Tonight I want to talk about something I’m calling normalcy theater, it’s me co-opting the term security theater so let’s start by defining what that term means.
Security theater, as explained by Bruce Schneier on CNN, is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders.
When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.
Like security theater, normalcy theater only exists around an emergency, I don’t know, let’s say for discussions sake, a pandemic. Normalcy theater is the point at which it’s politically expedient to take some action that will make people feel like things have returned to normal.
We’re seeing a lot of normalcy theater nationally and interestingly seeing it in two incredibly different ways. On one hand we see limited and relatively unenforceable regulations put in place that allow the politicians to take actions to return things to a more “normal” state. In some ways, mask mandates fit this bill, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s been well demonstrated that masking helps prevent the spread of COVID. Common sense would also tell you this, if it had no positive impact in preventing the spread of disease, why are they used in every single hospital. However, walk into any gym right now and you’ll see plenty of masks under noses, which makes them utterly useless as well as plenty of the ever present chin diapers. So, people are wearing a mask, just completely ineffectively and there is usually little to no enforcement.
Another example are “vaccine mandates for campuses.” Some of these are legitimate as faculty, staff or students who are not vaccinated are not allowed on campus. But this is still a little dubious, as almost no campuses are closed systems and all have some level of public access. But for many campuses, “vaccine mandate,” means if you’re not vaccinated you have to wear a mask and/or submit to a regular testing regimen. So not exactly a mandate but more of a do this, or do this other thing. So vaccine mandate is great terminology in terms of security and normalcy theater. Vaccine mandate makes it sound like if you are vaccinated and come to campus, you’ll only be in contact with other fully vaccinated people, which makes people feel safer. Of course, if non-vaccinated people are not barred from campus, then you’ve got a great sounding policy, while not alienating the non-vaccinated folks who want to come to campus, or those voters who don’t believe in being vaccinated.
On the other side of the coin we have normalcy theater in a completely different way. You see those politicians making claims that COVID isn’t really that serious. They play on the lack of data competency of the general public by throwing around 98% survivability stats as well as over play health and welfare impacts of anything that would impact the economy. Using these techniques they call anyone concerned about the virus Chicken Little and profess we have to return to normal for our own good. We’re seeing a lot of this right now in the educational systems of Texas and Florida and unsurprisingly, corresponding infection rates in non-vaccinated students. In one Florida school district last week 8000 students were isolated or quarantined due to COVID infections. But it’s ok, things are back to normal, kids are in school.
All across America last week, this week and next week college campuses will be springing to life. Orientation sessions, campus tours, classes starting, opening week events and socials as well as the annual convocations where we all get to hear our leader’s vision for the year. For many campuses, under pressure of politicians whether state, federal or local boards, campuses are returning to “normal.” So many of these functions will be fully or partially in-person. But all will be planned in such a way to maximize the appearance that everything is back to normal.
Beware of this normalcy theater, as I talked about recently in a post of the hardest semester of your career, Fall 2021, this fall will be an incredibly complicated semester. Falling under the impression things are somehow back to normal is likely to make it even more complicated for you.
I’ve been running a number of programs face to face, on campus since May of 2020. We’ve had roughly 200 students (headcount) participating in these programs. Given the seriousness of the spreading pandemic through last spring and fall, I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we didn’t have a single case of COVID transmission on campus. I attribute this to a number of things. First, these were primarily cohorted programs, so there’s a greater sense of community which leads to people caring about each other and being more protective of each others health and welfare. Second, we were incredibly tight with protocols and rules, and society was still scared of COVID. Finally, there was still support from government in terms of social distancing and mask mandates.
But under our current state of normalcy theater, where our political leaders, responding to people being tired of pandemic rules, have started to relax safety measures, and as a result we’re all likely to see infections on our campus. If you are someone, like me, who manages faculty and classified professional staff you know we are not back to normal. You’ve had plenty of conversations with folks, who after being remote for a year, are no longer in the area, don’t have existing childcare options or are nervous about returning to campus.
So as we play the don’t look over here, everything is normal game with the public. Internally our campuses are going through massive changes and turmoil. So beware the normalcy theater my friends, this semester may be dressed up as, but will be nothing close to normal.