Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

What’s Wrong with People?

Cars driven ridiculously fast and darting between cars like stunts on a movie set.

Road rage erupting in gunfire.

Behavior on airplanes akin to an MMA match.

School board meetings requiring police presence.

Social media trolling that has no bottom.

Nurses having to be outfitted with panic buttons.

A murder rate that rose by nearly a third in 2020 – the biggest increase ever recorded – that rose again in 2021.

Even a physical assault during the presentation of an Oscar.

What is wrong with people?

If you find yourself asking this question, you’re not alone. Something really has changed with the way a lot of people are acting. It’s as if the events of the last two years somehow, someway, gave us permission to rush to our basest instincts and interact with others in ways we never would have imagined.

But why? Why has the pandemic, masks, quarantines encouraged us to act so awfully?

An article in the Atlantic, written by Olga Khazan, queried more than a dozen experts on crime, psychology and social norms and worked through several possible explanations as to why, during the pandemic, “disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton.”

1.  We’re all stressed out. One of the more obvious explanations for the spike in bad behavior is the “rage, frustration and stress coursing through society right now.” Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown University, collected data on why people behave badly and found that “the No. 1 reason by far was feeling stressed or overwhelmed.” Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who studies anger, notes that when someone “has that angry feeling, it’s because of a combination of some sort of provocation.” And today, people are constantly feeling provoked, from staff shortages to requests to mask. And our moods aren’t helping as there is a collective animus toward other people.

2. We’re abusing substances. Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, finds that “a lot of these incidents involve somebody using a substance…. Whether they’re drinking before they got on the flight…. A lot of auto accidents, including aggression-driven auto accidents, come from substances.” Drug overdoses have increased since 2019, and drug treatment was hindered by COVID.   

3. We’re social beings and isolation is changing us. As noted in the Atlantic: The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general.” And as Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, notes, “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened…. When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.” As Khazan writes,   

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases, we have stopped being moral, too.

And that, to my thinking, is the heart of the issue. Regardless of the reasons we might give ourselves to justify or overlook bad behavior, the fact of the matter is that we are moral creatures acting immorally. It’s as if we have taken the stress and isolation and let it become a permit to sin.

So will things improve as all things COVID fall to the wayside? Perhaps. But I fear a more likely scenario is that just as the pandemic took existing cultural currents and accelerated them,

… it did the same with our lack of morals.

James Emery White

Sources

Olga Khazan, “Why People Are Acting So Weird,” The Atlantic, March 30, 2022, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.


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