Friends Don't Belong In Buckets

Sticking people into ideological buckets based on their risk acceptance isn't something to be proud of.

As the summer winds down and we spring into a new school year, I have enormously strong opinions on what should be required of teachers and students in the 21-22 school year. It’s a short list, but I’m pretty insistent on it:

  1. all schools should offer full-time in-person instruction

  2. masking should not be required for students, especially young students

Vaccines are widely available, children are the group at least risk, and the United States is one of the only countries that still requires masking even for the youngest students.

What is more, with the levels of vaccination we’ve reached (most states are between 50% and 80% of adults with at least one dose protection and 80%-95% of the elderly population), we’re at a point where if we don’t allow students to attend unmasked now, I want to know what the endgame is. Is there any endpoint to this crisis? Is there a time when masks can come off? The can-kicking has to reach a terminus at some point or another and yet the formal CDC guidance remains to keep masks on students indefinitely.

As I was expressing my dismay at this turn of events, I heard from some jerk who thinks unvaccinated kids should still be wearing masks due to the unknown long-term effects of COVID infections.

Now, this isn’t just any jerk. This is my friend Robert McLaws. Robert and I have known each other for many years. I asked his permission to share his name & he laughed away my concern. We’ve worked in the same field, in the same technologies, spoken about working together on one of Robert’s start-up projects (which are absolutely amazing, Robert is a spectacular software developer and entrepreneur). He’s good people and I respect the hell out of him.

He’s also a conservative. Sort of. OK, I don’t know what “conservative” means anymore, but he and I have talked about politics and we mostly come down in the same place. If you put together a political quadrant, he and I would be within waving distance.

So when we started talking about the topic of kids and COVID a lot of stuff started happening in my brain.

First of all, I realized that, had I not known Robert previously, I would have put him into a certain political-cultural bucket. He and I don’t share the same level of risk assessment for children and COVID and that makes me think “Oh, he’s one of *those* people who is overly concerned about phantom and unprovable COVID problems” which would cause my mental process to put him more on the left.

Except that I *do* know him and I know he’s smart enough to to do a clear-headed analysis of the problem, weigh the risk, and make a sober judgement from that. If I was starting a software business and he and I grabbed a drink, I’d be hanging on his every word, taking notes to make sure I didn’t miss anything. So why am I inclined to dismiss him in this context?

I discovered the answer a few weeks later.

Last week I talked to someone whom I’ve admired for some time and who became Twitter’s Main Character for a few days due to his Bad Take. A lot of people I like and respect follow QC and watched in perturbed fascination as he got dragged, meme-ed, mocked, and attacked.

Someone who has been a gold-mine of help and information in the COVID crisis came to the vague defense of our mutual twitter compatriot by noting that people seem quite eager to find someone they can hate.

This was in itself a fascinating comment as the casually non-specific nature of his observation confused people who really wanted it to apply to one identifiable bucket of people.

I loved the vagueness of halvorz’s comment precisely because it drove people so crazy. He noted (accurately) that some people really want to be able to hate someone else without that twinge of moral guilt or social rebuke that normally comes from hate. And this observation drove people insane. Was he defending the Wrong Team? Which team was he talking about? Was it My Team? Was it Their Team? He must tell us so we know which bucket we should put him in!!! Stop hiding, you coward!

Which Team Are You On?

Some people are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of compassion if that compassion is applied to the “wrong” people. It has gotten to a point with many people where your actual beliefs aren’t even important. What is important is that you are on the right team.

Are you worried that the COVID vaccine was rushed into production? That’s an ok position to have… as long as you have it in the right context. That was a mainstream position on the left back in September. I wrote about it in detail, trying to convince people that, whenever we got it, the vaccine would meet efficacy and safety standards. I recommended that anyone who was worried about longer term consequences should maybe put off taking the vaccine for 9-12 months.

But if you take that same position now, it’s been re-coded to be on the right and suddenly it’s a wild and outrageous piece of misinformation and people should be ashamed to hold it.

Vaccine hesitancy is evil if your reasons are coded as red (and reasons that sound like it comes from the right) but vaccine hesitancy is reasonable if your reasons are coded blue (distrust in government medical experiment against minorities). The actual idea or information of secondary importance. The important information is “which bucket do you fit into, which team are you on?”

For example, look at the statement below (I’ve removed the author’s name b/c I’m not trying to engage in a blame game here).

They author thinks that vaccine hesitancy is encoded Republican. He thinks he’s talking about Trump voters and just using vaccine hesitancy as a proxy indicator. His stated reason for punishing people is their vaccine hesitancy, but his true intent is to punish the political outgroup.

He’s hoping people will read this as “Until you start making life expensive for the [outgroup], this problem isn’t going to be solved”. We could look at the Kaiser Foundation vaccine survey and just pick the outgroup that we want this to apply to. Maybe it’s young people (55% vaccinated) or rural residents (54% vaccinated) or Evangelical Christians (58% vaccinated) or Republicans (52% vaccinated).

But if we code his statement to be “Until you start making life expensive for black adults, this problem isn’t going to be solved” our vision of it changes immensely. That’s starting to sound like something very close to racism and a desire to punish people based on an irrational bias while using a proxy indicator for cover. And yet black adults report close to the same levels of vaccine hesitancy as the groups above (60% vaccinated).

When I hear people talking about why young people, rural residents, Evangelical Christians or Republicans might be vaccine hesitant, their voices turn cold with disdain. They dismiss any attempts to reach these groups as tilting against windmills, a hopeless task aimed at stupid and belligerent people. Their rhetoric is filled with anger, frustration, and a seething desire to see them punished. That is why is it acceptable to make up stories about how those dying of COVID finally saw the light and begged for forgiveness, absolution, and help. These are the heretics and they have brought their condemnation down on themselves.

But when the same people talk about why black adults might be vaccine hesitant, their explanations are filled with compassion, empathy, and understanding. They see black adults as “part of our team, but needing help” instead of “evil people beyond redemption”. How we respond to people’s worries or actions seems to map to which bucket we’ve placed them in.

There’s A Hole In My Bucket

It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to turn away from bucket thinking. If I hadn’t known Robert personally, if I had seen him as just another twitter account, I would probably have dismissed his concerns as ungrounded and put him in a bucket. But I start from the position that he is a smart person who is well informed and has done a reasonable risk assessment that makes sense for him. I don’t share that risk assessment, which is based on a lot of unknowns, but I’m not him.

Thinking about reasonable people assessing the (I believe) small risk of long term COVID consequences makes me think about assessing the (I believe) small risk of long term vaccine consequences.

I asked this question back in June, when we started hearing about myocarditis cases in young men who had gotten vaccinated.

Since then, we’ve gathered more information and a reasonable person fully armed with all the data could make a compelling case for not vaccinating males between the ages of 12 and 24 or at least limiting them to a single dose of the two dose vaccines. Making that case runs the risk of falling into an anti-vaccine bucket with other people. Yet they are looking at real data, assessing real risks, making solid judgements based on their own particular situations. They don’t deserve to be put in an “anti-vax” bucket simply because they are paying attention to the details.

The end result is actually an accentuation of the bucket theory in which people who don’t mind being put into the anti-vaccine bucket talk about the story and people who have quiet reservations but worry about the social consequences of publicly expressing doubt stay silent.

I have no large-scale solution to this, no plan or strategy for exiting this cycle. My only option is to remember that my friends span a lot of different ideologies and preferences and that they deserve better from me than to make blanket assumptions about them or shove them roughly into an uncharitable and stereotypical corner. And I need to remember that everyone deserves that baseline dignity.

Looney Tunes: Little Red Riding Rabbit

I really liked this when I was a kid despite Red Riding Hood’s intentionally annoying voice. It’s got a great World War 2 joke (Grandma is away working the swing shift Lockheed) and some great visual gags.

This is back when there was still a bit of an arms race over short cartoons borrowing from and adapting fairy tales. The Looney Tunes were always more comfortable subverting these stories and playing with the tropes. In this version, the joke is that the Big Bad Wolf is more interested in a rabbit dinner than in eating Red Riding Hood, who annoyingly interjects herself back into the story as the wolf just wants to get rid of her. The whole thing is energetic and manic and comes to an unexpected and delightful conclusion.