Defeated: Or How I Failed to Substantially Disagree with Zeynep Tufekci
You’ve probably noticed by now, but Covid-19 is still a thing. I have thus far been avoiding writing anything about it; like everyone else, I’m sick of it. This week, however, I thought I had something worth rousing myself for: This article by The Atlantic contributor and fellow Substacker Zeynep Tufekci.
I was going to rip it to shreds.
For context, the goal of the piece is to convince you to forgo substantial Christmas gatherings until March:
Hunkering down to wait out the coronavirus isn’t easy. The costs of isolation are steep. Quarantine fatigue is real. The chance to gather with extended family and friends this holiday season is particularly alluring to those of us battling loneliness. Ritual is the bedrock of human society, and forsaking it feels even more destabilizing in a year that has already thrown us all off-kilter.
Even so, I have a simple suggestion for anyone contemplating a large gathering this month: Wait until March.
In her Substack companion article, she clarifies that this rationale is specifically aimed at getting your tragically incautious old relatives to stop putting themselves in harms way by promising them that Christmas will still totally happen, so long as they are cool with the Easter Bunny attending:
I have a hopeful piece out today. And there are a lot of reasons for hope this month. My piece makes the case that people who’ve tried and failed to convince their elderly relatives to skip gatherings this holiday season should instead propose to their family members that they postpone it—just till March.
The basic premise behind Zeynep’s recommendation is that things are look set to get better quickly; we have some very promising vaccines on the ground, and things should look a lot better come March. I think this is true - we are talking about something like 50 million people getting vaccinated, and it’s hard to imagine a world where this happens and it doesn’t have a fairly large effect on transmission and death rates. If anything in some ways it makes more sense to ask for restrictions now when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel than it did in April or May, when everything was indefinite.
Zeynep’s doesn’t flesh out the exact numbers she’s thinking of, so it’s hard to tell how confident she is that we won’t have to yank replacement holiday cheer back from our elders come march. But it would be a stretch to say she’s pushing some sort of “here’s a neat trick to fool Dad into staying home” disingenuously, even for the greater good. I think it’s OK here to assume she feels there’s a good chance these equinox yuletides could actually happen in accordance with her standards of safety; she seems sincere.
And to her credit, Zeynep seems to take seriously the loss of non-tangible utility here - she acknowledges in the text of the article that people would be sad to lose Christmas as they’ve known it, and she seems to feel as I do that this kind of loss should only be tolerated in extreme circumstances. I’m not sure how universally she applies this view - I.E. if she’d be as reluctant to apply restrictions to a pleasure someone else held dear but that she didn’t approve of - but in this case I don’t have to know; pretty much everyone likes the winter holidays or at least understands why others do.
To give you some insight into my process, what I find most difficult is finding things to disagree with; I might read a couple dozen articles to find something I think is substantially wrong enough to push back on. When I read this article initially, my internal bullshit sensors went wild; I was 100% sure I was going to demolish it.
Then I spent a day trying to figure out why I disagreed, and things got harder. I managed to narrow things down to these take-aways:
I have a big problem with people who don’t take other people’s ability to do the things they find important seriously. On my initial quick read-through, I came away with the impression Zeynep was doing this. On subsequent rereads, I ended up with the opposite opinion - at least in this case, I don’t have any reason to think Zeynep did this.
Whether or not I disagree with Zeynep substantially on whether or not it’s necessary or justified to make your Mom cancel her Christmas bash, it wouldn’t be fair for me write a piece saying she’s wrong based on mere opinion unless it were clear it was a disagreement on principle. But in terms of principle (not the facts themselves, but how we say we should respond to them) Zeynep and I are pretty close here, closer than I expected would be the case initially and not far enough to justify tearing apart what is otherwise a nice work.
Principle aside, I might disagree with Zeynep on some facts and their implications (and I do, I think) but where I disagree with her I think I’m probably on the fringe. I don’t think I’m wrong or I’d change my mind on those facts, but I’m not so sure on them that I can reasonably say Zeynep (and almost everybody else) is wrong, and if I’m not confident in doing that I don’t have any business disagreeing in a public forum.
The nature of what I’m trying to do is that if I’m successful in convincing you someone is wrong or has argued something incorrectly, it does them some small amount of harm; you’d end up trusting them less and less likely to listen to them in the future. I think that’s a good thing when I’m right, but I have to be careful where I aim that weapon.
At some I found myself re-writing this post to try to seem right where I couldn’t manage to be right, and that’s not what I want to do here or who I want to be. In the future if this happens again I’ll do the same thing I’m doing here: I’ll let you know how my argument against something failed, and recommend the piece that “beat” me. And I do recommend it - it’s a nice article.
Tomorrow I’ll try to flesh out a bit of where I probably disagree with Zeyneb (and nearly everyone else) on some aspects of how we think about the severity of Covid, but this is all I have for you today - I apologize if it wasn’t what you were expecting, but I hope I’m correct that it was the right thing to do.