As the COVID-19 pandemic ever so slowly winds down, it is important to look back, reflect, and understand what happened to us before we can move forward with our everyday lives. From this crisis I have many vivid memories, including writing opinion pieces for the News Tribune. I started writing them in June and have had a commentary published every month.
Most of my commentaries related to the pandemic and the associated social upheavals, including calls for racial and economic justice. My main motivation was to help people better make sense of the chaos brought to our world.
After recently re-reading my articles, I realize I neglected to examine a significant pattern that explains how the pandemic caused so many rapid social changes.
The delicate equilibrium between social control and individual freedom was severely disrupted during the pandemic. Attempts at disease mitigation by national and local governments had a cascading effect on almost all human interaction worldwide. With mandatory lockdowns, travel restrictions, vaccination programs, social distancing, and face-masking, most people became painfully more aware of the role of government control over their day-to-day lives.
This heightened awareness of external control and the limitation of personal freedoms made most of us more empathetic and supportive to those victimized by abuses of state authority. This explains why social support for the Black Lives Matters movement increased so dramatically during the pandemic. Excesses by law enforcement that promote racial injustice will no longer be tolerated by the majority.
The Black Lives Matter Network was first formed by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in 2013, just after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. While Black Lives Matters protests were well-known after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, they became much more effective and widespread during the pandemic because of the rising public support for Black Lives Matter that occurred right after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
This connection between the weakening of the bonds of social control and increases in social protests is not limited to Black Lives Matter-organized events. The massive attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was also an example. Like the protests of last summer, this particular event led to extreme violence fed by challenges to law enforcement and the social order.
Another area of protest that is a direct result of the disruption of the balance of social control involves the resistance of government regulations to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Across the U.S. were large protests against lockdowns and the closures of bars, restaurants, sporting events, and other socially based enterprises. Many broke the law by keeping businesses open or violating face-masking or social-distancing rules, including caps on the numbers of people allowed into such facilities.
Protests are now moving onto resistance to state control and the promotion of massive vaccination programs. A significant plurality of people is concerned there has not been enough testing of the drugs that are now being used to stop the pandemic. They are weary of excessive government control in an era of chaos.
Everyone keeps discussing “the new normal.” They forget that the transition to new social boundaries is not a clean and simple process. During massive social change, there is a period of social disintegration that leads to a period of normlessness, where general social rules are no longer observed and social conflict increases.
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim called this period a state of anomie. In his 1893 classic work, “The Division of Labor in Society,” Durkheim described this process by stating: “It is this anomic state that is the cause of the incessantly recurrent conflicts and the multifarious disorders.”
The story of this pandemic has not been just a biological battle between humans and the virus. It also has been a battle among humans over the legitimacy of mechanisms of authority. As the dust settles, it is up to each of us to help build support for legitimate, just, and sustainable norms of social control.
Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor who taught for nearly three decades at Inver Hills Community College. He also is a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.