In the early years of the First World War, a man out of uniform had a reasonable chance of being stopped in the street by a young woman and handed a white feather. This campaign of social shame encouraged those who had not yet enlisted to do so using white feathers as a symbol of cowardice. It may have had noble roots – encouraging everyone who could serve their country to do so – but it quickly became ugly.
Men who had come home for a few days' leave, men discharged after being injured fighting, and men in exempted professions such as doctors and train drivers, were often handed feathers by indignant, self-righteous women who had come to regard the practice as a hobby. There are many tales of the humiliation of men already scarred by the horrors of war who were handed multiple feathers just on a peaceful walk through London. It came to the point where the government issued silver badges to indicate that the man in question had already served or was contributing to the war effort at home.
We are not asking people to sign up to fight in the trenches today, but to stay away from each other and wash their hands. That so many have chosen to ignore that is deeply troubling, particularly to those on the frontline of the NHS, or those who suffer from or have loved ones with serious health conditions. That someone would think going to a crowded pub, or hanging out in a group was more important than stopping the spread of a deadly virus is baffling. The more social pressure there is for all of us to realise that careless contact costs lives, the better.
But among the earnest pleas for people to stay at home, wash their hands and save the NHS, there are white feathers. Many were being waved yesterday when photos emerged of too many people enjoying parks and beauty spots. How stupid could they get, raged others online. How selfish!
It is indeed selfish to rock up in Hyde Park for a group picnic, or Brighton beach for a barbecue with friends who you don't live with. But many of the people walking outdoors yesterday would have been trying to heed government advice to get outdoors with appropriate social distancing. It's often the case that we don't realise until it's too late that everyone has had the same good idea as we have, and has pitched up in the same place. Do they really deserve to be tarred with the same brush, handed the same white feather? We are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic that no government in the world has worked out how to deal with, and which has ripped up all our ways of going about our lives and looking after ourselves. Is it really a surprise that some of us are making mistakes while trying to handle it?
As it happens, it's perfectly easy to get outdoors and avoid social contact, largely by dispensing with the assumption that you have to travel somewhere, particularly to the countryside or somewhere official like a large park or nature reserve, in order to enjoy nature and the great outdoors. Even those of us living in cities can find nature thriving around us in quiet, often ignored spots, and are able to step off the path to let someone else pass at a safe distance. But all of us are trying to find our way in the dark, to discard well-worn habits and try to live differently.
It's not just those who try to get outdoors, though. A friend with a large family recently confessed to me that she was now anxious about just going to the supermarket for their regular shop, not so much because she feared finding empty shelves but because she was worried that people might accuse her of panic-buying too. If you're a parent of teenage boys, for instance, your weekly trolley may long have appeared that you are stockpiling milk, meat, pasta and, er, toilet roll. Now those teenage boys are at home, those supplies will be evaporating with an even greater speed. No one needs 20 loaves of bread in one shop, but then again not everyone filling their trolley with food is being selfish.
Then there are the angry snaps posted online of tube carriages full of people. It's not clear how else some doctors, nurses and other key workers might get to work to serve their country without public transport, and yet all are handed a social media white feather by being indiscriminately photographed and shamed online.
It's easy to see where the modern impulse to hand out white feathers comes from. So many of us are desperately anxious about what is happening. That governments are struggling to keep up with the spread of the virus adds to our feeling that we have lost control. There is a release in being able to declare that you are the person who is doing the right thing, who has got control over how to tackle coronavirus. There is even greater relief when you can contrast this with the selfish person whose trolley seems too full to you, or who is in the same tube carriage you are in, or who didn't quite think things through when they decided to get the family out for some fresh air and exercise.
What's a better way for us to feel as though we are in control? Well, a better government information campaign and communications strategy would help. It is strange that we are not being bombarded with adverts along the lines of the 'Get Ready For Brexit' campaign about what we should be doing and are instead reliant on – often inaccurate – memes being shared over social media. But individually, it is surely more productive to help others work out how to deal with this crisis, not by panicking them about how empty the shelves of one shop are, or by shouting at them, but by offering the sage wisdom that means you are coping better with this. White feathers are unlikely to help us fumble our way through the dark.