Nov 17, 2021 • 33M

Fear and Scapegoating in the Time of Pandemics

The surprising connection between pandemics and cancel culture.

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Amna Khalid
Banished is a show about our reassessment of the many people, ideas, objects and even works of art that conflict with modern sensibilities. What can we learn about our present obsession with cancel culture by examining history, and what might it mean for freedom of expression? And how do we reconcile opposing points of view without turning on each other? For subscriber-only content, visit
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Scapegoating particular communities during an epidemic — be it tuberculosis, HIV or COVID-19 — is nothing new. Outbreaks of disease are often accompanied by the demonizing of some portion of humanity that is supposedly the source of the contagion. They are to blame.

Must it be this way? Why do we feel the need to point the finger at each other when threatened like this — even when the threat is ultimately not from people but from viruses or bacteria? And what does this sort of blanket indictment during a health crisis have in common with cancel culture? Host Amna Khalid discusses these pressing issues with Nicholas Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Internal Medicine & Biomedical Engineering at Yale University, and the author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, now out in paperback.


DONALD TRUMP: Covid-19 — that name gets further and further away from China, as opposed to calling it the “Chinese virus.” [Cheers]’s got all different names: Wuhan…

...Chinese virus...

...Kung flu, yes. [Cheers] Kung flu...

AMNA KHALID: That was former president Donald Trump taking every opportunity to suggest that the coronavirus was spread by China — rather than by American apathy and incompetence. Of course, scapegoating particular communities during an epidemic — be it tuberculosis, HIV or Covid — is nothing new. Outbreaks of disease are often accompanied by the demonizing of some portion of humanity that is supposedly the source of the contagion. They are to blame.

Must it be this way? Why do we feel the need to point the finger at each other when threatened like this — even when the threat is ultimately not from people but from viruses or bacteria? And what does this sort of blanket indictment during a health crisis have in common with cancel culture?

Joining me to talk about the connection is Nicholas Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Internal Medicine & Biomedical Engineering education at Yale University. A sociologist and a physician, Christakis directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale and is the author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. He is also a keen critic of cancel culture, especially as it's playing out on college campuses.

Nicholas, thanks for being here.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: Thank you so much for having me.

KHALID: We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Some people think we're towards the end of it, but I believe you describe it as towards the end of the beginning of the pandemic, which I, as an historian of medicine, would very much agree with having studied how epidemics play out. But shortly after we were hit by COVID, you wrote a most phenomenal book called Apollo's Arrow, and I was struck by how quickly you were able to put together what you were seeing, both of how the virus was progressing and the kinds of ways in which it was impacting our society. So can you tell me a little bit about what led you to write that book?

CHRISTAKIS: What happened was I had a long standing collaboration with some Chinese scientists. We had been studying phone data that tracks people's social interactions and their movements, doing a bunch of research on different topics. And it dawned on us in January of 2020 we could use that data to study the spread of the virus. And we scrambled, beginning January 15th, to write a paper that was eventually published in April in the journal Nature about how the flow of people through Wuhan perfectly predicted the timing, intensity, and location of the epidemic throughout China through the end of February. 

So as a result of this, I was paying attention to this virus very early on. And as a result of that, became aware of the fact that on January 24th the Chinese promulgated regulations that required 930 million people to stay at home. In other words, the Chinese saw in the virus an enemy of sufficient magnitude that they basically detonated a social nuclear weapon to stop it. And this really got my attention. Of course, I knew the history of epidemic disease having studied that. And I was following what Chinese, and soon after, Italian scientists were putting online. It was very clear to me this was going to be a serious epidemic. 

And meanwhile, our public discourse was very minimalizing. The president of the United States was saying it'll go away, which is ridiculous. Any expert knew that was false. So I began to send out Twitter threads with sort of basic EPI 101 information about here's what happens with respiratory pandemics. Here's what's going to unfold and so on. And to my amazement, several of those went viral. I think there was a hunger in the United States for sort of basic scientific information about respiratory pandemics. By the middle of March, I began to redirect all the efforts of my lab towards the pandemic — or most of the efforts, not all — March the 15th, I started writing the book and it was due July the 15th, four months later. That was Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

And the reason I was able to write the book so swiftly, I think, is that so much is known about respiratory pandemics. I mean, the thing to understand is that this experience so many of us are having and this way we've come to live right now, which feels so alien and unnatural, is not. Plagues are not new to our species. They're just new to us. We think this is crazy — what's happening — but that's ridiculous. Humans have been interacting with pandemic disease for centuries. I mean, they're in the Bible. They're in the Iliad. The canonical work of Western fiction begins with a plague. They’re in Shakespeare. They’re in Cervantes. This is a part of the human experience. And there is therefore expertise — both human experience and in our religious traditions, in our literary traditions and also scientific expertise, as you mentioned, in medical historians, in epidemiologists. People know. We know about these things. Therefore, pretty much everything that has happened, almost without exception, has been foreseeable.

KHALID: So, as I was reading the book, Nicholas — and for our listeners, I should mention that the paperback version of the book has just come out with a new preface. And if you're listening to this episode, you should go out and get a version because there are substantive differences, I think, between the hardback and the paperback. 

But I want to go back to the book itself. And when I was reading it, what I was struck by was how you explain these really complicated, scientific things in a very accessible fashion. But to my heart, what speaks to me is how you bring precisely what you mentioned — the history of how humans have coped with pandemics — into the frame. Because in our own lifetimes, we've been fortunate in that we have not seen anything of this scale. We've seen, you know, the SARS-1. We've seen a few other — Ebola. But, particularly in the U.S., we've been pretty insulated, I'd say, compared to other historical times. And I just found it fascinating how you were able to weave that into a discussion of what's happening right now. One of the things that I do when I'm teaching my history of medicine course is I tell my students that historians are interested in epidemics precisely because they reveal the fault lines of society. It's like that pressure point where everything that is papering over differences kind of evaporates and you can see what's going on. And we saw that happen this time too. Particular communities get scapegoated. Can you say a little bit about that? I mean, we've heard our prior president talk about the virus as a “China virus,” as “kung flu.” There is demonization of certain peoples.

CHRISTAKIS: One of the things that's so interesting about plagues is that they have a biological and epidemiological existence, but, as you're pointing out, they also have a sociological existence. They bring with them certain psychological, economic, and sociological impacts, which are pretty much invariant. For example, plagues are a time of denial and lies. We see denial and lies for thousands of years. People have said that we have accounts from bubonic plague outbreaks from, you know, 1500 years ago where observers say it's crazy. There's all this superstition around what's happening, you know. Or the emergence of quacks, you know, who sell nostrums to cure the plague that even people in real time observe doesn't work, for example. So the emergence of lies and denial is typical. Fear is typical. Grief — the grief making power of plagues, sort of depression. Marcus Aurelius writes about a plague in Rome, about how worse even than the deaths was the kind of sense of depression that had settled over the city. All of these things that we're experiencing on a psychosocial plane are things that have been observed with plagues in the past. 

And as you're highlighting, one further such thing is this notion of blame, because during times of plague, it is stereotypic to blame others. During, for example, the bubonic plague, the Jews were blamed, right? There was an ascendant antisemitism. Countless Jews in many cities were burned at the stake or buried alive, blamed wrongly — of course — for the plague. During HIV, for example, gays were blamed or Haitians were blamed or IV drug users were blamed. And during this epidemic, we've seen that Asians are blamed or migrants are blamed. 

Part of the reason, I think, psychodynamically we are so eager and willing to blame others is that the alternatives are more frightening. So another alternative is that the plague is the workings of an implacable God, right? That God is bringing annihilation to us, right? That's scary. Or another alternative is that the plague is the inexorable workings of the natural world. Well that's frightening too. Whereas if you imagine that human agency is responsible, that some other humans are causing the plague, then you might imagine, in a soothing sort of way, that human agency might cause the plague to remit, that there's something we can do to stop it. But even within the category of blame — this issue of who gets blamed and why do we blame certain other groups of humans? On the one hand, there have been voices that have said kill the other. The other is responsible. There have also always been voices that have said no, that's not the case. For example, even during the first outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1340s, Pope Clement VI, during this wave of anti-Semitism, in an astonishing set of statements for a sitting pope — by the way, he comported himself remarkably humanely during this whole episode, taking great personal risk, having real sorrow and sympathy for the plight of human beings — he observed, just very logically, he goes, it couldn't possibly be the Jews that are responsible because they're also dying. You know, just very basic reasoning, you know, like the plague is killing everyone. Why would the Jews be doing this to themselves? 

Or Saint Cyprian — and I'll just read this — people have often said, well, why wouldn't the emergence of a common threat — like a plague is like a shared enemy — why wouldn't it bind human beings together? So here is an observation by Saint Cyprian. During the third century of the common era, there was another plague in Rome. Rome was about a million people in those days, which is astonishing. 5,000 people a day were dying, and Saint Cyprian said, “It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others...So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality.” This idea that we're all together in this, facing this common threat, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be divided by these superficial differences, this tension between no, there shouldn't be a bright line between us and them, or yes, there should be a bright line between us and them is also an ancient feature of plagues.

KHALID: I'm loving the fact that you're drawing out this tension because I think this tension is at the heart of how we deal with pandemics. You've got these two forces contending with each other. At one level, you've got people — even during the Black Death — who believed that this is a curse from God for not caring for the poor. But coming back to the implications of scapegoating and essentially, you know, for banishing people — people have been banished during times of pandemics and for chronic illnesses as well. There is the idea of “leper” colonies and people who were sent away who were suffering from leprosy. And it was not just a physical death that they were sent towards, but there is very distinctly a social death that takes place. Can you comment and reflect on that a little bit in light of what's happening today as well?

CHRISTAKIS: If you think about it, short of killing someone or maiming them, ostracizing them is a very powerful sanction. Ostracism comes from the Greek word ostrakon, which means little shards of pottery that they would write someone's name in to ostracize. Or there are many traditional societies where a witchdoctor, a traditional healer, might sort of identify who is the person who is responsible for the woes in our group, and that person would be cast out. Or sailors' accounts, you know, of why a ship has suffered a calamity, and it must be because this person on our ship is bad, that person would be flung overboard, for example. So there are many, many ways in which this idea of purging a group of an individual might somehow represent a kind of catharsis. And be, by the way, a very serious sanction to the person that was sent out, whether guilty or innocent. Many of the examples I just gave are innocent people being sacrificed for the benefits of the group. Sometimes they are guilty parties and we don't want to execute them, but let's say we'll banish them, which was a bad, bad sanction in old days. Now, the reason it's such a bad sanction is that we are actually social animals. It is very vulnerable to be on your own. To be cast out of a group and to have to survive on your own elicits a lot of very serious anxieties in human beings because, in our ancestral past, to be on your own was risky. So banishment, whether as a punishment for a bona fide crime or as a kind of immoral, I would say, act of purification — I mean, you see this in, for example, in the Cultural Revolution, you know where people were picked from a group and everyone else got to feel good because they cast out this person. This is a perverse reflection of a very fundamental human fear and even a human tendency.

KHALID: Yeah, there is a kind of in-group and outgroup, right? This kind of tribalism that suddenly can get very starkly reinforced.

CHRISTAKIS: We see that also, by the way, in the suboptimal way our country has responded to the pandemic. So, for example, in my view, we have needlessly politicized things like mask wearing and vaccination. I think it's wonderful that we live in a plural democracy. We have a range of political beliefs about all kinds of topics. And we resolve our differences how? Not by force of arms, we vote. That's what we do in our society. We vote to resolve our differences. And I would rather live in the kind of heterogeneous political pluralism than in a political monoculture. So I like the fact that we have a civilized way — to the extent possible — of resolving our differences, which is terrific. But this idea that you're going to signal your political affiliation by whether you choose to get vaccinated or not is really dumb. The vaccine should be seen as a kind of technocratic, apolitical tool. If people wanted to politicize whether you got Moderna or Pfizer, I think that would still be stupid. But if they want to politicize whether you get a vaccine at all, I mean, I think that's just not only illogical but self-injurious.

KHALID: We've talked about this tension and this tribalism that is present, but I would argue that the coronavirus or a disease is a historical agent in its own right in that it acts and causes change in a way that exacerbates existing tendencies and sometimes even sows the seeds — it's not just exacerbation — but sometimes even sows the seeds of new kinds of rifts within society. How would you respond to that?

CHRISTAKIS: Anything that puts stress on a society, whether a war or a famine or a natural disaster like a major earthquake or a plague highlights divisions or stresses in a society. It can also elicit wonderful qualities. There's a whole literature on the communities that form in the wake of disaster, for example. So, when people are flung out of a city and they're living in a camp and how they help each other out, you know. There are, of course, criminals and thieves and others who take advantage of the situation, but people tend to bond together in these types of things. 

I think that the virus struck us at a particularly vulnerable moment from the point of view of the intellectual fabric of our society. So there were a number of macro trends that were happening. First of all, we were at century level highs of economic inequality. We had historically very high levels of political polarization, which political scientists have documented. Those were in the background. In addition, we had a kind of anti-elitism — partly reflecting that inequality — and swept up in that anti-elitism was a kind of anti-scientism. Scientists were seen as just another kind of elite that was feeding at the public trough, which is kind of, in my view, a wrong way to see scientists. It's like seeing judges as an elite. You know, like the judges are feeding at the public trough because they're paid by our taxes. Well no, we don't see judges as a constituency, right? We don't see judges as an interest group. Some people have come to see scientists that way. And we also, as a nation, seem to have lost the capacity for nuance, right? Like we had these conversations in which everything is black or white or you’re with me or you're against me, again reflecting the kind of politicization of so many of our disagreements, as you just said. 

So all of these things were happening in our society when the virus struck. And I think it really exploited that. I think many more thousands of Americans died because we were unable as a nation to come together, and, by the way, in my view, with the previous administration, were poorly led at the level of the White House. We were not well led. You could have come and you could have said, you know, the American people are being attacked by this external virus. We need to come together to rebuff this. We need to work together as a nation. There's a kind of appeal — almost a jingoistic appeal — that could have been made that I think would have been appealing to the right and the left politically that could have worked. I do fault the White House, but there were Democratic governors who also did a lousy job — and mayors. But the White House is the White House, right? I think the inability of the White House to organize an effective national response is sort of the flip side of the unwillingness of much of the citizenry to face up to the unpleasant reality. The plague struck and exploited or exacerbated a variety of ongoing problems in our society.

KHALID: When you wrote your book and the hardcover came out, at that point, the lab leak theory was really pooh-poohed and wasn't really something that was being considered as a possibility. And between that and your next edition, people are thinking differently about it or new evidence has come to light. Could you reflect on where you stand right now on that?

CHRISTAKIS: People early on were saying that there was no evidence that this was an engineered bioweapon. I think those people advancing that theory were seen as a little bit of like conspiracy theorists. When you make extraordinary claims, you need to have some evidence for the claim. Many people acknowledge that it was possible that this was a leak from a lab, but they thought — and I was one of them — that it was more likely that this was a zoonotic leap rather than a lab leak. So one theory is that this was a virus that was brought back from the wild into the laboratory for study and then inadvertently leaked. And that is, by the way, still possible. We don't have good evidence one way or the other. And certainly, Chinese secrecy about this raises suspicions. The other idea is that there was some unobserved natural leap from a bat to a human probably in sort of the second half of 2019. And that theory, I think, is still more likely, partly because we know there are many such zoonotic leaps. You mentioned some. Ebola is a zoonotic leap. SARS-1 in 2003 was a zoonotic leap. Influenza is a zoonotic leap. Zika virus, hantavirus, HIV. All of these things we've all lived through, these are all zoonotic leaps, well documented zoonotic leaps. It happens and it's happening increasingly. In fact, there's some evidence that the zoonotic leaps are happening increasingly partly because of climate change, if you can believe it. So there's a deep connection between climate change and pandemic disease. And so, I still think that is probably what happened in this case, but I can't be sure. There's no reason to politicize this. We'll go wherever the evidence leads us. I mean, I don't have a political dog in this fight.

KHALID: But this is the part that's interesting, right? Like you said, we can wait for the evidence, but there is this tendency, again, to go down that blame route, to try and see it as maliciously intentioned and something that has a conspiracy behind it. With HIV, in your book, you were reflecting on how the gay population got scapegoated and you said it just so happens that the virus settles in a particular community and that is the one that gets stigmatized. It's not necessarily inherently anything about that community. 

Another kind of parallel movement in our society, particularly American society, where cancelations are on the rise, where somehow there is this fear of contagion of ideas, and therefore we can't even bear to listen to anyone who holds a viewpoint that is contrary to us, and we must banish them. You know, we must cancel them. It's happening all around us, but it's happening in institutions of higher education which should be the places where we slow down, take a step back, and like you said, wait for the evidence and think things through. But that's not what's going on. Do you see similar dynamics in our social ways of dealing with difference?

CHRISTAKIS: You know, the contagion of ideas can be modeled in ways similar to the contagion of germs. And my laboratory has done a lot of work on spreading processes and social networks. We've developed a lot of data sets and mathematical models and ideas that are highly relevant to understanding such phenomena. On the issue of silencing one's opponents, the desire to silence one’s opponents is a very primitive and ancient desire as well. But I think it's a weak desire. You know, if you're so confident in the integrity and validity of your ideas, win the battle of ideas. Argue. Bring evidence and data and rhetoric and logic to the field of battle and win. It's only people who lack confidence, in my view, who actually secretly suspect that maybe their ideas are not valid, that seek to silence their opponents, to prevent their opponents from speaking.

And we see this on the right and on the left. For example, on the right they don't want to fund gun research, gun epidemiology research. Why would you not want to fund basic research on how guns kill people? Well, maybe you're afraid that if we find such evidence, it might lead to new policies that you disagree with. And rather than winning the battle of ideas and arguing about the policies, you're like, well, let's just suppress the evidence. Same with climate change. On the left, things having to do with gender, the biological reality of sex, for example. People would rather suppress such evidence or contort such evidence rather than engage with the evidence in a very, you know, mature way and recognize the subtleties and the nuance in any of these topics. Or in behavior, genetics is another topic that the left doesn't want to explore — you know, the role of genetics in human behavior. This is weak minded, in my view. I would rather have a full airing of people's ideas. And I would rather try to create institutions in our societies like universities, which are special places for such airing. And incidentally, as James Mill famously said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of it.”

Your ideas get stronger when you test them against opponents. Why — when you fight in martial arts, why do you bow to your opponent? You're grateful to your opponent for giving you an opportunity to perfect your own skills. You couldn't do that without an opponent, right? It's the same in intellectual battle — you need to test your ideas. Whether it's scientific claims about the world or philosophical stances about the world, I think they get better in the crucible of contention. And so, this is why I am gravely concerned that there are many topics which have become taboo on university campuses, on the left and on the right. It's below a great nation like ours, and it's below our best universities to fall prey to such desires, to create a culture of censorship. What happens typically is that someone is cast out. Like someone is identified for like a minor delict and is cast out, and that has a real silencing effect on everyone else. People are oh, better not discuss that topic. The costs are too high of discussing that topic, and it's dropped.

KHALID: Yeah, this is an excellent point, and I've actually had a few people push back and say well, you know, there’re not that many professors who've been canceled recently, if you count the numbers compared to the proportion. It's not about the actual numbers of people who are being canceled, but those who are subsequently silenced and who are self-censoring for fear of being canceled. There is this parallel of the fear that we're facing with the pandemic and this fear that is now being cultivated through these kinds of cancelations and scapegoating of people.

CHRISTAKIS: I may bungle this example, and there may be listeners of yours who know more about it. But my understanding of training to become a SEAL — you know, an elite warrior — is that there is an exercise early on in that training where they throw all the men and women into the water and there's a little raft and everyone has been issued like a little tripod and you start treading water. And they tell them all, you will all tread water until one of you climbs up onto this raft and sets up their little tripod and rings the bell and gives up. Then we'll let the rest of you out of the water. And these soldiers tread water for 24 hours until finally one person gives up. So the SEAL — the trainers are willing to sacrifice one guy early on for the benefits of solidarity that accrue to everyone else, where everyone else feels we made it. We're good material. It's us. You know, we are now us because we have symbolically cast out a member of our erstwhile community. People get this kind of free zone, this kind of sense of solidarity by sacrificing someone. 

And many of these cases of cancelation that we have seen have this element. There's a case at the Yale Law School right now where a Native American student who's politically on the right sent out, innocently — we now have on record that he was unaware that his lighthearted party invitation could be seen by some other people as having racist connotations. He referred to having a party at his “trap house.” This is a slang I was previously unfamiliar with, but if you look it up, it's been used by many people with nonracial connotations for quite a long time now. Its primary definition does not have racial connotations. He mentioned the foodstuffs that would be available, which included apple pie and fried chicken at this event. Turns out he didn't even pick the fried chicken. It was a convenient fast food store near their house. One of his roommates had made that selection. He sends out an announcement, and nine people at Yale Law School — primarily African Americans — were so offended by this that they reported him to some deans who then called the student in and tried to engineer an apology from him. And then the student was denounced by this body within the university that his email was racist and pejorative, even though on record — we now have audiotapes of the conversation. It was clear he had no idea. And they told him they believed him that he had no idea. Nevertheless, they denounced him. And then everyone is circling the wagons now, reading his actions in the most uncharitable way. To me, this seems like a situation in which they're trying to cast out an innocent person in order to make themselves feel better and build group solidarity and police the margins of acceptable discourse. All of which is wrong, in my view.

KHALID: You know, the irony is that this is happening at a law school, which is all about teaching students how to pass out evidence, how to think through who is responsible, and how you hold them responsible. And also, one of the key elements of legal schooling is to learn there is the action but then there is the intention. And you cannot discount the intention. The intention is what makes the difference between the verdict for manslaughter versus murder. 


KHALID: Somehow that has been completely erased from our conversation right now.

CHRISTAKIS: There was no due process. There was no right to confront your accusers. It was so unlawyerly from start to finish, as far as I can tell, ignoring some of these philosophical elements that are so important in our jurisprudence. It's embarrassing. And furthermore, some of the students claim that this party invitation from this guy was physically harmful to them, they claimed, in a kind of histrionic language that I think needs to be called for what it is. They use the term “never again,” which is a phrase we usually use when talking about genocide. We say genocide should never happen again. These are very extreme statements, really unwarranted in this type of a situation. The uncharitable reading, the witch hunt mentality, the over involvement of administrators in business they really shouldn't be involving themselves in, the attempts at forced apology — you know, they drafted an apology note for him to sign and then threatened him with reporting him to the bar if he didn't sign it. There's so many elements of this case that are just shameful.

KHALID: The parallels are really striking between how communities and pandemics are scapegoated and how people, right now, for their speech are being ostracized and being blamed. And the implications — what we were talking about earlier about a social death — are very real because these kinds of cancelations and attacks and censorship have implications for people's lives in very real ways.

CHRISTAKIS: Just imagine being widely reviled. I mean, it's one thing if you are a murderer and you're widely reviled. Imagine if you're not. There was a case at Dartmouth a few years ago of a chair of a department of psychology who was wrongly accused of being complicit — falsely and wrongly accused of being complicit in sexual harassment done by other professors. And he was rejected by the local community. People would see him in the grocery store and take it upon themselves to denounce him. And this man eventually took his own life. I mean, this is appalling. It is extremely painful to be cast out of a community. And it is not a light sanction to impose, especially unjustly. This is not a civilized way to act, in my view. I think there are better ways to handle the stumbles that people sometimes make around many hot button issues in our society. And I would especially like to see us do better at our best universities.

KHALID: Thank you, Nicholas. I feel like that's a good way to converge the two conversations. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CHRISTAKIS: Amna, thank you so much for having me. 

KHALID: Nicholas Christakis is a physician, a professor at Yale, and author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live — which is now out in paperback. It’s a book I highlighly recommend to all Banished listeners. 

My conversation with Christakis, as you heard, called to mind the protocol for casting out those suffering from leprosy in Medieval England. Here is an excerpt from a set  of instructions used by the diocese at Salisbury for banishing a “leper” —  in the parlance of the time:

The priest casts earth on each of his feet saying “Be thou dead to the world, but alive again unto God.” Then the priest must lead him from the church to his house as a dead man, chanting libre me Domine, in such ways that the sick man is covered with a black cloth. Then when he comes into the open fields … he ends by imposing prohibitions on him in the following manner:

I forbid you to ever enter churches or go into a market or a mill or in any assemblies of people.

I forbid you henceforth to go out without your leper’s dress, that you may be recognised by others; and you must not go outside your house unshod.

I forbid you henceforth to eat or drink in any company except that of lepers.

I would encourage you to heed the advice of Nicholas Christakis and imagine being reviled by many thousands of people for some perceived transgression. Really sit with that for a while and then ask yourself: Are the judgements of Medieval clergy so different from those of Twitter mobs or university administrators today? Is one social death really less painful than another? Less barbaric? Less, oh, I don’t know, medieval? 

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Banished is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. And I, as always, am Amna Khalid.