Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences of an action or event are inherently shocking. They do sometimes offer hints, warnings, clues so subtle as to make sense only after the fact. But mostly they can’t be predicted–unless they were so obvious they could have been predicted, so naturally were ignored.

An unintended consequence is in effect a mutation, manifest seemingly out of nowhere (yet with a source), and able to drastically alter the surrounding reality. And, like a mutation, an unintended consequence can be negative (rising alcoholism rates during the pandemic lockdown), positive (clear skies over Los Angeles and Beijing), or both/and (working from home).

To a woman frantically seeking the way out of an unwanted pregnancy, discovering is an unintended dream come true. To Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, learning that 41 percent of American adults are now more likely than they were before the pandemic to support a government-run healthcare system—well, that’s an unintended nightmare. Issues like paid family leave, universal sick leave, subsidized day care, and a livable minimum wage—all of which pre-pandemic were far-out wild-eyed liberal ideas—now sound quite reasonable to Americans who suddenly rediscovered a need for the support only good government can provide, a need for the coordination only real leadership can envision and mobilize. Tragically, it ’s taken a callous, even sadistic refusal of government support, plus incompetent, malevolent government leadership, to make them realize that. But still. Unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, Trump—always trying to fill the bottomless pit of his famishment for attention and approval, and also obsessively in love for his own voice—bulldozed his way through a series of endless press conferences, convinced that their TV ratings were high because he was adored. It never occurred to him that viewers might really want to hear the medical experts, or that they wound up staring and gawking at him with the same fascination that makes people drive slowly by a car wreck. But the more they saw of him the less they liked what they saw. Only his plummeting poll numbers clued him in, unintended consequences that he first denied and then thundered must be wrong. The coronavirus pandemic has been more effective than any organizer could possibly hope to be.

Unintended consequences aren’t always dramatic societal shifts, though. Sometimes they can be quite small, humble, deceptively superficial. For instance, I find the virtual return to a natural look, enforced by circumstances, to be humorous, vulnerable, touching. TV newscasts, streamed Zoom meetings or fundraisers, appointments by Skype or FaceTime—all now feature real people showing up. Their wardrobe is more limited and more relaxed. They need haircuts and have had to forgo professional stylists. Some men are growing beards or mustaches and have abandoned neckties; some women have decided to explore their natural hair color after decades of dyes—even bravely, beautifully opting for pewter or silver or snow. Without a make-up artist finessing every false eyelash, newswomen look more like the serious journalists they are than like glam fashion models. The result is a nuanced shift in values—toward authenticity. There’s more focus on what someone is saying than on what she’s wearing or how he looks. (True, the lighting is uniformly atrocious, turning some people into storybook trolls who could frighten small children and making everyone else resemble elderly academic hosts on PBS. Unintended consequence: reminding us all that the lighting crew on any visual project are, um, essential workers.)

Unintended consequences include the redefining and expanding of the concept of “essential worker” itself. Two months ago, those words defined health care professionals: doctors, nurses, aides, medical personnel; and first responders: cops, firefighters, EMS. Now, much more of the society realizes that the UPS driver, the grocery checkout clerk, the mail deliverer, the baby-sitter, the janitor, the home-care attendant, the food messenger, the sanitation pick up, the convenience-store cashier—all those people (majority women, and men of color) are absolutely central to the needs of a reliant public. They always have been central, but the unintended consequence of the pandemic is to finally make them visible.

In fact, one might say that this chance to realize how much our society has been suffocating in artifice and various virtual realities is itself an unintended consequence of our viral reality. That’s good news and bad news. Bad news because it implies that these lessons had to be tortuously inscribed on our flesh in order for us to learn them, like the character in Kafka’s great story “The Harrow.” But the good news is that it also reminds us yet again that we can learn, we can adapt.

Many of the Indigenous peoples of the North American continent teach that one must envision ripple-effect consequences of one’s actions continuing through seven generations in the future. The responsibility that implies is breathtaking. Surely we can try to make a modest start at such responsibility, so that the consequences of our actions are, at the very least, intended.