Coronavirus is bringing out the “Karen” in all of us. For the uninitiated: Karen the meme of a middle-aged, tan-blemished, peremptory woman with a bottle-blonde pixie cut who is a bogey to fast-food workers everywhere.
If you’ve ever worked in the grub industry, you’ve no doubt encountered a Karen, itching to find a quarrel in a straw. Rather than discuss an amicable solution for the lack of syrup in her Diet Coke or mistaking Russian dressing for French, she’d rather circumvent your gratis offerings and go straight to your superior, bypassing basic propriety.
Karen may be an internet meme, but she has grounding in corporeal life. She is representative of a sinister trend: informing on adverse behavior to indirectly mete out punishment. Karen is the reification of our bruit-happy age, an age of tattling.
The novel coronavirus, which has prompted shelter-in-place orders from most states, is giving the Karens in our midst an excuse to unabashedly fly their busybody flag. Woe unto them who learned as children to mind their own business.
A New York City dispatch details how three Brooklynites were arrested recently for violating social-distancing protocol. The unfortunate trio were some of the first Big Bagel burghers nabbed for not complying with six-feet-away diktats. The police report attests that an “informant” ratted on the reprobate group after they failed to heed the buttinsky’s beseechment to disperse.
Whether the grass was well-meaning or well-nagging, it’s difficult to see the salutary effect of informing on social-distance violators, since the accused then have to fight the charge in court, potentially exposing themselves further to the virion.
A humorous write-up in Slate documents the extent to which social isolation is turning once-amiable neighbors into throng narcs. This overeagerness to police proprioception is occasioning 911 calls.
The report, leavened with quotes from community platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook, reads like a backward comedy of manners, with Karen-esque snoops threatening to request the neighborhood manager, e.g. the police. “For all you people waking (sic) and riding bikes!! $500 tickets or arrests good luck! (sic) Stay home please,” reads one example of the homespun notices.
You can almost picture Karen drafting the warning in her Lululemon yoga pants and Gucci slippers, typing it up on her pastel-cased MacBook, acrylic nails furiously clicking butterfly keys.
One Ayn Rand enthusiast recently told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins that the undesignated gap enforcers “[remind] me of my kids who tattle on their siblings when they do something bad.” So they are, except the punishment isn’t losing allowance but legal fees and a criminal record.
This behavior—the appeals to authority, the disregard for comity—may seem petty and a knock-on effect of lockdown ennui, but it’s really encouraged by an enlarged state. As government grows, it crowds out mediating institutions meant to cool tempers and limit interpersonal conflict. But with so much power acceded to the governing class, the civil balance has been tilted, leaving the state not as the last enforcer of public order, but the only one.
The dynamic is exacerbated during a period of decreed quarantine. Confined to our homes, debarred from in-person interaction outside immediate family, we become resentful of our socially deprived purlieu. The more shrewish of us are likely to squeal on evening perambulators who fail to bring a yard stick to ensure nobody invades their personal corona-circumference.
The Wuhan virus is providing the latest examples of a long line of trivial tattling. Other conniptions over pettifoggery include calling the police on parents who commit the heinous crime of letting their children play outside or upon suspicion of striplings manning lawnmowers. Some law enforcement bureaus are encouraging citizens to inform on neighbors who use racist language, the officers regarding themselves as kindergarten cops ready to police the tiniest of taunts.
Professor George Thomas wrote that “the defining feature of totalitarian societies” is the requirement that “each citizen’s most important relationship must be his or her relationship to the state.” The state has an outsized role in our life by virtue of its diffuse reach. Bureaucrats have become the go-to interceders for quarrels that would otherwise be solved through private cooperation.
The coronavirus has laid bare the civically corrosive tendency to pull a Karen and demand swift penalization for any violation of the statutory code. Vaccinologists may soon develop an inoculation to ward off COVID-19, leading to a societal re-opening. The chances of a cure for Karenitis? Not high, especially with our overreliance on officious government.