by Dr. Shay L. Butler
News flash, the nation is politically divided. Now that I have your attention by the non-reporting of news, let me give you the real story. The country is divided on the COVID-19 pandemic, and that division is driving policy not only at the national and state level, but on college campuses too.
I live in a bubble and have come to realize that if I don’t intentionally seek out other environments where people are diverse, and opinions vary, I run the risk of living in a made-up universe full of ideas associated with the northeast liberal elite Perhaps you are at an institution full of the conservative elite, and if so, that’s your bubble. It’s time someone let the air out of our bubbles so that the nation can heal, literally.
Recently, my husband and I traveled to a town that housed an elite private institution. While out for a late-night dinner, we sat at an outdoor bistro table. Watching passersby, it was quickly evident that we were near a bar in walking distance to the campus. We watched groups of coeds, who looked like they could have been members of the varsity water polo team, walk past the restaurant in groups ranging from four to ten students. A majority of the students we saw were not wearing masks. I was stunned, and this broke down every belief I had about who wears masks and who doesn’t. In other words, my bubble burst, and I realized that I had to face my stereotypes and biases. The ones that said the wealthy wear masks, democrats wear masks, liberals and progressives wear masks, women wear masks, and the bubble list goes on.
Depending on your politics, you might be cheering the students on and saying good for them for holding on to their constitutional rights. Others might instead be thinking about the various conspiracies that say there’s already a vaccine, and the rich already have it. Yet some may be more like me, living in a higher education bubble that had me thinking that the students were selfish because we all know how this is going to end for the campus, not well. In America, our views, thoughts, and opinions are usually our own business. Still, in the era of COVID-19, individual politics becomes everyone’s business when dealing with the public health of a pandemic.
In higher education, an individual’s political ideology, no matter how it slants, will impact what happens on their campus because it will determine what behavior is condoned and practiced. It will dictate whether employees adhere to policies or reject them, overtly or through more passive-aggressive means. If institutional policies are lax in response to less than rigorous state COVID-19 guidelines, then faculty may choose to make their classroom’s policies more restrictive. Perhaps there’s an administrator who finds the campus policies too restrictive. In response, they may choose not to wear masks during meetings with students, or opt not to follow social distancing guidelines when standing in lines in the dining hall.
There are many ways to thwart policies and procedures. One thing that we are quickly learning is that the bubbles we live in are not the protective type; rather, they are the ideological type. They are formed by the news we watch, the family we grew up in, our neighbors, our neighborhood, our places of worship, and our chosen friends. If our circle consists of individuals who get their information and their beliefs from a close-knit group of people who think similarly, then we become part of the polarized left or the polarized right. Never the twain shall meet. Even for those of us who may consider ourselves moderate, what does that even mean these days? I think of the term moderate, the same way I think of the term “middle class.” I once conducted a socioeconomic diversity survey and asked students questions about class identity and family income. What I learned was that students who reported their parents making $35k per year and students who said their parents making $235k per year both identified as middle class. I know what the formal definition of the middle class is. Still, in the self-perceptions of individuals, it is less about what Miriam Webster says and more about what individuals want to believe about themselves and then tell others.
Similarly, when I hear someone refer to themselves as moderate, it is very likely associated with what someone wants to believe about themselves and tell others. I can’t precisely say where moderate people fall on the COVID-19 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) views. I suspect that their opinions may have more to do with their environment and the norms of their neighborhoods, but it matters little because they too will inevitably land in a “moderate bubble.”
What does this have to do with politics and pandemics? Simply stated, what one believes about pandemics and vaccines has a direct impact on the health of others and the number of lives that are lost or saved. I am responsible to others for what I believe, because how I live my life and the rules that I choose to follow, or not follow, has a direct impact on the health outcomes of others. In a culture where individualism and free choice dominates, that’s a hard truth to accept. What we do in our backyards, classrooms, offices, synagogues, churches, mosques, at brunch, or on the 9th hole (however we spend our Sabbath), can determine who lives or dies when they cross our path. What I believe, mainly as it is driven by my politics, will inform whether I choose to become part of the solution or part of the problem.
If there truly exists a moderate ideology, then maybe there’s hope to be found in the moderate bubble or maybe no bubble at all. The hope that as a country, we can set aside American individualism or the “my four and no more” way of living to pick up other-centeredness instead and truly care about doing our part to save as many lives as possible. That’s not a democratic thing, a republican thing, a green party thing, a progressive thing, a tea party thing, it’s a human thing. It is the Golden Rule of “do unto others that which you would want to be done unto you,” a belief that spans religions and cultures. It is through the Golden Rule that I can set aside my stereotypes, biases, conspiracies, and rhetoric to pick up care and concern for the community and the common good of the public. If I do this right, then the next time I see kids from the water polo team walking down the street with no masks, I can suppress the rising judgment, reach in my purse, and pull out the spare PPE pack I keep on hand and gently remind them to “show love, mask up.”
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