Coronavirus Taboos: Primal Fear of Contagion

Dawn Perlmutter, What a pandemic has awakened in human nature — and ignited in long suppressed tribal instincts.

You go to the supermarket wearing a mask and gloves. You wince every time you pick up a piece of fruit or vegetable wondering how many other people touched it or worse coughed on it. You fill your cart as fast as you can trying to buy only prepackaged foods. Then you brace yourself for the fear and loathing of the checkout line. Your anxiety increases because the person in line is standing too close to you. You see that the cashier just handled cash, OMG cash, you are frantically trying to remember what they said about how long the virus lives on money. Decision after decision, plastic or paper, you want to save the sea turtles, but does it live longer on paper or plastic, a moral dilemma. You finally make it to your car. You put the groceries in, you start the car and breathe a sigh of relief. Then you realize that you didn’t take your plastic gloves off until after you touched the steering wheel. More anxiety realizing you just contaminated the wheel and used the last of the wipes you keep in the car. Prior to the pandemic anyone even remotely thinking and behaving this way would be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The coronavirus pandemic has awakened a dormant primal fear of contagion and long suppressed tribal instincts. Throughout history, rites of purity evolved to protect communities from both physical and spiritual contamination by designating specific things as taboo and impure. Customs, rules, prohibitions and highly codified notions of impurity evolved to avoid dangerous contagion. Impurity is not just manifested in disease it is also associated with enemies, corpses, bodily functions, corruption, social upheaval, violence, strange, anomalous or inexplicable phenomena, and contact with ‘others.’ Often referred to as ritual uncleanness, impurity is an inherent quality of taboo things. Whether in the form of a specific virus or mob violence, impurity is experienced as a form of contagion because it is believed that it may spread from one individual or object to other members of society.

Impurity is intrinsically intertwined with designated societal taboos and can only be mitigated by purification rituals. Rites of purity are found in all known cultures and religions, are expressed in a wide variety of forms, and function to remove specifically defined uncleanness. Until the coronavirus pandemic the concept of impurity in American culture was primarily relegated to toilet training and the academic field of anthropology.

Many new rituals, social conventions and taboos surrounding hygiene, food, clothing and other customs have evolved to mitigate contagion of the virus. The fear of infection has resulted in taboos on handshaking, hugging or coughing in public. Purification rituals now include a variety of ablutions such as ritual hand washing, repetitive cleaning and regular disinfecting of doorknobs and other surfaces.  New social conventions include mask and glove wearing, taking shoes off indoors, leaving packages outside and not touching your own face. These and other significant changes took hold in just three weeks. Fear of deadly contagion is a powerful influence.

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Social distancing has awakened another dormant instinct, tribalism. The consequences of primal fear of infection is that you only feel safe in your home, among your family and in your community. Tribal communities are closed orders and are characterized by an ‘us versus them’ philosophy. Enforcing boundaries, borders and territories is no longer an option when it is a matter of survival. When it is ‘you versus them’ you cannot afford the luxury of political correctness, multiculturalism or cultural diversity unless you want to risk dying from excessive virtue signaling. Ironically, identity politics is inherently tribal so as long as the protected classes continue their elitist exclusionary policies, they will survive to continue fighting over which one of them is most discriminated against.

In tribal societies communities have to cleanse themselves by excluding, expelling, or proscribing the things and people whose presence contaminates the community. The coronavirus epidemic immediately elicited innate tribal instincts. Florida, North Carolina, Rhode Island and vacation towns across the country began implementing special prohibitions on people entering their states from places with high infection rates. Local officials in the Outer Banks area of North Carolina required proof of permanent residence in order to access the area. Florida and Rhode Island governors ordered all incoming New Yorkers to self-quarantine. Florida set up checkpoints on Interstate 95 and other northern borders to screen motorists traveling from the New York City area. Rhode Island’s National Guard and state police stopped motorists with New York license plates and went door-to-door to enforce the quarantine. Tribal instincts emerge when it is a biological imperative.

Media reports of people transgressing the new taboos by intentionally coughing on produce and spitting in people’s faces increased fear and tribalism. Customers at a Stop and Shop grocery store in Kingston, Massachusetts had to tackle a man who coughed and spat on produce. Violation of purity taboos not only results in physical contamination but breaking a taboo is the equivalent of unleashing corruption, social upheaval, violence and evil upon the community. When one person can easily contaminate the entire community dread of coronavirus infection escalates from a physical threat and is experienced as an existential fear.

Tribal cultures interpret the world through magical thinking. Unlike rational thought, magical thinking is completely unscientific and a reverse reasoning of causal relationships. While some purification rituals such as washing your hands are based on science and understood as a method of avoiding germs to mitigate the physical threat, fear of contagious evil requires magical thinking to mitigate the existential threat of impurity.

Outsiders are not only impure but more significantly, they begin to symbolize evil in the form of contagious pollution. The impure ‘other’ is experienced both physically and spiritually as a mysterious and harmful substance of the outside world which keeps attacking, contaminating, defiling, and infecting your grocery store, your neighborhood your community. Families have to protect themselves and their communities against this threat of defilement and have to expel it once the contamination has taken place. Violence as an expiation ritual is justified.

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Obsessive, chronic behaviors performed to ward off feelings of uncleanness are fertile ground for the fomenting of violence, intolerance and fear. Extremists understand the fear of contagion and are exploiting the coronavirus to recruit, indoctrinate and inspire attacks against non-whites, Jews and law enforcement. The symbolism of contagion is found throughout extremist propaganda in both overt and subliminal images and language. It is calculated to stigmatize ‘others’ as infectious disease to evoke fears of contagion, death and annihilation. Relegating the other to disease makes it easier to commit violence.

Extremists have repackaged antisemitic conspiracy theories for the coronavirus to incite hatred and fear. Extremists have a long history of adopting Nazi themes and symbols in their propaganda including the strategy of depicting Jews as dirty, filthy, impure life-threatening agents of disease and corruption. Accusing Jews of creating pandemics, disease and more goes all the way back to the black plaque. Muslim and Arab media exploited the 2009 swine flu epidemic to stigmatize Jews as infectious disease and extremists are currently accusing Jews of creating the coronavirus to seize power and money.

Recent white supremacists’ communications suggested targeting law enforcement agents and non-white people with attacks designed to infect them with the coronavirus. They said it was an “obligation to spread it should any of them contract the virus.” Extremists detailed several methods for coronavirus attacks including spending time in public with perceived enemies, leaving “saliva on door handles” at local FBI offices, spitting on elevator buttons and spreading coronavirus germs in “nonwhite neighborhoods.” Also spraying saliva from spray bottles on the faces of law enforcement and committing crimes and leaving coronavirus laced items at the scene for detectives to find.

Extremists know exactly how to exploit and trigger deep seated fears of contagion. They exploit vulnerable and frightened people who feel that their way of life is being threatened. They blame the disease on non-whites, Jews and law enforcement to target them as the community scapegoats. They understand that primal fear of contagion requires ritually purging the community of the evil dirty polluted ‘other’. Violence is sanctioned and justified because it has been transformed into a purification ritual. Instead of killing police, Jews and non-whites you are just cleansing the community of contagious disease. Primal fear of contagion generates primal violence. Rational thinking is replaced with tribal magical thinking, law and order is replaced with law of the jungle. Culture devolves quickly.