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Vigilance and the Pandemic

When and when not to take responsibility.

The Watchman
Source: PICRYL

Kayleigh came to see me after her daughter, Trix, caused an uproar after returning to school. Trix is in 10th grade, “going on 21st,” according to her mother. Apparently, and without Kayleigh’s knowledge, Trix had organized some of her friends into what she called the Infection Brigade, whose members followed various students after school, watching to see if they adhered to the Governor’s rules on mask-wearing and social distancing. When students were seen at a park or congregating at someone’s house without observing the rules, their names were posted on a Facebook page. Their parents were called out for not requiring them to behave. “The blowback was horrific,” Kayleigh told me. “Of course, I was blamed.”

Trix attends a private day school on Long Island. The school makes a point of emphasizing its social consciousness, and has classes in sustainability, diversity, and microfinance of Third World enterprise. The kitchen is solar-powered. Parents of students, many of whom have ties to nonprofit organizations, regularly give lectures on serving the community. Citizenship is drummed into the kids, whose families are activist, money-where-their-mouth is, and unabashedly concerned for the human race.

It’s just that this time, it all went awry.

Kayleigh said that Trix had been complaining for some time that many students, while observing the rules at school, were quick to abandon them once off campus. Trix even wrote a letter to the school newspaper – not naming names, but arguing that these students were endangering others, who could then spread the coronavirus. Trix told Kayleigh, “If I do my part, why shouldn’t everybody? That’s the school’s ethos!” Kayleigh told me that she’d never imagined that Trix would – or could – do anything about these students since, after all, their off-campus actions were beyond the school’s jurisdiction.

But then it happened. First, the phone calls started to Kayleigh’s home. Parents of the named students were incensed. Then students themselves started posting messages about Trix and her parents – even students who were not named, but who thought that the naming-and-shaming was a violation of students’ privacy. A few parents, who were lawyers, and whose judgment had been called into question, threatened to sue Kayleigh and her husband for defamation. (Trix’s parents were legally responsible for her actions because she was a minor.) Finally, the school principal sent a letter to Kayleigh asking that the Facebook post be deleted. “This posting has been problematic for the school, its students, and our community,” the letter asserted, “and reflects poorly on the values of tolerance and understanding that we seek to instill.” The Parents Association asked Kayleigh for an explanation.

Trix stayed home from school for a few days after the uproar (classes were half-remote anyway, so it wasn’t that great a sacrifice). But when she did show her face again, some people wouldn’t speak to her. Students who’d been part of the Brigade were also shunned, at least to an extent, and insofar as they were known. Trix herself was stunned by the response, since she thought she’d acted courageously; actually, she’d expected to be thanked. She took the posting down, but only because there was so much pressure. As she told her mother, “I did what I thought was right. Now those kids will just keep ignoring the rules – and we could suffer.”

The question, like many we encounter during the pandemic, is where do we draw the line? There is so much that’s gray and uncertain, it’s often hard to know.

By the time she came to see me, Kayleigh was mending fences with the school administration, the parents, and the Parents Association (in which she was an active member). Not everyone believed that Trix had acted on her own, and they saw the posting as a betrayal on Kayleigh’s part. “I have to defend myself by pointing to Trix, which I hate. And Trix will hate me for it.” She really wanted to defend Trix, but wasn’t sure who would listen. I could see her dilemma.

But Kayleigh was most concerned about how to talk with Trix regarding what she had done, and the fallout that it had produced. “The school teaches social responsibility – do I tell her that only goes so far, and stops when the school or someone you know is adversely affected?” In other words, is all the talk about responsibility just a line? Is it hypocrisy?

I suggested that it wasn’t hypocritical not to believe in absolutes. The problem with Trix’s action was that she had not understood that social change, to be effective, has to take into account how people will react. “Trix didn’t intend to hurt anyone. She really thought that if people were embarrassed, they’d shape up – a naïve assumption, probably based on her own sense of responsibility.” Under the circumstances, I thought it unwise to discipline Trix, who clearly had the makings of an idealist. Rather, it would be better to explain to her that actions have to be calibrated to their likely outcomes. If Trix had realized the reaction that the post would provoke, she would have realized that it would be ineffective, and that other means would be better to pursue.

We talked about teaching Trix the art of the possible. During this period of immense stress, young people feel that many adults are failing them, and that many of their peers are indifferent. They feel justified in doing whatever they can to defeat the pandemic. Trix is one of these young people. Her mother jokingly saw her in a Fauci shirt, not-so-silently rebuking the Washington establishment. Certainly, Trix felt that her school, which strives to be progressive, should guarantee that its students were not vectors for the coronavirus. But this just wasn’t possible using the bludgeoning, blunt-instrument approach that Trix had adopted. “Maybe you could have a family discussion about how, while not compromising one’s principles, it would be possible to reach the irresponsible students. Maybe the school needs to bring in speakers, offer a mini-course on epidemiology, show a documentary on the Flu outbreak of 1918.”

Kayleigh told me that she had such mixed feelings about what Trix had done. On the one hand, of course, she was upset that so many people had been hurt. But on the other, she was proud of Trix. “I can’t defend the way she behaved. But I’m proud that she saw a problem and tried to fix it – she has principles.” Kayleigh didn’t want to discourage Trix from acting on her principles in the future. So, we spoke about how to channel her principles into practical action. Trix wrote a letter to the school newspaper apologizing for what she’d done. But privately she felt this was unjust. “Greta Thunberg never apologized,” she told her mother, “so why should I?” Trix also volunteered to organize a series of Zoom discussions about the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Everyone was afraid of a Second Wave, her mother explained, and maybe Trix could get some modelers from Columbia to explain to the potential.

In other words, there were ways around Kayleigh’s dilemma. She could teach Trix about practicality, while still preserving her commitment to strong, principled action. I suggested that as the world changes over the course of this pandemic, people like Trix will have a lot to contribute, and may even be invaluable.