Recently a neighbor of mine asked how I was doing. Sighing, I responded, “I think I have COVID fatigue. The months and months of confinement, uncertainty, bad news, and fear have worn me down, and I don’t have much energy or enthusiasm,” I told him. “It might not be COVID,” he responded. “Maybe you’re like me and have outrage fatigue.” Because so many bad things are happening every day, he said, he and his wife were shutting out the news as much as they could, to keep from shutting down completely.
My neighbor is not a doctor, but I think he diagnosed my problem perfectly: I have both COVID fatigue and outrage fatigue. And perhaps some of you suffer from this dual affliction as well.
COVID fatigue is easy to define and understand, because we have been locked down for nearly 20 months. Ennui is the most common sign.
As for outrage fatigue, I suspect that it is confined to active Democrats, Independents, and old-style (i.e., pre-Trump) Republicans. To figure out if you are suffering from it, just ask yourself how you respond to any of these news stories: the rising death toll among the unvaccinated; COVID’s disparate impact on the poor and minorities; anti-vaxxers; the media’s distorted coverage of anti-vaxxers; Republican-led efforts to restrict the votes of people of color; Gov. Ron DeSantis’ insistence on keeping Florida “open”; the Texas abortion law; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s sending her state’s National Guard to monitor the Texas/Mexico border; Florida Sen. Mario Rubio’s daily Biblical platitudes; Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ regular expressions of “concern”; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to negotiate with Democrats on anything; the GOP’s refusal to condemn the Jan. 6 insurrection; or anything coming from Trump or his sons.
If your internal temperature rises, your dander is up, and you have to force yourself to calm down, you already have outrage fatigue, or soon will.
The outrageous ones have a distinct advantage, because they are largely single-issue folks who don’t get tired, and seem to be focused on making us angry and impotent. They know how to push our buttons, and have been doing it long enough to put us on the sidelines. I think they must wake up every morning pumped to defend the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, or to protest mask mandates, or to work to suppress Democratic votes, or whatever their cause happens to be.
Unfortunately, most of us care about all of these issues. And because we have a limited capacity for outrage, that’s putting our country at risk, as I see it. We care, and right now it hurts to care — but if we shut down and let the outrage triumph, we stand to lose our country to these quasi/neo/actual fascists.
Turning off the news may work for my neighbor, but if we all were to adopt that strategy, the bad guys would win. I think we have to pick our issues, focus on two or three, and trust that others on our side will take care of the rest.
I hope some of you will decide to focus on what’s happening in public education all across the country, because public schools are in the eye of this hurricane, and their survival is threatened. Radical conservatives have always hated the notion of public education, and COVID-19 has offered them numerous opportunities to undercut the enterprise.
For example, Republican legislators in most states have introduced some form of voucher or tax credit, ostensibly to give public dollars to parents to spend on education as they see fit. Of course, the amount isn’t enough to cover private school tuition, so the benefit would go to families whose children are already in private school, and to families who can almost afford it already. Left behind would be the poor and those with disabling conditions, i.e., the children who are most expensive to educate. “Many scholars and observers have raised concerns over the equity impacts of pandemic-era private schooling trends, with the situation in San Francisco providing a stark example: A year after schools first closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the one-third of students in the city enrolled in private school — disproportionately high-income or white, or both — by and large have the option to attend school in-person, full-time. Meanwhile, public school students — disproportionately low-income or students of color, or both — remain in full-time online instruction.”
In some places, it has become downright dangerous to serve on a local school board. Organized rabble-rousers are focusing on school boards that are considering mask mandates, often attending and disrupting meetings, and threatening violence. In some instances, protestors have surrounded board members’ homes, chanting threats. As the Guardian reported recently, “U.S. school board meetings have become battlegrounds for culture wars this year, as schools debated how to resume in-person classes amid the pandemic. Parents have disrupted meetings, refused to wear masks, and threatened school board members. A school board in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that was considering a temporary mask mandate canceled its meeting last week after a crowd of 200 protesters surrounded the building, banged on doors, and shouted at police.”
Want more examples? The News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh, N.C., compiled a list:
- One person was arrested at a school board meeting in Palm Beach County, Fla., in August when he refused to sit down in a room reserved for unmasked people after getting several warnings. Attendees were upset the school board was considering filing legal action over not being allowed by the state to mandate masks.
- Police physically carried out a seated woman from a school board meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in August. The woman had taken off her mask, and refused to put it on or leave the room.
- Protesters shouted, “We will not comply!” when they were asked to mask up at a Louisiana State Board of Education meeting in August. The protest led to the meeting being adjourned, with protesters shouting “Traitors” and “Recall.”
- Anti-mask demonstrators heckled and threatened doctors and nurses who were leaving a school board meeting in Williamson County, Tenn., in August.
- A parent ripped off a teacher’s face mask in Austin, Texas, days before the first day of school in August.
- One person was arrested after a large crowd disrupted a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va. Protesters were upset about critical race theory and a board policy affirming rights for transgender students.
- A Sunday school teacher was arrested after refusing to wear a mask at a New Hampshire school board meeting.
- Charges were filed against 11 people who disrupted a school board meeting in Utah in May by shouting anti-mask messages.
This situation has gotten so bad that the National School Boards Association asked President Biden to intervene. “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” reads the letter signed by NSBA President Viola M. Garcia and NSBA interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven. “The National School Boards Association respectfully asks for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
Teachers are horribly stressed, as are parents. Kids need to be with each other — that’s a critical part of growing up — but they need to feel and be safe.
So if you want to control your own outrage fatigue and at the same time be a force for good, please support your local public school system, its students and teachers, and its leadership. Stay safe … but also stay active!
Retired journalist John Merrow, a two-time winner of the Peabody Award, lives in