It was 80 degrees and sunny in New York City, so I was lying slack on the couch, scrolling aimlessly through my phone, when I paused on a photograph shot a few miles away. A throng of people were sunbathing on the green lawn of a Manhattan pier. In the center stood a man in a pair of floral briefs and nothing else. With his arms akimbo and his chin turned artfully to the side, he looked as if he were posing in a bodybuilding lineup. In front of him was a woman with her face thrown up to the sky, her hands rising as if to tousle her hair.
The photograph was taken at an angle that looked straight down the pier, collapsing hundreds of feet of space so that the sunbathers appeared to join together as one golden organism with toned muscles, a Celtic back tattoo and a languid smile. The only indications that this was unlike any other spring reverie were the baby blue surgical masks obscuring the faces of two passers-by.
When that photo and others of the pier appeared on Twitter and Instagram, the scene was exposed to another kind of crowd: people shut into their homes, skin drained of vitamin D, their own spring plans frustrated by stay-at-home orders, sickness or grief. Their replies to the posts swarmed with recriminations: The sunbathers were the picture of privilege; the masks in the photo could be counted on one hand; nobody would feel sorry if they died.
In recent months, similar images — of people strolling on a boardwalk in Dorset, England, relaxing on a beach in Orange County or shopping at a flower market in London — have been dragged around the internet for rounds of judgment. The internet has long been identified as a breeding ground for public shame, but the coronavirus has advanced the game. If some benefit of the doubt between strangers still existed in online discourse, this mysterious, highly communicable and deadly illness has annihilated it.
Now, we are grieving, afraid and confused. We are desperate for an outlet, and indoor finger-pointing is one of the few hobbies still accessible to those sheltering in place. Joggers have been accused of “manspreading” their droplets across public airways. An infant was scolded for appearing maskless outdoors. Somebody called the cops on a guy for playing the trumpet, describing it as an “instrument that uses saliva and wind.”
But the photograph of the crowded public space has become the defining image of Covid shaming. We used to post photos of ourselves picnicking in the park or sunbathing with our friends, and these shaming images look eerily similar to those old tokens of springtime. Except now we’re taking photos of other people, and saying that those people are bad.
In the strange absence of photos documenting the coronavirus death toll, sights of gaiety stand in for the morbid. The Florida attorney Daniel Uhlfelder has tried to make that association literal by dressing as the Grim Reaper and stalking open beaches. To some, the scene on the pier recalled “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting of bourgeois Parisians lounging near the Seine, which is shaded with a rebuke of their leisure-class pursuits.
The people who appear in these crowd shots are often suspected of occupying a privileged tier of society. They may be affluent and white, or at least young and healthy — the kinds of people least likely to be seriously harmed by the virus, or by police. The pier photos circulated just as video emerged of a New York police officer beating and arresting a black man while enforcing social distancing. Of the 40 people the New York Police Department has arrested for social-distancing violations in Brooklyn, only one has been white; during a pandemic, black New Yorkers have several reasons to feel unsafe outside. Social-media shaming is often analogized to “violence” or “policing,” but it looks nothing like actual violent policing.
There are other cultural messages embedded in these photos, too. The images of people gathering on Florida beaches conjure the dynamics of the Florida Man meme, which delights in the broad-brush painting of Floridians as criminally stupid hicks. The Christopher Street Pier, the site of New York’s viral photos, is practically a gay historic landmark — rainbow flags hang from its lampposts — and the outrage resurrects old tropes that gay men make irresponsible and hedonistic use of the body. Those photos were striking not just because the men in the photos were not wearing masks, but also because they were not wearing shirts.
They have also noted that the existence of the photo means that the photographer was also in the crowded place. Flocking outside on a beautiful day, even under the cloud of the virus, is a pretty universal impulse, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recognized that New Yorkers need to do it to maintain our sanity. (He has also ordered the wearing of masks in public only when “unable to maintain” social distance.) What distinguishes the self-appointed enforcers of the crowd are their attitudes. They too may be contributing to the city’s congested public arteries, but at least they don’t like what they see.
Jon Ronson, in his 2015 account of social media ruinings, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” hypothesizes that online shamers believe they are doing a kind of public service. Now that feeling has been wildly elevated: It feels as if shaming could actually save lives. These photos have already inspired policy shifts, elevating internet policing to actual policing: Days after the pier photos were passed around, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced a plan to limit the number of people allowed in some parks.
It’s not clear that further restricting already scarce public space will help prevent the virus’s spread. What it will do is further entrench the power of the police. (De Blasio expressed regret for the racial “disparity” in arrests while continuing to insist that cops are “saving lives.”) But the shaming feels righteous in the moment. I know, from experience, that laying into a stranger online is one of the easiest ways to convert anger into pleasure. Shaming the happy crowd feels like stealing a little piece of their joy.
Most days I feel like both the shamer and the crowd. I have forgotten to wear a mask, and I have eyed the maskless with suspicion. Both the crowds and the shamers are reacting to the same stressor — a catastrophically incompetent government response, which boils down to warning us all to avoid human contact indefinitely.
The day that I saw those sunbathing photos, I went to the park, too, where I picked my way through the pack to get some exercise and see a goose. I have even, in the past several weeks, stretched my body across a public lawn. I’m trying to be careful, but I’m also trying to still feel like a person. I thought I was leaving a safe distance between myself and others, but what did I know? What does anyone? I’m lucky nobody decided that, actually, they did know better, and took my picture to shame me — or worse.