Nature’s wrath or shaming the victim? Beyond an ethics of shame in times of COVID-19

A shorter version of this commentary is published as Pelizza, Annalisa. (2020). Blame is in the eye of the beholder: beyond an ethics of hubris and shame in the time of COVID-19. The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review.

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“Part of the challenge ahead is understanding where such diseases come from, because the health of our planet plays an important role in the spread of zoonotic diseases, i.e. disease originating from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans. As we continue to encroach on fragile ecological ecosystems, we bring humans into ever-greater contact with wildlife.” These words are part of a First Person Editorial published on April 5th by the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen. Despite their urgent tone, they might be timeless. They recall the modern separation between humans and nature and attribute the cause of systemic unbalances to human activity.

Invoking nature’s wrath is indeed an old trope. It goes back to ancient Greek myths and moral texts, in which hubris referred to transgressions of the boundaries between humans and gods. The myths of Icarus, Cassiopeia, Tantalus and Arachne are examples of humans who challenged the gods, pushed their own natural limits and were punished for their arrogance. It is this meaning of hubris that was inherited by modernity through myths like Faust.

With reference to the current COVID-19 pandemic, this mythological meaning of hubris is epitomized by the behavior of figures like Bolsonaro, Johnson, Renzi, Trump and all those who thought to challenge the boundaries of what in nature is allowed to humans. Their self-confidence oscillated between tragedy and farsa, an opera genre in its own, as some of the characters who challenged the boundaries are now experiencing that challenge in their own bodies. 

Unfortunately, an understanding of COVID-19 as mythological hubris doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre to humanity. Luckily, though, in ancient Greece a second meaning of hubris as victim shaming was developed in civil speeches and tractates. I suggest that more possibilities of action for humans facing the current pandemic can be devised when considering a civil, rather than a mythological, understanding of hubris.

In Against Midias, Demosthenes uses the term hubris to indicate both verbal and physical assault. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle refers to hubris as the practice of shaming the victim: “hubris consists in acts and words that cause shame to the victim, not in order to obtain advantage for oneself besides the act itself, but simply for the pleasure of it. […] The source of pleasure in hubris lies on the thought that, in ill-treating others, perpetrators show their superiority. That is why the young and the wealthy indulge in hubris” (Rhetorics 1378b, Author’s translation). As in ancient moral systems shame is a form of public dishonor, hubris entails a relationship of wanton violence in which it is only by publicly devaluing the counterpart that one can claim their status.

Ratherthan transcendental arrogance against the gods, it is such immanent form of hubris as shaming the victim that characterizes many current reactions to COVID-19, even in contexts that apparently seem to approach the pandemic in different ways.  

In strictly locked-in Italy, individuals walking or jogging alone in desert areas are regularly being shamed (and sued) as Manzonian infectors. As the bureaucratic #Istayhome principle has been preferred to the scientific #Istayaway one (see the analysis by anthropologist Piero Vereni, in Italian), the Italian population is subjected not only to valuable norms, but also to scientifically meaningless rules, enforced by strict police and moral control. Videos of Italian mayors shaming citizens turned into undisciplined kids have been featured worldwide. While an assessment of whether such enforcement is proportionate should be conducted in public informed arenas, here I wish to highlight that a hubris mechanism is in place, in its civil definition, according to which the victim – i.e., the locked-in citizen – is to be shamed.

In liberal Netherlands, where police enforcement is more problematic, the politics of shaming the victim take subtler but not less violent forms. Individuals less likely to survive the contagion are offered role models (in Dutch). Retired physicians explain their ethical choice of leaving their post in IC to persons with higher survival odds. In such discourses, an important collective decision is shifted to the victims. This shift is underpinned by a specific way of framing an objective problem. Let me unpack the rhetorical mechanism.

The objective problem is the insufficient ratio of ventilators by expected number of infected individuals in need of ventilation (ventilators/patients in need = < 1). As in any algebraic division, the problem might reside in a too low dividend (i.e., too few ventilators) or in a too high divisor (i.e., too many patients in need of ventilators), or both. Choosing to allocate the cause of the problem either to the dividend or to the divisor is not a neutral choice: it is a political framing with ethical implications.

Indeed, framing the insufficient ratio as a problem of too few ventilators puts responsibility on health-system policy makers and suggests a concrete policy measure: to invest in acquiring more machines and improving the health system. On the other hand, framing the insufficient ratio as a problem of too many patients shifts responsibility (and shame) on individual citizens, and suggests individual solutions: give up survival.

Despite rhetorical differences, in both the Dutch and Italian cases we can acknowledge a sort of civil hubris intended to shame the victim. This kind of hubris is being extended to international relations, as well, if only few days ago former president of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi intervening on the Financial Times had to specify that “the loss of income is not the fault of any of those who suffer from it.” Indeed, the current debate taking place on videocallsamong members of the European Council and of the Eurogroup looks more and more like a textbook example of civil hubris(media coverage in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish).

On one hand, nine European countries heavily affected by the virus have asked for immediate symmetric financial tools backed by European institutions to mitigate COVID-19 disruptions. Eventually, they fear losing financial sovereignty and the shame of financial markets. On the other hand, an investigation into their long-term past financial management is called (in Dutch). Financially conservative countries indeed argue that the current inability to cope with the pandemic is a consequence of past financial disfunctions. Whatever the outcome of the debate for the future of Europe, it is evident that it revolves around adopting a hubristic behavior that pushes the victim to face not only the pandemic violence, but also with the violence of shame.

Against currently resurgent feelings of nationhood, these examples show that civil hubris is not a national trait, but an attitude in the face of natural disasters. Facing disasters, humans can either invoke gods’ wrath, or identify the cause in other humans, the more affected the better. Civil hubris is an attitude of the powerful for power’s sake. It’s the power of rhetorically calling yourself out. Yet, while the mythological understanding of hubris doesn’t however leave much room for manoeuvre, more possibilities of action can be devised with civil hubris. Shame indeed requires two things: a distinction between “Us” and “Them” and a zero-sum game.

As for the distinction, we might want to ask how “them” became “Them” and “us” became “Us,” that is, which criteria are mobilized to create and reproduce the distinction. How are musty narratives about the undisciplined citizen, the useless elderly, the dirty Chinese, the lazy Italian and the stern German resurrected and mobilized to produce a novel narrative of war? Which alternative narratives might instead nudge an ethics of care?

As for the zero-sum game, it corresponds to Aristotle’s definition of civil hubris as a relationship in which a rise in status for the perpetrator is only obtained by publicly shaming the victim. By shaming Italian runners, majors’ credibility is strengthened. By shaming the elderly, the efficiency of the Dutch health-care system is reaffirmed. By shaming China or Spain, American and North European superiority is proven. Or, at least, some so believe. We should instead question this zero-sum game on which civil hubris and an ethics of shame are based. Zero-sum games are simplifications that can work in simulations. In actual life, they depend on granularity, time and scope of vision.

As scholars, policy makers and journalists, in these gloomy days we need an ethics beyond shame, that is, an ethics that is able a) to account for how old distinctions are resurrected, mobilized and made relevant for current goals, and point them out to public awareness; b) to avoid building policies on assumptions of zero-sum games. Such an ethics is urgently necessary to contrast the emerging narrative of biological and financial infectors. It is desperately needed to counteract the overwhelming narrative of war. There will be no superiority built on the ruins of social fabric, where officers despise citizens and the young survive the sacrifice of the elderly.