Venn diagrams have made the leap out of math and logic classes and into the world of memes. Venn diagrams often include a series of circles to show where elements overlap or don't. If you want an easy explanation of Venn diagrams and sets, take a look at this page.
The popular Venn diagram on concerns about COVID-19: Lately a Venn diagram has been making the rounds that shows three equally sized circles that intersect. One circle is about taking COVID-19 seriously, one about economic devastation, and the third about expansion of "authoritarian" government policies. Here's a look at it:
Feelings: First, all feelings about a situation are valid. People feel a wide range of emotions in a pandemic and their concerns land in different places. The diagram is a clear and compelling appeal to feelings and is not an assessment of the scale of the issues or even a diagram that shows the cause-and-effect relationship among the three circles.
How do we know the diagram is about feelings and not an analysis? It's all in the language. With a header that affirms "It's OK," we are tipped off that it is we who are being validated, which can give the illusion that the merits of our beliefs are also being validated. In addition, each circle uses feeling language such as "taking seriously," "very concerned," and "worried about."
There's nothing wrong with that per se. In fact, it's always important to attend to people's feelings, especially during a pandemic. It's important for mental health reasons and it's important for policymakers and advocates to understand people's feelings in order to persuade the public. But we should ask critical questions so that we don't allow others to manipulate our feelings to the point of distorting the reality of the situation and the need for specific policy interventions.
Study Questions: Here are a few study questions to consider that might help you explore whether this diagram is a manipulation or whether it is accurate in important ways.
1. What is implied when the circles are equal in size? Does it mean all three concerns are equal in their harm? Does it mean all three threats are equally likely to take place? Based on your information, is there one circle or are there two circles that are more of a real threat? If so, which one or ones? How big would you make the different circles if you drew your own diagram?
2. Who or what sectors of our society benefit if we treat the three circles as equal? Who benefits if you resized the circles based on what you think the greatest threat is?
3. If the circles are all the same size, what effect does it have on people who wish to take action? Does it stall or spur action? If the circles are resized with the greatest concern represented in the largest circle, what effect would that have as a call to action?
4. By showing how the three concerns overlap, does the diagram hide ways that one circle causes another? In other words, is COVID-19 a concern in its own right AND a cause of the other two circles? Or are the three circles simply three different sets of concerns?
5. Who is the target of the lower right circle discussing "authoritarian" policies? This is an important point. In public debates, some are calling governors and mayors who issue safer-at-home orders authoritarian, while others view the President's seizure of PPE as authoritarian. Many view the extension of the Patriot Act during the pandemic as authoritarian. In Tennessee, questions have arisen about sharing health information with law enforcement. So it's important to be clear when talking about authoritarian policies whose policies you mean.
Memes are here to stay. So are our feelings. They will be part of our public debates and the way we come to terms with all the challenges we face. But it is wise to raise questions about both when we're making decisions. What questions would you add to improve your understanding of the diagram and where it leads people?