Sneering Is Becoming Our New National Sport – And It's Ugly

As desperately important as social distancing is, we can't afford to sleepwalk into an authoritarian state constantly denouncing our neighbours, says writer Kate Townshend.
Just weeks after the inception of the Be Kind campaign, trolls have been attacking Sam Smith for finding lockdown difficult.
Just weeks after the inception of the Be Kind campaign, trolls have been attacking Sam Smith for finding lockdown difficult.
Sam Smith/Instagram

What is there to talk about during lockdown? National stereotypes suggest we all love a good chat about the weather, back when “outside” was somewhere we saw more than once a day. For many of us, “So, what have you been up to?” has become a question that can only yield a certain number of repetitive responses, involving baking attempts or Netflix binges.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that in the absence of our usual staples, chat about the “idiots” who continue to flout the rules of this strange situation has become our go-to small talk.

Maybe you’ve made a comment or two about the “sheer selfishness” of the people photographed in packed parks over the weekend, or the “madness” of those panicked shoppers who continue to leave our supermarket shelves bare.

Maybe you’ve seen tutting Facebook statuses or spent half an hour on the phone to a relative, discussing the “few” ruining it for the “many”.

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But while idiots certainly do exist, much of the disapproval doing the rounds asks us to make snap judgements without context. When certain papers tell us about these “terrible, selfish” people who are still out breaking the rules, while most of us sit patiently at home, it gives us the buzz of feeling morally superior without a shred of analysis as to why green spaces might still be busy, or how to engage with people confused about the rules.

Worse still, we’re happy to adopt this judgemental stance even with people who aren’t committing any social distancing crimes. Simply expressing any kind of negativity about having to remain at home can be enough to invite derision and spite in the current circumstances. Singer Sam Smith, for instance, found themself at the centre of a social media storm for daring to have a bit of a public cry about the challenges of isolation recently. Critics compared this unfavourably to the efforts of war veteran Captain Tom, who has recently completed 100 laps around his garden to raise money for the NHS – as if lauding one must mean shaming the other. So much for the #BeKind movement...

We have to fight this knee jerk reaction. I know we’re missing the usual sporting and cultural events that might distract us this year, but sneering cannot become our new national sport.

Because as desperately important as social distancing is, it’s equally important that we don’t sleepwalk into an authoritarian state where we are constantly denouncing our neighbours.

Those people out in the park? Maybe that’s the first time today they have left their tiny flat with their three fractious children. That group of people who don’t look related? Maybe they are housemates enjoying their daily exercise as a household. That woman with the full trolley? Maybe she’s shopping for vulnerable relatives.

When we allow ourselves to make decisions from this position of incomplete information we run the risk of actively making harmful mistakes – like the misguided writer of a note to a neighbour, warning her she was using her car too frequently and encouraging her to “protect the NHS”. The driver in question was using her car to travel to work each day – as an NHS nurse.

Of course the #stayhome messaging matters. We have to do our bit for the sake of the NHS and our most vulnerable people. But the best way to do our bit, is to do precisely that: our bit. We can’t possibly understand the unique circumstances of everyone we see in online photos designed to provoke outrage, and our outrage doesn’t benefit anybody anyway.

If people who are trying to do the right thing feel demonised regardless, then they are less likely to keep bothering. Our need to prove our own virtue by looking down on other people might end up being actually harmful.

Let’s save our scrutiny for those who are actually in charge of managing this pandemic, and continue to hold them to account where necessary – not those who, like all of us, are just struggling to get through it.

Kate Townshend is a freelance writer.


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