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2021: Covid, Wokeness and Other Debates That Defined the Year – The New York Times

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Ryan Haskins

When I read about the Serbian hermit Panta Petrovic this summer, I liked him immediately — even as I understood that he, being a misanthropic hermit, would not like me back. For starters, the man looked the part: 70 years old, smudgy-cheeked and virile, with a beard fanning off him like the bottom of an old broom, rope for a belt and white sleeves blousing from a tattered brown vest. Aesthetically, he resembled a fiddler on the roof without the fiddle. Or the roof.

Mr. Petrovic lives in a cave. Nearly 20 years ago, he became so aggrieved by society, so irritated by other people’s existence and indignant over the wretchedness of capitalism — “Money is cursed,” he said — that he left his job as a mechanical engineer, gave away his earnings and moved into a hole in the side of a mountain. And that’s where a journalist from Agence France-Presse found him in August: subsisting mostly on mushrooms and fish, sleeping on hay, peeing and pooping in a rusty bathtub that he’d moved inside his cave (not sure why — plenty of open land outside the cave, you’d assume). His only companions were animals, and his closest one, a pig — a detail that uncannily mirrored one of this year’s most memorable fictional characters, Nicolas Cage’s equally surly hermit in the film “Pig.”

“She means everything to me,” Mr. Petrovic said of his 440-pound sow. “I love her, and she listens to me.”

What surprised me was how happy the hermit seemed. More than happy: perfectly content. “Here there is freedom,” he explained to the reporter. “I was not free in the city. There is always someone in your way.”

Like many people, I was living a fairly hermity existence this time last year. Still, I was alive to the possibility that, once 2020 sputtered into 2021, everything would change. American society would re-emerge from the strange and demoralizing isolation of the Covid pandemic with miraculous new vaccines rushing through its bloodstream instead of the same unruly adrenaline and spite and, as people got back to work, back to school, back to governing ourselves in a somewhat sensible way, under a boring new president, we even had an opportunity to do it all slightly better than before — more equitably, more decently, more joyously — and with heightened appreciation for life lived alongside others.

It didn’t happen. Instead, this year, even as we tallied the suffering created and exacerbated by a lack of connectedness, from a record-high number of drug overdose deaths to the academic and social-emotional deficits incurred by kids who couldn’t be physically together in school, it was impossible also not to concentrate on how maddening and horrible connectedness to other human beings can be. Sometimes, it was hard just to stop focusing on the simple reality that other human beings can kill you — and often, it seemed, that they can kill you without much compunction or consequence. They can kill you by refusing to pull their mask over their nostrils, by bureaucratically denying you adequate health care, by allowing you to live on the street, by keeping you at work while a tornado closes in, by shooting you with their guns just because they felt scared.

Is life better when we’re together? It used to be a question that only hermits bothered to ask. Now it’s a pressing, mainstream concern. Many Americans did bounce through the year ecstatic to be in a community again but only with certain people, people who hadn’t revealed themselves to be morons, jerkwads or fascists. Something about passing through the ordeal of the pandemic seemed to empower people to finally write those other people off. If true cohesion is impossible, it seemed permissible to scale back the project of togetherness by drawing a cozy circle around Us and a bright, flaming line between Us and Them.

Notably, Mr. Petrovic was newsworthy this summer only because he, too, was momentarily venturing out of his isolation and back into society. And he was doing it for an exquisitely noble purpose: A video captured the cave man, sitting in an antiseptically modern health care facility, rolling up the sleeve of his tunic to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

Mr. Petrovic was a solitary and antisocial creature. He had rebuked society with his total being. Still, even he worried that, epidemiologically, he could not sever his relationship to the rest of humanity as cleanly. And if he were to get sick, he explained, no one would be around to take care of him. “I want to get all three doses,” he told the camera. When he was told about vaccine skeptics, his take was: What’s the big fuss? “I urge every citizen to get vaccinated — every single one of them,” he proclaimed. The hermit subsequently reported no significant side effects. “Two or three days later, I was drinking beer normally,” he said.

The beer comment probably sealed it: The hermit had a moment online. Commenters celebrated him as a hero, bonding around the allure of his lifestyle: a community of introverted, hermit romantics. Others, meanwhile, scoffed at his hypocrisy, dismissing him for carrying on about freedom, then choosing “to inject their bioweapon” into his arm like a dupe. (Mr. Petrovic also receives welfare; no one seemed bothered by this in the comments, though.) Other posts went further, assuming the entire story was nefarious propaganda to promote vaccinations.

It was the beginnings of something familiar, to the point of being boring: different people mapping their group identities and collective grievances onto the story of someone who wanted nothing to do with groups of people at all. Little arguments about the hermit sprouted between tribes of commenters under the video on YouTube, then branched into unrelated arguments. (Like, does Islam represent the only authoritative and universal truth?) “Open up your chakras and actually connect to other dimensions,” one commenter told another. “I think the best solution for you is to sit in your garage and let the exhaust run until the fumes take you,” another sniped.

Two other people, liking the sound of that idea, expressed their solidarity by clicking the tiny thumbs-up.

*

Humans have an almost unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups. We tend to understand this rationally and in flattering terms: It’s our capacity to form a community and feel invested in that community that allows us to work cooperatively and succeed. We tell ourselves that we choose to identify with a particular group because that group is meaningful, productive and right. But fundamentally, banding together may be more of a compulsion than a strategy. There’s something intoxicating about solidarity itself.

In the early 1970s, the psychologist Henri Tajfel lead a series of studies at the University of Bristol that would become known as “the minimal group experiments.” Dr. Tajfel recruited 64 teenagers from a local school and divided them into groups. In one version, he asked the subjects to estimate how many dots were flashing on a screen, then classified them as either overestimators or underestimators; in another, he showed them two sets of paintings, asked which they preferred, then assigned them to either the Paul Klee group or the Wassily Kandinsky group.

With these groups established, Dr. Tajfel instructed each person, working in isolation, to allocate money to members of their own group and to members of the other. He was curious whether these “flimsy and unimportant” collective identities, as he called them, would come into play. It seemed unlikely they would.

Dr. Tajfel was born in 1919 as Hersz Mordche, a Polish Jew, and grew up as antisemitism crusted over the country in the run-up to World War II. (He remembered walking home from school one afternoon as a boy and watching two kids attack two Jewish men on the street, ripping their beards from their faces, drawing blood.) Studying at the Sorbonne when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Dr. Tajfel volunteered to fight for France. When the French surrendered, he was captured and forced to march north alongside other prisoners of war. While he walked, he destroyed his Polish passport and other documents identifying him as a Jew the only way he could: He ate them very slowly.

Ultimately, Dr. Tajfel learned that his immediate family had perished; almost no one he knew before the war was alive by the end. He was troubled by how readily divisions had sprung up in society and compelled by survivors’ varied emotional responses to the atrocities that followed. He saw some become writers and artists and try to “express and reflect what had happened to them and to others,” he explained at the end of his life. But he knew he didn’t have that talent. He became a psychologist instead.

With the minimal group experiments, Dr. Tajfel was setting out to investigate the mechanics of intergroup conflict but strove, first, to create a kind of scientific vacuum, untainted by history, stereotypes or prejudices of any kind, so that he could slowly add in variables later and see what happened. That is, these first experiments, with the dots and paintings, weren’t his real experiment. He was just setting up a baseline to get started: groups that were barely even groups, that had been assembled on the spot, based on nothing.

In fact, Dr. Tajfel’s meaningless, minimal groups were even more meaningless than they appeared. He and his collaborators had actually ignored the kids’ responses to the dots and paintings. Instead, as the social psychologists Dominic J. Packer and Jay J. Van Bavel note, describing these experiments in their new book, “The Power of Us,” “in each case, the researchers had essentially flipped a coin and assigned people to groups based on chance.”

Still, biases locked in right away. Overwhelmingly, people in Dr. Tajfel’s experiment gave more of the money he put at their disposal to members of their own group than the other. Moreover, they were bent on creating as large a disparity as possible, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost. Their behavior seemed vindictive, “a clear case of gratuitous discrimination,” Dr. Tajfel wrote.

Since then, other researchers have run their own minimal group experiments, pushing those findings further. Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel have split people into leopards and tigers, for example. Others have gone maximally minimal and divided people into group A and group B. Still, the pride — the readiness to connect — is always there. When you tell people they’re in group A, Dr. Packer says, those people are reliably psyched to be in group A. Stick leopard people in a brain imaging machine and show them a picture of a stranger, and their brain activity changes if they know that the stranger is a leopard person, too. Their positivity toward other leopard people increases and even supersedes racial biases that cut the other way.

Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel call the minimal group studies “among the most important studies in the history of psychology.” They demonstrate that “the human sense of self — your gravitational center — does not stay in the same place. With a flip of a coin, people constructed entirely new identities in a matter of minutes.”

The rewards of this kind of connectedness wind up driving all kinds of wonderful human behavior, sometimes less obviously than we’d assume. What initially piqued my interest in this whole phenomenon was a conversation with Mark Snyder, a University of Minnesota psychologist who has studied volunteerism in America since the mid-1980s, when he started observing volunteers caring for people with AIDS. I asked Dr. Snyder why people spend their time helping others; every year Americans spend roughly eight billion hours volunteering — an estimated more than $200 billion worth of labor, all given for free. He started by pointing out that “we’re socialized to believe that charity is selfless, that it shouldn’t feel good,” but that this is a myth. Dr. Snyder’s research demonstrates that the volunteers who stick with their volunteerism the longest are those who transcend some narrowly altruistic motivation and enjoy the inevitable, more self-interested rewards they’re reaping in the process as well.

And one of the key ones is human connectedness: Volunteering creates friendships, expands social networks and gives volunteers a greater feeling of belonging to the other volunteers and their communities at large. It’s a feedback loop, Dr. Snyder explained, an unwittingly virtuous cycle. The stronger those bonds get, the more rewarding the volunteer work becomes for the volunteers and the more committed they’ll be.

Still, Dr. Snyder added, this phenomenon is morally neutral. Togetherness is a fissile material; we can’t necessarily predict or control what reaction it will set off. “The process that leads individuals to take action — fulfilling their own motivations, connecting with other people with a shared sense of community — these processes work whether we approve or disapprove of the ends to which they’re ultimately put,” Dr. Snyder said. The group of volunteers who spend their Saturday working at a Covid vaccination clinic and the group of volunteers who spend their Saturday protesting outside the clinic are, psychologically speaking, riding the same wave. Each effort is sustainable, he explained, “because the ends are usually seen as valuable and moral in the eyes of the people working toward them.”

That drive seems even more profound during a disaster. Sociologists have long observed the formation of emergent groups — ad hoc, self-organizing communities of volunteers that spontaneously arise to address specific problems during natural disasters. These volunteers might search for victims in the rubble of a collapsed building or get on social media to systematize the dissemination of information about missing people. Disasters are disruptions, cleaving ordinary life open into vacuums of uncertainty. Falling into a community with others — particularly a community acting with purpose — helps people regain certainty and agency. In a catastrophe, taking action can feel restorative, euphoric even, and seems to help sustain survivors’ mental health.

It’s worth noting, since it may not feel that way every second of every day, that if you’re reading this, you are surviving a disaster — a horrific one but one that’s also curiously disorienting and abstract. More than five million people have died, but there haven’t always been obvious piles of rubble for the rest of us to run toward or completely satisfying ways to reclaim our agency or offer help. I don’t know how an mRNA vaccine works, for example, and, though I did sometimes wonder or even worry about their safety, I ultimately just trusted the scientific community that told me to stick one in my arm.

Imagine, under these circumstances, a group of people who rush forward to help but are given bad information by the people they trust — or even misinformation that they can’t disprove or aren’t savvy enough to question or just aren’t motivated to contradict. Maybe they’re told the rubble pile is to the east instead of west or that it’s a tsunami that’s coming instead of a fire. Imagine how unproductively they would wind up reacting. They might set off running to help in exactly the wrong direction and just keep running — for months or years, as long as the disaster lasted. Even if, objectively, their running didn’t seem to accomplish very much, they would be running as a group, which feels better than doing nothing alone.

How would you ever stop these people from running? How would you call them back?

*

“I’ve never seen antisocial behavior at scale in my lifetime in the United States,” Scott Gabriel Knowles told me, “never seen it raised up to the level of mainstream politics. It’s been really startling.”

Dr. Knowles is a historian and professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology — an American who has studied disasters for 20 years. He explained that the academic literature of disasters talks about emergent groups primarily as prosocial: people coming together to help their neighbors. And overwhelmingly, that’s been the reality.

But on Jan. 6, he turned on his television and saw an emergent group there, too — a community of grossly misinformed, if not willfully misinformed, insurrectionists who, although they had been unmistakably riled up by an authority figure at the rally beforehand, were now storming the Capitol as a self-organizing group of volunteers. “I can’t deconstruct the psychology of each one of those people,” Dr. Knowles explained. But it was clear to him from some of their own statements that many were part of “a community that’s reacting to something they see as a bigger disaster than Covid: the Black Lives Matter protests.” That is, they were responding to a perceived emergency, persuaded that they were the ones who had to get the job done. (“If you don’t fight like hell,” the about-to-be-former president had told them, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”)

“These are groups of people who’ve done exactly what the literature said they should do,” Dr. Knowles conceded, “as much as I find it totally distasteful. If people feel that their group is in danger or that a disaster has occurred, they will take action in innovative ways.” It’s hard to imagine more antisocial behavior than attempting to undo a democratic election with mayhem and violence. But the insurrectionists were doing it together, and pretty joyously, it seemed — snapping selfies, posting them to Facebook with stupid jokes in real time. It was, within their community, a prosocial activity, too. They were like anti-hermits who, feeling the same hyperbolic disgruntlement and repulsion about where society was heading, had all found one another instead of each finding a cave.

Remember Podium Guy? Adam Johnson is the 36-year-old man who had traveled to Washington from Florida and was photographed strolling through the chaos in the Capitol Rotunda cradling Nancy Pelosi’s stolen lectern in one arm. There was nothing benign about him; he was part of a rampage. But alone at the center of the photo, waving at the camera and grinning widely, he had the bemused but cheerful expression of a roadie loading out after a crazy gig.

Last month, after Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to “entering or remaining in any restricted building,” a federal judge, Reggie B. Walton, explained that he was considering sending Mr. Johnson to prison: “You seemed to have thought it was a fun event to be involved in,” Judge Walton scolded Podium Guy from the bench. But he did more than scold. He addressed Mr. Johnson almost as a kind of empty vessel, a weak-willed receiver and amplifier of other people’s energies — a completely impressionable sucker for the feeling of being in a group. “You were gullible enough to come all the way up here from Florida based upon a lie and then associate yourself, because of that lie, with people and try to undermine the will of the American public,” the judge insisted. And those other people are still out there, still promulgating the same lie. “So why shouldn’t I lock you up, sir? Why should I think that you won’t do this again?”

I have no answer to the problem of Podium Guys — how, on a societal level, to stop manufacturing them or to neutralize the destructive potential of the ones who already exist. It’s depressing to recognize that community, a powerful tool for solving our most intractable problems, can be a powerful incubator and accelerant of problems, too. And it’s extra-depressing because those problems keep multiplying and inflating. Even aside from the pandemic, there’s enough confusion and precariousness in our country, real and imagined and from the scale of individual families to the planetary level, to make any given day feel like a crisis, too. When a system appears to be malfunctioning, indifferent, reckless or corrupt, that’s a kind of disaster, and people are likely to come together and respond, for better or worse.

Some will be volunteers, and some will be vigilantes. But both may be reacting to a similar feeling of free fall, of tumbling. This doesn’t make them morally equivalent; in the end, morality is what keeps them from being equivalent. I know it’s important to keep drawing that distinction, to keep calling it out. I also know it’s not enough.

Mr. Mooallem is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.