The increasingly popular r/HermanCainAward subreddit on Reddit.com is a distressingly predictable sign of America’s conflict-filled times. The subreddit, which now has upwards of 340,000 followers, “celebrates” those “who have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views,” only to die from Covid-19 or Covid-related complications. (It is named for Herman Cain, the former GOP presidential candidate and businessman who died from Covid-19 complications in 2020 after attending a Trump campaign rally in Oklahoma.)
With many regions in the United States still struggling to control this plague, attention has not surprisingly focused on the minority of Americans who have, for various reasons, refused to get vaccinated. A dark and sardonic corner of the internet, the r/HermanCainAward subreddit captures the rage and outrage of presumably vaccinated, mask-wearing individuals, many of whom have either been infected with Covid-19 in the past or have watched friends and family become ill — and even die.
This push to revel in schadenfreude, and to assign collective blame, is understandable and more than a little expected, especially on the internet. But this so-called award also captures the collective loss of empathy that colors so many of our political and personal conversations right now. Like soldiers who have been trained to see their enemies as less than human, we have forgotten that those who disagree with us are, despite everything, still people.
I personally understand the rage. I have watched good friends, colleagues and family — vaccinated, careful and regular mask wearers — become seriously ill with breakthrough Covid infections. It’s infuriating to think that all the steps you take to stay safe could be rendered meaningless because some thoughtless, misinformed or intentionally hurtful person has refused to take their own precautions.
Psychology has a name for the phenomenon that occurs when we see any single person or group of people as all good or all bad. It’s called splitting, and it is often an attempt to make ourselves feel less vulnerable. “If I’m good, and you’re bad,” the thinking goes, “then I’m the one who’s in the right, and I’ll be fine.” But splitting doesn’t take into account the reality that we all have both good and bad qualities; that we all hurt and are hurt by one another. Couples, for instance, often use splitting to protect themselves during conflict. “He did this” and “she always does that” is code for “I’m good and he/she’s bad.” One of the first things couples’ therapists often try to do is to help each partner verbalize their own pain, while simultaneously recognizing their counterpart's pain as well.
So if the goal of these commenters is to express fury or get revenge, they seem to be succeeding — at least if the subreddit's popularity is any indication. But if the goal is to change behavior, we need to do some more thinking. Some of the anti-vaxxers are, of course, simply misinformed, frightened or both. Much worse, however, are the ones who are old-fashioned bullies.
As Signe Whitson, who wrote “8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents and Schools,” writes in her Psychology Today blog: “Bullies operate by making their victims feel alone and powerless. Children reclaim their power when they make and maintain connections with faithful friends and supportive adults.” The Herman Cain Award is a way of connecting with a larger group, and providing a sense of well-being and power in the face of animosity.
But Whitson and other experts on bullying agree with Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, who says, “The trick is to remain polite and professional while still setting your limits firmly. Don't let the bully get under your skin — that's what he wants.”
Indeed, one big problem with responses like the Herman Cain Award is that they actually reinforce the splitting phenomenon. Now we’re either the angry, mean, and ugly ones, or we’re the perpetual victims. There has to be a better way to stand up to anti-vaxxers.
Maybe a more effective response would be to create a site that presented the stories of people who have died because they didn’t get vaccinated or wear masks alongside the stories of people who took precautions but became seriously ill (or died) anyway. Such a site, which could also promote appropriate measures for survival and care, would not get as much traffic. But thinking optimistically, it might help change the minds of those who truly don’t mean to cause suffering to others, and who are not maliciously motivated. And it would also be a way of expressing multiple aspects of a difficult, complex, and dangerous situation.
For those whose intentions are more hate-filled, government intervention and regulations could, of course, make a difference. Vaccine mandates seem to be working so far. But barring that, many local communities are taking a stand. Those of us who continue to wear masks, even when ridiculed, are also quietly fighting bullies. It’s not as dramatic a strategy as the Herman Cain Award, but I have a feeling that it is more successful at promoting change.
Ultimately, the Herman Cain Award fulfills a primal wish to say, "I told you so." And it is a foreseeable internet response to feeling powerless in the face of a dangerous, vocal minority. But dehumanizing one another will not heal the split between anti-vaxxers and mask-wearers, or between the political right and left. Many of the stories on Reddit describe the sadness, confusion and pain of individuals who realized they were dying. Turning them into demons who “got what they deserved” could reinforce the hatred that is already dividing families, communities and really our entire country. And that divide could ultimately turn us all into soldiers, fighting a war that we will all lose.