Paul Staley: E Pluribus Unum

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It appears on the Great Seal of the United States and was long considered the national motto. But Paul Staley says its simple words can be read many ways.

The words E Pluribus Unum have been on my mind recently. Not because I’ve been examining what’s in my wallet, but rather, I’ve been thinking about how that Latin phrase, which is an expression of national unity and translates as “out of many, one”, applies to the situation we find ourselves in at this stage of the pandemic.

Out of many, one. As in I could be the one who, out of millions of administered doses, gets the rare and dangerous side effect. So it’s no vaccine for me.

Out of many, one. As in, I’m just one person so why should it matter if I refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated? The cost of infringing my personal freedom far outweighs the negligible role I could play in transmitting the virus.

But if we move these words around a bit we get the phrase “one out of many” which is how we measure probabilities or risk.  Among the many things the pandemic has revealed is the wide disparity in people’s risk tolerances. This has been on full display as we all observed friends who, confronted with the same statistical probabilities, took widely divergent precautions.  It is one thing altogether to know in the abstract that the chance of something happening is only one out of some big number and quite another when the “one” in question is you. One out of a hundred are lousy odds for a bet, but a scary proposition when your life is at risk.


And then to bring this back full circle, we should mention the phenomenon when one person’s experience, just one out of many, becomes the version that gets passed around.  This is the video or story that gets viewed and then passed on, viewed and then passed on, until millions have seen it.  Simply by being repeated or viewed so often these accounts  of one experience begin to assume an even greater level of validity.  The anecdotal becomes statistical. And, finally, it is important to remember the name for this process: it’s called going viral.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives inn San Francisco.