Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (V) — Watching the Authority-based Knowledge Structure at Work

Longji Porters, Guangxi Province, China

One of the fascinating (sometimes pathologically) things about the COVID-19 epidemic is that because it demands information exchange among superficially diverse (but v-memetically similar) population groups, one gets to see the information dynamics of various societies (which are actually far more homogeneous) in play. There’s also some element of hypervigilance in all of this, as everyone in a given society, at this point, is aware that there is a virus out there, and it might affect them. What THAT does is eliminate sloppy adherence to cultural sidebars that may come from value sets/v-Memes. You show your true value set hand because crisis creates focus.

So it is in the small community I occupy as well. From a material perspective (Pullman is a college town) we really aren’t suffering much during this pandemic. There are still sales on steak in the Safeway, and aside from the toilet paper craziness (and paper towel craziness — I still can’t buy a napkin!) you’d never know we were even in a crisis. Sure, the streets are a little more deserted. The students, by and large, are not here. But that happens every summer, and for someone that’s lived in this community for 32 years, it’s amazing to live in a city with infrastructure for 35K people, and only have 10K people show up. No dystopian nightmares for me.

The local folks that live here year-round are not stupid. But they are mostly conservative. All college towns like to think of themselves as “liberal” — and it’s not like political alignment means a ton in the land of value sets/v-Memes. But our town has, depending on how you count them, at least three Christian mega-churches. Moscow, ID, next door, once again dependent on how you count them, has at least three, as well as a medium-size Full Bible Christian college, founded by a champion of the revival of the Confederacy and slavery.

Even the liberals are mostly lower v-Meme actors. Professors and various technical staff, enshrined in the two state universities, are pretty Legalistic v-Meme in their processing. The natural tendency of my Spiral Dynamics community would be to call them Communitarians, and some, even from a knowledge structure position, are. But it’s probably more fair to call them Legalistic Hippies. There’s a tight dress code, and set of political views most ascribe to. We might be a pretty politically correct community. But we’re still low empathy.

So it’s been super-interesting to watch people in the community’s response just to my moving about. When I go out, I wear a mask all the time now. I do this because, as I’ve written before, I believe in exercising the Precautionary Principle, which is, in short, analyze the situation and maintain a positive outlook, but act as if catastrophe is at your door.

In the face of actual data, it’s the prudent thing to do. COVID-19 testing has been nothing short of embarrassing in our community. And I live under the flight path of Alaska Airline’s five continuing flights from Seattle, which is a declared hotspot. Seattle was definitely one of the entry points for the virus, and students, even though it’s a five hour drive away, have always had a subset that went home and returned on the weekend. My belief, as I taught my classes and watched students slowly drop out, as well as stare at me dumbfounded as I taught them social distancing, is that this community was likely a saturated community, at least at the university level at the beginning of the pandemic.

It may be true that there will be a second wave of infections — just like the Spring Break crowd in Florida, our students evacuated en masse at both the start and end of Spring break, taking whatever they picked up here, with their exuberant conviviality, back to the Puget Sound. That probably has put a huge damper on the number of severe cases, and as such, lowered the level of awareness in this community. But old people in the Safeway, even though they have access to special shopping hours, go through their daily routines, as well as the cashiers, like nothing is amiss. It’s just life as usual.

Until I show up with my mask. Wearing a mask, in their minds, doesn’t label me as prudent. It labels me as infected. No other normal white folks are wearing masks — at all. So people look away. I had a mother with a teenage daughter point at me in the grocery yesterday, and sidle and move quickly past the mushrooms, as I held my 6′ social distancing. I stopped by our local building supply store, and the clerks, always affable, are more than happy to let me bag my own products. After an initial set of rumblings toward our Asian students, who largely started wearing masks at the beginning of all this — WSU-Pullman has a large Chinese student population, both graduate and undergraduate (around 1300 IIRC) — their garb is now considered culturally appropriate. But not so much for a big White Guy.

What it does is illustrate the Authority-driven mindset of the community. From a knowledge structure perspective, there’s a one-one knowledge fragment mapping that happens when they see me wearing a mask. It goes like this: he’s wearing a mask; so therefore, he must be sick. The Precautionary Principle is a higher level of complexity, inherently an inverse transformation, with time-dependent consequentiality, and as such, requires a higher active, automatic v-Meme. “I’m wearing a mask because I don’t want to get sick,” or even higher “I’m wearing a mask so others, especially old people don’t get sick” is just meaningless.

Even when explained, people can’t get over it — because of the fear factor of a Big White Guy wearing a mask in the first place. Trust me — no one comes up and pays me a compliment for my foresight, or modeling what is actually prosocial behavior. Because foresight, in my position in the community, is not particularly appreciated. William Gibson, who famously said “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed,” would not be welcomed in Pullman. At least in the context of me and my mask.

This type of one-one thinking isn’t constrained just to the working folks. One can look at testing strategies for COVID-19 in this community, and the authority-driven nature of the protocols pop out. Though, once again, we likely have a high probability of exposure to asymptomatic cases (young people are not showing symptoms, especially severe ones, nearly as often as immunosuppressed and older populations), so tests are reserved for people showing dramatic symptoms. Though, as the storm advances, we’re seeing a rapid evolution in our health care community, this is also authority-driven behavior. We have had no vaccine, nor medication, for treating the disease.

So inherently, we treat the symptoms. Knowing whether or not someone has COVID-19 really only benefits the authority system – or deeper into the reality of it all, is arbitrary. I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT accuse our health care providers of any malfeasance. I think they’re in a very tight spot. But what it does show is how they think. It’s that one-one mapping thing. If symptoms are already severe, there’s a very limited benefit to consequential planning for the larger community from testing someone. On the other hand, their options are severely proscribed. And there’s nothing like the wolf at your door to rapidly evolve your connected thinking. Here’s hoping that it does.

Unfortunately, the authority-driven mindset reduces our ability to get ahead of the pandemic. The notion that we might mirror communities or nations around the globe never crosses our mind. Japan, with halting steps, and imperfect culture itself, is getting back to normal with people wearing masks, though without the wide-scale testing many epidemiologists think is really necessary. Taiwan and Singapore, with their en pointe quarantine strategies, are, through a combination of individual tracking and visitor quarantine staying ahead of the pandemic. In Taiwan, you have to wait two weeks self-quarantined in a hotel room before you’re allowed to circulate. And if you go outside with your GPS-mandatory cell phone in your pocket, the alarms go off and the Taiwanese police will chase you down.

What’s interesting is that COVID-19 is actually giving a lesson to the world in Complex Thinking 101. We know the source of our illness — it’s a microscopic virus, whose entire identity has been sourced and DNA mapped. It’s one little crack in a world that took advantage of a vast transmission system — our air transport network — to spread maximally to every corner of the globe, in a little over a month. The fact that there are both big and small ripples from that initial hijacking should cause us to shift our mindsets. We can do that by drawing larger system boundaries around all our various loci of contact — hospitals for sure, but grocery stores, gas stations, and the like — and ask how one might affect the other. And how that might affect something else. We have to practice the thinking we need.

But first, we have to realize the thinking we actually have — which, sadly, is poorly consequential, fragmented, and mostly egocentric. Like Donald Rumsfeld so infamously said, “You go to war with the Army you have — not the Army you might wish you have.” And the condition of that Army is shown not just by the heroes and heroines on the medical front lines. It’s also shown by the couple in their 60s eating fish tank cleaner, because they saw it contained chloroquine in it, which Donald Trump had endorsed as a new cure in a press conference. An extreme example of authority-driven mindset for sure — and the husband in the pair paid the ultimate price. But also a signal to consider, especially when this crisis passes. If COVID-19 is an opportunity for Complex Systems 101, fixing Anthropogenic Global Warming is an advanced degree. And we’re going to need that kind of thinking going forward. Because Authority-driven knowledge structures are not even up to snuff for the novel coronavirus. And there are a whole lot more courses, even besides AGM, for which the universe has scheduled us up.

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