How the pandemic has led to entrenched beliefs and a mistrust of disagreement and debate.
Compromise has become the dirtiest word in 2020’s dictionary. We must all be right now, always, and win, even if it comes at the cost of happiness, justice, equality, freedom, other stuff the ancient Greeks worried about and fought for, which we now discard, in preference to the joy of hating and mocking our naysayers.
I blame Covid. I hope I won’t stir up too much controversy when I say that I’ve found Covid really quite annoying. It cost me my job, damn it. And sorry, but I really hate those stupid masks. The way you can’t smile at checkout staff anymore, or indicate to your hairdresser that you are truly listening and engrossed in her tale of woe. It makes me perpetually anxious that people will think me rude, uninterested, disengaged, all of which is true, but I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to hide it by making shapes with my face. Only the bottom half of my face, unfortunately, the top half having been stabbed and frozen into vain inarticulacy. Now I have to make cooing noises instead, barely audible under a muffling heap of nylon.
I won’t enter into whether it’s necessary, all this distancing and hiding of mouths, because getting screamed at makes me tired, and I don’t care anyway: it’s happened and we’re stuck with it. It’s a massive social experiment of which we find ourselves a tiny component, and I firmly believe it to be affecting our sense of decency and proportion. Keeping people apart has alienated us not only from each other but also our own humanity. We don’t hug or read faces anymore, but instead peck angrily at keyboards in our own private bubbles, for work and leisure and everything else, never seeing or hearing the distress we might cause. No wonder there are only two sides now, always: the me whose emotions and thoughts I can fully fathom, the Them who are a sea of bobbing dots on a screen, or swaddled, barely visible faces, a good two metres away, and if They get any closer I shall call the police, who do They think They are? Them, with their stupid ideas and idiocy, getting it all wrong, riddled with germs too, trying to kill me probably, out of sheer malice, getting in my face and space. Them. Dehumanised, an amorphous menace.
You might have hoped a common threat might make us unite and work to defeat it, rather than dividing us into lonely wretched pockets of suspicion and fury. For this silly bug risks the health, economy, lifestyle, future of every one of us, and of our children too. If only the threat lurked in a foreign bomb or breast, rather than our neighbours’ breath, how much happier we’d all be. Instead we are anxious at every tender, well-meant touch and sigh. You can’t often admit to fearing your friends and family might kill you, so you deflect your hostility, send it anywhere, on to politicians usually, although God knows people dying isn’t much of a vote winner, and I’m sure they’d stop it if they could. The problem is that poverty kills too, and we’ll be getting heaps of that, generations of it, and cancer kills, and there are predicted to be an extra 35000 cancer deaths as a result of Covid, the NHS having become a single issue service.
I won’t enter into whether that’s necessary either. One might hope the notion of cancer being bad was fairly non-controversial, but say that on Facebook and see Susan squealing within seconds: what the hell do you mean cancer is bad you bitch, my gran had cancer and she was a better woman than you’ll ever be, better looking too, what the hell is wrong with you, you MONSTER. It’s exhausting. All I post on Facebook now are poetry reviews, which I can be confident no one will read, still less bother to argue about.
Some psychologists theorise that evil is caused by dehumanisation and objectification, by seeing others as not-like-us, less than human in some way. Moreover, they argue that we are most likely to dehumanise those we perceive as already evil, as perpetuating harm, the way facebookers like Susan are forever suggesting medical experiments be carried out on paedos rather than bunnies. Well, I won’t go into that either, being a coward. But I will argue that the masks and social distance are lending themselves rather efficiently to dehumanisation and objectification and that the way other people are now all viewed as potentially harmful is probably exacerbating the issue. It’s making us all angry, filled with loathing and suspicion, which will have profound consequences for society – indeed, already is. It’s not us against a disease. It’s me against you. And that seldom ends well.