Why calling your barista a hero doesn’t pay their rent

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on May 8, 2020

Everywhere you turn, there seems to be nothing on the Internet, but the Coronavirus.  That makes sense, considering how it’s infected every aspect of our lives at this point, including our language.  Anything that reaches this broadly will develop its own terminology. But the pandemic doesn’t just reach the niche communities on the Internet who are in charge of curating slang until it trickles down to the masses, it reaches the masses directly.  So in light of that, I think we should highlight some phrases that have been co-opted and oftentimes ruined in recent weeks.

 Names for the virus itself 

You can’t have an enemy until you’ve named it and there is no shortage of nicknames for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2.

  • The Rona: Perhaps the first and most popular truncated version that most people either use frequently or get annoyed by.
  • Miss Rona: “the Rona’s” cooler gay sister.
  • The Chinese-Wuhan Virus: The racist version. We knew it was racist from the beginning and designed to vilify one of America’s “fiercest enemies” (that just so happens to be its primary business partner at the same time).  For everyone who argues “that’s where the virus started, it’s not racist to point that out” you know you’re lying and I will also argue that you’re white.  We don’t call syphilis the “American Virus” and if you read a little, you might be surprised the Spanish Flu didn’t even start in Spain so maybe consider the reason this phrase is only used by a certain subsect of people.

Ways to vaguely address the situation without mentioning anything sad 

Companies and news organizations need to talk about what’s going on right now, but in a way that doesn’t bum everyone out so they can still sell their products without feeling exploitative.  To solve that problem, rather than talk about how more people have died in the U.S. during the pandemic than the entire Vietnam War, they created some shorthand to let the public know they “feel our pain.”

  • We stand together: This one pervades every local news show or Walmart ad on TV and is designed to fabricate some comradery between us. While not disingenuous, still unimaginative all the same.
  • “At this time:” I’m as guilty as anyone for invoking this cop-out. If you’ve donated to any organization in the last few months they’ve probably said something to the effect of “thank you for giving at this [troubling/hard/uncertain] time” and it’s the go-to catch-all phrase that boils down to “you know what we mean, but we’d rather not say.”
  • New normal: this is the absolute worst of them all. This phrase is everywhere and the tritest way to address either the situation we’re in now or the one we’re headed to.  On top of that, it’s a nonsense phrase.  Normal is relative and describing it as “new” implies it’s always been stable.  It’s the same as if we said “welcome to the new time” every time we sprung forward for daylight savings.

Condescending ways to distract from real issues  

If there’s one thing the pandemic has done well is it exposes how fragile most of our systems in the United States are.  Whether it’s healthcare, social assistance, housing, wages, or the stock market, it’s apparent how lagging we’ve been in preparing for any kind of disruption to business as usual.  The only reason we’ve been able to operate as a country is due to the countless volunteers and essential workers that literally risk their lives despite being completely abandoned by the government and companies that rely on them.

  • Essential workers are “on the frontlines” I completely understand that Americans have this strange obsession with militarizing everything, but this phrase is completely bogus. “Frontlines” imply the virus is statically making moves to kill us and essential workers are defeating it in some way?  No, these workers have always been essential to keep the country afloat, but they aren’t normally appreciated enough so we made up this idea that they’re going the extra mile even though they do this every single day.  But rather than admit that and compensate them accordingly, people would rather talk about how this is somehow different than the vital services they’ve always provided.  It’s disingenuous, but nowhere near egregious as the final entry on this list.
  • Heroes: This term has been used constantly throughout the pandemic to describe healthcare workers, delivery drivers, scientists, and pretty much everyone who is continuing to do their job when and where they’re needed most.  To be clear, they are heroes (in the sense that people using this term are trying to imply), but by only saying so now, you’ve admitted that they somehow always weren’t.  Like I said above, the country literally cannot operate without these people and that has always been the case. But companies like Amazon and local/federal governments would rather put out a sh**ty commercial with bad music that calls them heroes than give them hazard pay or benefits that are required by every other developed nation on the planet.  My issue is not with recognizing these people because if there were frontlines, they would be on them, and if there were such things as heroes, they would be them.  My issue is that “rewarding” them with this title is a hollow gesture that doesn’t help anyone, least of essential workers, and only accomplishes the goal of distracting the public from the fact that these people should be paid and respected more despite working through a pandemic and literally saving the country.  The reason we call Superman a hero isn’t because he saves the day, it’s because he does it for free.

Meme of the week

I, unfortunately, can’t look at every meme that dominates the internet every week, so if you see a meme and think it should be the meme of the week please send it to: SumnerCultureCow@gmail.com

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