In 2020, We Have Forgotten How To Leave People Alone

Shopping at Target. Dining outdoors. No activity these days is too mundane for protesters to shout at you for it.


Two recent episodes, both caught on video, highlight just how bonkers the impulse to turn personal choices into political protest fodder has become. In 2020, nothing is worse, it seems, than other people going about their business in a way you happen to dislike.

In Florida, a group of about a dozen young people protested at a local Target store. Target's corporate policy is to require masks in stores nationwide regardless of local laws, providing them for free to customers who do not have one.* In this case, the unmasked horde of protesters aimed their chants at any customers who agreed to follow the rule, moving through the store shouting at shoppers to remove their masks.

The Target protesters mirroralbeit in a cheerier way—a recent group of left-wing activists who confronted people dining out near protests against police brutality in Washington, D.C. (Similar incidents also took place in Pittsburgh and in Rochester, New York.) These protestersostensibly concerned with racial justice and with reforming or abolishing U.S. policingsurrounded random outdoor diners, demanding at top volume that they express support for the cause. When some people wouldn't, the crowd surrounded them, berating some diners at close range.

Many people will probably object to grouping these two packs of protesters. But both are refusing to follow pandemic norms meant to protect others. Both endow normal non-political activities with perceived political meaning. And both refuse to leave space for people or private institutions to make their own choices.

The unmasked Target chanters don't just want the right to go unmasked among friends or in public spaces. They want to go unmasked on someone else's private property and demand that others there to unmask too. The patio protesters don't just want the right to assemble and make their voices heard. They want to intimidate people doing unrelated activities into paying lip service to their cause.

No matter what the issue, many people are ill-content to merely avoid having their rights and the rights of others infringed upon; they want to dictate what everyone else does, says, and wears, too. Sometimes they limit that impulse to shouting obnoxiously, or demanding that everyone denounce a particular piece of media or art or public figure. Other times they try to conscript the government to their cause as well. Hence the calls to crack down on social media and the cheers when the authorities micromanage which businesses can accept willing customers during the pandemic.

These with-us-or-against-us performances are a symptom of a larger climate in which every element of our lives has become an opportunity for tribal signaling and cultural warfare, and in which our ruling political tribes are growing increasingly illiberal in their approaches to free speech, free trade, free thought, private property, and so much more. We really are confronted by enormously consequential issues right now, from policing to the pandemic. It's hard to live and let live when so much is at stake. But that makes it all the more important to direct your anger at something more meaningful than the individual choices of random bystanders.

* CORRECTION: This article originally implied that no mask mandate is in effect where the Target is located. While Florida does not have a mandate, Broward County does. Target's policy is nationwide, so it exists regardless of regional regulations.