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What Do We Get From Grocery Store Freakout Videos?

Wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 has become a politicized issue, leading to an increase in public confrontations — all captured on witnesses’ phone cameras

An orange, white, green, and red sign proclaiming “Be safe, please where a mask” posted to the glass doors of a 7-Eleven market. Michael Emmanuel Reighley/Shutterstock

A woman spews profanities as she hurls items from her shopping cart to the supermarket floor, her other hand clutching an unused face mask. In a distant Trader Joe’s, another woman flings her shopping basket down and screams, “You’re fucking Democratic pigs!” at the masked employees escorting her out of the store. In a Florida Walmart, a gray-haired man repeatedly shoves an employee trying to block him from entering the building without a mask.

These are the so-called Karens (and occasional Kens) of the pandemic age, whose filmed encounters with mask-wearing store employees and fellow shoppers have reliably achieved both virality and notoriety. While “public freakout” videos aren’t new — indeed, there’s a whole subreddit dedicated to this genre of voyeurism, with 2.5 million members and counting — this specific context is.

Amid a public health crisis that shows no signs of abating anytime soon, the stars of these videos refuse to wear masks, the use of which is recommended — and, in some locales and shops, required — to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They stalk the automatic sliding doors and aisles of the supermarket, one of the few truly essential businesses that have remained open to the public out of necessity, and a site of tension as retail workers manage politicized and sometimes violent opposition to the mask-wearing policies that employees are left to enforce. They throw tantrums, invigorated by feelings of self-righteous anger and victimization. They are, generally speaking, white — a fact that cannot be considered in isolation when you think of whose outbursts are permitted without forceful retaliation, and which communities are being disproportionately threatened by COVID-19 and police brutality, twin forces of lethality that hold the United States in thrall.

“What would happen if she were black?” spectators ask about the grocery-throwing woman in Dallas. I think you could hazard a guess.

These videos, in which both white privilege and entitlement are laid bare and reified, can simulate some form of justice for the audience. It’s gratifying to pretend, even just for a minute, that despised figures of popular imagination — those who either do not believe in or do not care about the shared sacrifice we make by wearing masks and social distancing — are getting their due punishment via public shaming, both in the store and online. The momentary high of a communal chastisement shared with millions is inviting, comforting even.

But there’s a performative element to these grocery store freakout videos. At least some seem staged, the work of anti-mask protesters who enter stores with their phones recording, prepared to make a scene. Attention is what they want, and despite our best efforts, we give it to them, unable to look away from a show. Douglas Kellner, writing about Guy Debord’s concept of the “spectacle,” associates the spectacle with passivity, a sort of estrangement from “actively producing one’s life.” Consume too many of these encounters, and thrill turns into numbness. It feels easier to watch and despise these terrible individuals than to have to spend more time thinking about who has most failed us in stopping this pandemic: the government and our leaders, driven by both incompetence and the calculation that part of the population could be sacrificed so that our business sectors and their profiteers wouldn’t lose more money. In the shadow of such a cruel demonstration of How Things Work, you feel powerless. No wonder we derive our small thrills from booing selfish strangers out of supermarkets.

Catharsis is understood to be the release of emotions as a form of cleansing, but Aristotle’s theory referred specifically to tragedy, pity, and fear. Witnessing a tragic reenactment would arouse pity and fear, leading to a release of poisonous feelings. It’s “a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed,” Joe Sachs writes for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Maybe that’s all we can hope for from this communal viewing of this kind of public theater, both illustrative and obfuscative of the nation’s wider failings. When faced with clear evidence of such tragedy, what can we do but release months’ worth of simmering disgust and horror? On the other side of the purgation lies, if nothing else, a moment of relief.