An economy of shame

Columbia, S.C. — City and state officials here, frustrated by locals who dare not don a mask despite the state’s inglorious designation as a coronavirus hotspot, are dusting off an old standard — shame.

Leave it to South Carolinians to ignore warnings and urgent suggestions that wearing a mask and physically distancing can drastically reduce the rate of infection. This is Trump country, after all. If the president eschews the mask, why should his comrades in obstinacy surrender to trendiness?

Secession, in certain quarters, wasn’t just a passing fancy but is an attitude that persists, no matter the century. Federal dictates or even recommendations for your own good are viewed with suspicion. And then there are the strict constitutionalists, such as Gov. Henry McMaster (for whom my son works), who believe government shouldn’t dictate people’s behavior but rather should encourage their better angels.

The governor reluctantly ordered nonessential businesses and beaches closed for a couple of weeks starting at the end of March, but has never imposed a strict stay-at-home order, as other states have. In part, this was because South Carolina didn’t have as many cases relative to its population as other states, and a surge wasn’t expected to hit until late May or early June. With the predictability of hurricane season, the surge came, and most sensible people have begun to get nervous. Yet, with few exceptions, businesses and restaurants remain open, if with self-imposed restrictions and fewer customers.

Wearing a mask, says McMaster, is a matter of “personal responsibility.” Which should and may be true in some places, but not in our little insane asylum. Speaking of the devil, South Carolina is also home to a not-small number of religious charismatics who believe that the wearing of masks is Satan’s handiwork, designed to block the breath of God. Why, there’s talk that even the Episcopalians are passing around snakes these days.

But, seriously, how can officials fight a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease against such stubborn resistance? Fortunately, the Bible’s authors thought of that, too: Shame.

Though largely banished from the public square decades ago, shame is making a comeback not just here but in the broader culture. The death of George Floyd while in police custody was finally enough to shame enough white Americans into acknowledging that Black Lives Matter and that the burden of setting things right is the majority population’s to bear. Week after week, we see the remnants of slavery, Jim Crow and the Confederacy being toppled, removed or abandoned, right down to the “Dixie” in the now-renamed “The Chicks.”

Wearing a mask may seem a minor issue compared to systemic racism or police brutality — unless, that is, you happen to be one of the more than 120,000 Americans already felled by the disease. But it’s all part of the same zeitgeist of community, with an emphasis on shared sacrifice and unity. Besides, businesses are getting on board, which can change everything. In the capitalist commune, virtue becomes an incentive and only the morally fit businesses survive.

If shaming the smokers conquered Big Tobacco, could shaming the mask-deniers tame the pandemic?

Greenville, a vibrant city in the western half of the state, decided to find out. Together with the Greenville County government, the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and other business entities, the city recently launched the Greater Greenville Pledge by which retailers, restaurants and other businesses declare their adherence to state and federal guidelines for social distancing, sanitizing, capacity and employee health monitoring. Once a pledge is made, businesses can download a marketing package that includes signs for windows and counters. Customers who don’t see a pledge sign may well go elsewhere, the thinking goes.

McMaster liked the idea so much, he decided to duplicate the effort statewide, but only for restaurants. Called “Palmetto Priority,” the state program encourages restaurants to complete a (lengthy) checklist of reopening guidelines and to participate in both a required online education program and health department food safety inspections. Upon completing the checklist and signing a commitment to employees and customers, restaurants would receive a program endorsement and a sticker for their window. The program also includes an online form for patrons to evaluate restaurants’ standards.

Sound good? Absolutely not. Did I mention this is South Carolina? Already some restaurant owners are upset that, under the program, they’d essentially be regulated twice-over and subject to the whims of angry customers.

But, aren’t restaurants always subject to critical reviews of Yelp and Trip Advisor? The only difference now is diners would prefer sanitizer in their finger bowls. Besides, it’s all voluntary, which should please advocates of “personal responsibility,” as well as restaurateurs committed to surviving the pandemic.

In the new economy of shame, the good guys wear masks.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group


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