The Real Lesson of Ebola Hysteria

What does the Ebola hysteria reveal about our culture?

Two writers I like and respect tackled the topic this week. David Brooks wrote his column on that topic, and made some excellent points. Gracy Olmstead took issue with one of them, and also made some excellent points.

The best thing David said, which I don’t think Gracy quite gave enough credit, boils down to this problem, a problem that I think is one of the most fundamental in today’s America—and to which nonprofits, politicians, and other leaders ought to devote a great deal of thought and attention:

We live in a world where we can affect less and less of what we see, and where we can see more and more.

When the stormwater drains overflow, or the traffic is terrible because a road needs another lane, or some political problem keeps getting worse and worse, we can do little if anything about it. As Brooks points out, most of us are cut off from those in authority. Traffic is an excellent example; studies have shown it is one of the few annoyances of life that is actually cumulative—it makes you madder every time you have to deal with it, which is why road rage becomes an issue. I think an obvious reason is because we can do nothing about it. We are powerless.

Meanwhile, we are aware of more and more problems, as Brooks also points out. Rather than only seeing what’s before our eyes, we are slammed with a 24-hour news cycle of tragedy and fear from around the world. We don’t just have to worry about getting the kids to school—we are supposed to worry about a shooting 2,000 miles away. What is right in front of our faces matters least, and the Big and Important things that will never affect us matter most—a civic and economic calculus in which, as Joy Clarkson pointed out this week, the things that make us most human are the things least prioritized.

The culprits are many and the solution anything but simple. National media players cultivate fear, creating a rhythm of unease for the lives of people who will never be affected by their stories. Suburban “developers” split the soul of a city like a Horcrux into subdivided portions scattered across a megalopolis, with no thought for the common good. Politicians and administrators continue to centralize the political ties of our communities until the “communities” are so big as to make our votes worthless and the ties more so. Every piece of the puzzle colludes to elevate the scale of our existence beyond a level normal people can handle. It would be nice to be able to take them all, shake them, and tell them: this is inhumane. But one can’t do that.

The day before yesterday, I was talking with a friend about voting. He observed that intellectuals seem to be least convinced that voting makes a difference, and your average Joe tends to be most convinced. I think I know why, and it’s not just cynicism. Intellectuals are most likely to have ways to rise above the situation I’ve described.

For example, I just mailed in my ballot for this year’s election. I’m quite plugged into (especially) city politics, and I actually knew some of the people and issues on the ballot. That allowed me to vote more intelligently, but also to know that if a particular issue mattered to me, I had resources beyond the vote—I knew who to call, or what action to take, regardless of who won the election. Most people these days don’t have that resource. Hardly anyone does at the national level. For Average Joe, the vote is almost literally the only tool he has, into which he can channel all his fear, frustration, and aloneness. And yet he still knows he’s a tiny thing in a huge mass of people.

The opportunity before today’s leaders at every level in every sector is this: to find ways to push day-to-day life and its priorities back to a human scale; geographically, politically, and otherwise. To allow people’s minds to open up again to a human-scaled life, where it is socially acceptable to structure their existence around the things that make them human. A situation like that is one goal that informs my voting, and it’s a goal that drives my daily work to help nonprofits rethink how they engage their supporters.

People need such a situation today more than they ever have. If the Ebola hysteria reveals one thing about our culture, it’s that.

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