was admitting it was going to get bad that week.

Dashy asked for information on the timing, so I tried to provide information from multiple public health sources that spoke to an assumption in the question about when the virus would "hit," and then tried to add context to ideas from other commenters by offering sources about current conditions on the road (with the goal of promoting safety by avoiding surprise closures of rest stops, etc), plus a quote that should have either been skipped or given a lot more context. As the discussion in the thread continued, I offered a source to help determine current stay-at-home orders, as well as specific health guidance from the CDC, and other information about the current situation, while acknowledging the obvious stress of the situation. I later found what I thought was a compassionate and empathetic perspective that might resonate based on the health issues disclosed in the question, so I added that as my final comment.

I was trying to offer information and perspective to consider during a stressful time. I could empathize with the underlying health conditions and the stress of that period of time, but it's the quality of the sources that I leave to the reader to decide whether to trust. We have a public health crisis that has been and is being worsened by the failures of the US government (which emphasizes why sometimes, just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's safe, for the Asker and/or the community, and an Asker may have questions about what to do), but the Asker is always the one who has to make the best decision they can with the available information, their values, and their priorities. On preview, I see you added another comment about how to assess sources, and that might be a good question for an Ask because there are some amazing people here who could weigh in on that, but there is also this FPP: Pandemic science is out of control that discusses the issue at length.

Homo neanderthalensis, I appreciate the feedback and perspective, and in recent weeks I have worked on how I comment in AskMe to try to add more framing and context. The Ask that is being raised as an example of causing resentment was a bit of a deviation from my typical practice, because I typically don't offer my own judgment, i.e. "it is, unfortunately, too late to go," and instead try to provide information for the Asker to use in making their own decision. It is contrary to my training and experience to suggest that I know what is best for people to do, and the consequence of even coming close to that in Dashy's Ask has reinforced one of the reasons why I try to avoid it, but there also seems to be a larger risk of creating the kind of atmosphere that this MeTa is seeking to address.

More recently, it is true that if it seemed like I was trying to flood the zone with links to credible sources, it was because I was horrified by what seemed to me to be an example of misinformation and hurtful ableism in the preceding comment, and I was trying to offer the OP resources to either use for their own advocacy or at least to know that somebody, and a variety of credible sources, has their back. My style of posting and commenting on the blue is something I don't think is great to be discussing here, but I appreciate your patience and understanding and I would be happy to talk to you about it more by MeMail.
posted by katra at 11:32 PM on May 20 [8 favorites]


Further, "reason" is a trap; this is why scientists exist, empiricism being the antidote to reason.

This is a pretty complex, though not uncommon, claim, and fully unpacking why I, as a professional scientist whose job it is to produce empirical evidence in the search for knowledge, disagree with it would require a lengthy discussion that is a total derail from the topic at hand. But I do think it's a really important point of disagreement for understanding the different perspectives at play in this discussion, so I'll try to at least sketch out why I don't agree while attempting greater brevity than I usually manage in my comments (though looking at the length of these two sentences I'm not off to a great start, especially considering I've already failed to stop myself from inserting a metacommentating parenthetical).

Reason closed off from empiricism is indeed a trap, but reason that is open to empirical evidence is not, and in fact is basically what science is. Empiricism that is closed off from reason is equally a trap; this is at the heart of criticism of some scientific disciplines such as "alternative medicine," which advocates spending resources studying therapies that have no plausible mechanism of action on the basis that we can't know if they work until we do rigorous empirical research. To give a flavor of what I mean, the blog Science-Based Medicine, written and edited by physician-scientists, has this to say about the difference between science-based and evidence-based medicine:
Good science is the best and only way to determine which treatments and products are truly safe and effective. That idea is already formalized in a movement known as evidence-based medicine (EBM). EBM is a vital and positive influence on the practice of medicine, but it has limitations and problems in practice: it often overemphasizes the value of evidence from clinical trials alone, with some unintended consequences, such as taxpayer dollars spent on “more research” of questionable value. The idea of SBM is not to compete with EBM, but a call to enhance it with a broader view: to answer the question “what works?” we must give more importance to our cumulative scientific knowledge from all relevant disciplines.
The scientific approach is one that uses reason to build frameworks of theories and models to understand, explain, and predict empirical observations, and furthermore uses reason to identify potential observations that could support, falsify, or provide a basis for extending or modifying those theories and models. An argument can further be made (and I would be willing to make it, in another thread) that there are no observations without theories that tell us why the observation is notable and not just a meaningless, unimportant event, and so insisting on empiricism without rational theories dooms one to being unable to examine the theories underlying the evidence one has collected. (And consequently, that evidence is more likely to be motivated by irrational theories instead of rational ones; c.f. the evidence collected by Intelligent Design proponents for an example of the kind of harm this can do.)

This may seem like picking esoteric nits, as I basically agree with the substance of the rest of your comment: arguments backed by empirical evidence are to be strongly preferred over ones using only rational chains of inference or rhetorical devices. But the fact is that we don't always have good direct empirical evidence for a topic, and when it comes to disagreements over priorities and values such evidence may not actually be possible to acquire. (Indeed, I think both your comment and mine right here are examples of ones in which citing empirical evidence to support our ideas wouldn't even really make sense, and neither of us have done so.)

So while a claim like, from the main post, As a practical matter, in the U.S. especially, the undeniable risks of human contact nonetheless require a harm reduction, not an abstinence, approach--especially over such an extended period. is a claim that in principle could be supported or refuted by evidence, I am not aware of such evidence yet existing. I imagine there is at least some relevant evidence from public health researchers studying how people respond to quarantine orders in past epidemics, but I think it is reasonable to expect that the current situation will have important differences from past cases that have been studied, both due to the scale of the pandemic and due to the manner in which it has been politicized in the U.S. Now, if anyone is aware of such evidence then I think it would be very welcome in this discussion, but I think it's likely that that evidence is still being collected and analyzed, and it won't be available for us to discuss for many months. In the meantime, the question of whether people should be advised in an abstinence-only fashion or a harm-reduction fashion is still an important one to address on Metafilter, and so we must address it without access to that evidence using the other epistemic tools we have available. This is one point that I, and PMdixon, and others have been trying to make.

But all of this is a sidebar to the actual important point at stake in this thread, which is whether the uncompromising approach to talking about quarantine behavior on Metafilter is doing harm to individuals and the community of Metafilter. For that the most relevant empirical evidence is threads on Metafilter, which people have been citing heavily. We don't need to wait to build an abstract model of human behavior in response to comment threads aggressively promoting a "full quarantine, full stop" approach when we have people describing how they feel anxious and judged for what should obviously be things they shouldn't feel judged for, like, and I can't emphasize this enough, taking care of a dying parent. The question of whether "quarantine-only messaging" is effective in general is certainly relevant to the topic, but let's not lose sight of what's actually important here. And having totally failed in my stated goal of brevity, I'll end on that note.
posted by biogeo at 1:02 AM on May 21 [14 favorites]


On preview, I see you added another comment about how to assess sources

I did not, except rhetorically. I am saying that the evidence polymodus is demanding people rely on doesn't exist. It is cruel to tell people to make decisions based on information that doesn't exist. Worthwhile empirical data at the level of quality and robustness we normally use to make health decisions doesn't exist. I am not saying no evidence of any kind exists, I'm saying that a breezey "just be empirical about it" is either asking every single person to keep a running metareview in their head of the running tally of all the evidence for or against or orthogonal to a given intervention updated in real time, or it's asking them to find authoritative empirical sources that do not exist.

it's the quality of the sources that I leave to the reader to decide whether to trust

This is not how discourse on fraught topics works for most people in my experience. If I say "my cat is sick" [note I do not have a cat at present so it can't be sick super hypothetical] and you give me without comment a piece explaining some method of curing cats, I am going to interpret that as you recommending I follow that method. If you are putting information in front of me without context, I interpret you as at least weakly endorsing that information as information I should make decisions with. I am not claiming everyone would understand that that way, but in my experience it's not especially uncommon.
posted by PMdixon at 5:46 AM on May 21 [11 favorites]


On preview, I see you added another comment about how to assess sources

I did not, except rhetorically.


Sorry looking back I collapsed two consecutive sentences, you suggested I post in Askme, you did not say I asked here.
posted by PMdixon at 5:56 AM on May 21


I don't think it's possible to reduce the harm from bad feelings, partly because I think we're all dealing with so much shit and such different shit, and it's easy for all sorts of things to make people feel bad. Early on, I got really annoyed with people posting about their elaborate quarantine domestic projects, because hoo boy, would I have killed from some time to bake bread or make some elaborate soup. But that was my issue, not the soup-makers' issue. It's all hard: being cooped up with the same people is hard; being cooped up alone is hard; working from home is hard; hearing people gripe about working from home when you don't have a job is hard; etc., etc., etc. I'm trying really hard not to let it all get to me and to have compassion for everyone's brand of hard right now.

But there are real, concrete harms that can come from over-applied "stay the fuck home" advice. And the big one for me has to do with people seeking medical treatment. That's pretty close to a blanket exception to "stay the fuck at home," as far as I'm concerned. If you can seek medical treatment from home, that's great. But if you call the nurse help line and they tell you to go to the ER, go to the ER. I know it's scary, but so is whatever is making you need to go to the ER. If the only way to get your prescription filled is to physically go to the pharmacy, go to the frigging pharmacy, or ask someone to do it for you if you're high risk and really shouldn't do it yourself. If you're not high risk and someone who is asks you to pick up their prescription, don't feel guilty about saying yes. And that is not a bright line that seems to be established on Metafilter. So that's my request. And it's not really about abstinence-only vs. harm reduction. It's about over-focusing on one harm and therefore neglecting another.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:58 AM on May 21 [29 favorites]


I think disclaimers are great, and when the question is intricate, detailed disclaimers are especially great. They are useful only to people who read the whole question, which everyone always should.

"I know we're not supposed to, but I think this might be an exception" is useful, because, supposing everyone read it, it saves everyone the trouble of telling them we're not usually supposed to and lets them move on to considering whether or not this is an exception. When it appears not useful, it is because people are not reading it. When the disclaimer is incorrect because actually, we are supposed to, it is even more useful because you can't correct a false belief unless you know someone has it.

Self-abasing disclaimers are a problem when they are transparently designed to get people to think Oh, what a humble beaten-down soul, better prop up their self-esteem by telling them they mean well and nothing they do can be that bad. But in that case all we have to do about it is nothing.

it's still better to encourage relevant disclaimers than to leave everyone else to either ask a deadening flood of little clarifying questions about a questioner's moral character and daily habits, or to assume they are all spotless, which we do not know about each other no matter how nice it is to proceed in good faith in this, as in everything.

Nobody should be mean. however, it is not true that hectoring and lecturing never changed anyone's mind. A lot of the time people use the rhetorical tools on others that have worked on them. and we are not all the same, so it doesn't work out, but of course people can be shocked out of bad behavior by realizing other people are shocked by that behavior. Of course people can experience genuine epiphanies by finding out that something they thought was fine is actually very scary to other people, and makes them angry and emotional.

And lastly, many people who have no particular feelings about public health or social responsibility are still very sensitive to the perceptions of others, and will do a good thing not because it saves lives, but because it means nobody will yell at them. (Does it matter that misinformation not be spread in the interest of that last one? fuck yeah it does. and people who know what they're talking about shouldn't be shy of correcting misinformation for fear of Shaming accusations, either. with references.)

to ask a long involved thing whose question part comes down to "Is this ethically acceptable?" you must be prepared to hear the answer No, it is not. If you are not able to hear No to a yes-or-no question without feeling ashamed of yourself, you must ask a different kind of question.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:17 PM on May 21 [8 favorites]


so many medical AskMe's get conflicting answers about what people should do, because most people answering in AskMe aren't medical professionals.

It's not just that. The medical professionals themselves are giving different advice, depending on who they are and where they are and what their priority is. Some are saying 'come in!' Others are saying 'Stay out of the emergency room unless you're likely to die if you don't.' When I contacted medical professionals, they ascertained my level of medical ability and made a call that telling me to do everything myself was the best option for me rather than going in to get my fairly large wound treated. It's easy to see them giving another person with the exact same wound different advice. It's easy to see a civilian medical facility saying 'I don't care what you say you can do, I can't be sure of it.'

I will never feel superior to medievals in the plagues again. We don't know the answers, and we don't know who to trust, and it's all moving too quickly to be sure of the right answers. We just do the best we can.
posted by corb at 10:30 PM on May 21 [13 favorites]


This is not how discourse on fraught topics works for most people in my experience. If I say "my cat is sick" [note I do not have a cat at present so it can't be sick super hypothetical] and you give me without comment a piece explaining some method of curing cats, I am going to interpret that as you recommending I follow that method. If you are putting information in front of me without context, I interpret you as at least weakly endorsing that information as information I should make decisions with. I am not claiming everyone would understand that that way, but in my experience it's not especially uncommon.

If you looked at my profile, you could have a better sense of my typical advice, which is to consult with someone who has expertise and can have the benefit of all of the relevant information (e.g. lawyer, doctor, medical triage, therapist, lawyer/HR/free consulting service, NAMI, medical provider, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, RAINN) and why I would not point to anything suggesting a cure for cats and would be more likely to try to find a link and a quote from a professional vet association website that says 'in this situation, call a vet.'

I also try to keep up with the news, and I share it when it appears helpful to answering the question, and if I cite multiple sources, the point is to provide context that can help the OP assess the quality and strength of the information related to a challenging topic.

I have tried to collect a variety of sources on the MeFi Wiki Disaster Planning & Recovery page, in the Medical/Pandemic section, so information is easier to find. But I also think it is reasonable to expect that people will conduct their own due diligence on anything that they find online. It's like the disclaimer at the bottom of the wiki page says, with references to past MeTas:
The listing of an organization on this website does not constitute an endorsement of that group. This website and its contributors cannot guarantee the accuracy of information posted here or on any other website. This website and its contributors are not responsible for any advice, information, or assistance that you may obtain by using any of the organizations or websites listed or linked here. This website is for general information purposes only and for use at your own risk.
My sense from various Ask threads (e.g. COVID-19 risk analysis) is that there sometimes can be a difference of opinion as to whether the sense of uncertainty supports risk-taking or whether it supports caution, but there are credible sources and experts offering guidance for making the best decisions we can.
posted by katra at 11:13 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


Yep. And the circumstances, rules and best practices aren't necessarily the same in other countries as they are in the USA. It's pretty clear that many people on AskMefi don't realize that.

Outside of Mefi, I see that plenty, too. When I told a German friend that I was having possible Covid symptoms, their response was 'hurry up and get tested!' while that was not a thing I could actually do.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:04 AM on May 22 [8 favorites]


I feel that harshness and reactivity on the green are ongoing issues.
posted by bunderful at 4:18 AM on May 22 [10 favorites]


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