“Pandemic” would be a reasonable guess for Dictionary.com’s choice for the “Word of the Year” in 2020.
In my memory, nothing has consumed our public and private lives with the intensity that has been caused by the presence and spread of this virus.
Observations have suggested it has brought out the best of us, as brave persons in several areas of our life have put themselves at serious risk to respond to the medical challenge of a novel and exceedingly contagious disease.
Others have noted we have also seen the darker side of our humanity, as the challenge has led to the weaponizing of the virus in the ever-present political game of seeking advantage.
We have seen both selfless courage accepting the challenge and self-centered efforts to recast the challenge in ways to deny and avoid responsibility.
Also, claims of personal rights have challenged a public commitment to the common good of protecting as many as possible from infection, with gun-toting demonstrations against the “tyranny” of regulations.
The reality of the pandemic will be with us until we come to terms with what it takes to move beyond it.
Images of some of the posturing will take a place in history along with those who stood in schoolhouse doors to resist desegregation, to challenge the teaching of evolution and to persist in such ideologies as white supremacy.
History’s jury is sometimes slow in its deliberations, but its verdict eventually comes out right.
There is another pandemic on the horizon that has the potency to threaten our society on another level.
Its early symptoms are already showing up and infecting the vulnerable parts of our national family.
This virus does not affect the lungs, as its natural physical counterpart does. Rather it is an intellectual, moral and spiritual virus that infects the soul of the populace and blinds it to what in our more peaceful times we embrace as the truth.
I refer here to the well-honed practice of creating and disseminating misinformation designed to distract and reshape public perceptions of reality.
This tactic is used to gain advantage, particularly political advantage, over competition in the appeal for support in our democratic process.
Campaign rhetoric seems always to have engaged in spin and slant to create perceptions that favor the one offering it.
We have come to expect that, just as we have accepted the slants of advertising to influence sales of a product in the marketplace.
Recent years have seen a technologically enhanced sophistication of such rhetoric into carefully designed misinformation packaged and presented through the proliferation of social media outlets.
Such distribution has proved remarkably effective in influencing the thinking of the populace, especially those with fact-and-discernment challenged vulnerabilities.
The pandemic ravaging our citizenry with nearly 100,000 U.S. deaths over the course of just over two months began as an accidental infection of a novel virus.
The disease spread exponentially through unintentional contacts with a speed that outpaced, and continues to outpace, responses in mitigation, treatment and research for its elimination by vaccine.
No one meant for this to happen (conspiracy theories notwithstanding) and its spread has not been intentional.
The spread and disastrous effects of this virus have had many causes (neglect, carelessness, lack of knowledge of its seriousness), but deliberate, intentional planning for its effects has been discounted as soon as a conspiracy theory has appeared to suggest it.
By contrast, the pandemic of misinformation emerging and beginning to do its work is very much intentional and deliberate.
It is neither an accident nor an example of the normal campaign rhetoric we expect in political contests.
The cartoon caricature of the mad scientist in his lab concocting up a potion that will have disastrous effects on the population is just that – a cartoon caricature.
The frightening thing is real people are using their God-given creative and technological talents to concoct misinformation and mal-information and ensuring its wide and effective distribution among folks who will have a voice in the direction we as a national family will go.
Like the medical pandemic, this one will prey upon the most vulnerable, who will find in it an appeal to their fears and prejudices and who will assist its spread by sharing it on social media.
It is sad that years of devaluing education and reducing knowledge to sound-byte “gotchas” have rendered us as vulnerable as we are to the virus of misinformation.
It is even sadder there is no universally accepted moral vaccine against its infection and no effective treatment once the infection is set.
Perhaps a careful use of CPE (communal protective equipment) in the form of a question will help: “Does this information coming at me (1) square with facts that are easy to discover and (2) does it serve the well-being of all parts of the human family or does it serve a more limited agenda?”
Not only might this ethical equivalent of mask and sanitizing protect us from infection, it might also model for others a way to be safe from this pandemic.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).