…Witchfinders General, or Other Viruses to Fear
In Part 1 I explored the perennial human desire to believe that disease and all other forms of contamination are external or foreign, and how that plays out even at the smallest scale (the village or island). I asked whether the official “shelter in place” or “stay home” directives may not be reinforcing that ancient human gut-level instinct.
Us and Them
Why do I consider this even worth writing about, since it’s all so predictable and so very human? Mostly because of the potential for unkindness and nasty behaviour that too often goes along with the Us-and-Them, wall-building or drawbridge-raising mindset. We are civilised people here, for the most part; but we’re scared and tense. If people panic badly enough, could we see vigilantes at the ferry dock physically threatening any contractor who dares to come here?
Surely not! As I said, we are civilised people. And yet, once the Other-ing, the mindset of line-drawing and defining who is “real” and who is “not quite”, gets started, charity and humanity are proportionately weakened. One phenomenon that all communities are witnessing is the emergence of “instant experts” who appoint themselves the Covid Cops for their neighbourhood and start pestering health authorities with requests to “do something about” a neighbour who takes a solitary walk with her dog, or goes out to get groceries on the 14th day of self-isolation instead of the 15th.
On our island, one individual’s first response to the official government “stay home” order was to ask how we should deal with people who don’t comply. At a time of fear, anxiety, and far too little information, part of our wall-building and purity-seeking behaviour is to invent or adopt rules and then enforce them; subsequently, there’s a tendency to select some of our own people (inside the Purity Zone) as potential or actual “traitors”, internal risks who must be Dealt With.
Anyone who’s ever worked within an embattled or fringe political movement, I suspect, has witnessed the moment when such movements “eat their young” — descending into sectarian absolutism, purity/loyalty tests, purges, denunciations, and vicious internecine warfare. The dynamics are substantially the same as in pandemic conditions: a small bubble of Us-ness surrounded by a hostile and potentially threatening Outer World. Fear, tension, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness almost inevitably lead Ultra groups to implode, over time. It’s a short step from seeing enemies everywhere Outside, to starting to see them under our own beds.
I feel the self-isolation, drawbridge mentality being evoked by official policy is potentially dangerous — but not because I think that 21st century Canadians are actually going to stone anyone in the marketplace or break anyone’s windows to punish them for not conforming perfectly to rules that other people have invested all their faith in. No, we are far from that dreadful day as yet.
Nevertheless I do see this moment as a tricky one for communities everywhere, insofar as it triggers the human tendency towards self-righteousness and faction or cliquiness; this in turn can blunt or short-circuit our compassion. If we start dividing our community members into the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” will we still act in good faith and solidarity to help people even if they have annoyed us by not obeying all our rituals and rules? Or will we be tempted to shun the sinners?
The Blame Game
It’s well known in psychology circles that fear easily morphs into anger, or manifests as anger. It’s also fairly common knowledge (both expert and folk) that when we humans feel we have no control over our lives in one way, we compensate by seeking control over something (or someone) else. We mostly understand that bullies are cowards, and that domineering people are usually insecure at heart. People are feeling very frightened right now, about something over which we have very little control. So it’s not surprising that finding people to blame makes us feel better (venting some of our anxiety in the form of anger); trying to police our communities and punish “rule-breakers” can make us feel that we have some control over a very chaotic moment in our lives.
These forms of emotional relief can quickly get out of hand. In some parts of the world, panicky and angry police are inflicting vicious abuse on “quarantine violators”, thus themselves violating the most basic human rights principles. Our Canadian police are relatively civilised, and our taste for vigilante-ism not so marked as in our neighbour to the south (where gun stores are deemed an essential service and gun sales are soaring as the pandemic continues). We are not likely to spray our neighbours with bleach or put them in cages in the hot sun. But some of us are, as I mentioned, already talking about how we should punish or “deal with” offenders.
Given the peculiar parameters of this infection, the gravity of an “offense” — such as getting within six feet of another person for a few seconds — is hard to assess. It may well be that both people are already infected and asymptomatic. Or that if infected, the newly-exposed person will never know they have it. The case where the newly-exposed person becomes horribly ill and dies is a statistical outlier. And yet human beings do like to assign blame; and if someone does die of this illness on our island, I am sure some neighbour’s fear and uncertainty will be relieved somehow if they can insist it was all the fault of That Family Down The Street — because someone said that someone else saw one of them forget to use the hand sanitiser one time when entering our local store.
I implore readers — not just on tiny islands like mine but everywhere — to resist this line of thinking. The transmission chain of a “clever” virus like this is extremely obscure. Expert epidemiologists and microbiologists are still struggling to understand its pathways, to what extent it travels as aerosol vs droplets, how long it remains viable on various surfaces at various temperatures, etc. It is moderately unlikely that I have it; but if I do, it’s quite impossible for me to figure out in retrospect (after the virus has had over 90 days to move around the world) by what chain of events it actually reached me. Should I blame and hate the snowbirds who just returned from their air travel vacations? They are nearby and make a handy target, but would that be fair or realistic?
Creating simplistic causal narratives, pinning blame, scapegoating, are dangerous not only to our own mental health but to the health of our community. We would be well-advised to live with the knowledge that we don’t know enough to justify harsh judgments. Perhaps I do disapprove a little of my neighbours’ air travel habits (on environmental grounds). There’s a bit of pre-existing bias there in my own heart, I admit it. But that doesn’t mean that if I get sick, it’s all their fault.
Amulets and Charms
As pattern-seeking creatures who hate to feel helpless, we are also prone to symbolic or superstitious beliefs. Children often believe in magical rules for getting some control over an unruly world; if I don’t step on any of the cracks in the pavement on my way to school, I’ll do well on the maths test. Even as grownups we still find it hard to come to grips with chance and randomness; we still want to “bargain with God” and influence the world through ritual and symbol. If I carry my lucky rabbit’s foot, I won’t get in a car crash. This is my lucky dollar that I never spend, so I’ll never go broke. If I touch the mezuzeh on my way in the door, my household will be safe. If I wear my amulet, my lover will never leave me. If I say enough rosaries, my child will survive her surgery. If I only ever eat organic food, I’ll never get cancer.
I predict that very soon, mask-wearing will be the ritual or symbolic activity that most people feel will magically make them safe; very soon, I expect there will be enormous pressure (social bullying, shaming and blaming) forcing everyone to wear masks. It will not matter how well masks really work, what the science says, but rather that a large number of people will gratefully latch onto them as The Answer, the bargain with God, the symbolic behaviour or amulet that will make the virus leave us alone.
Mask wearing is a bit more complicated than that, but there are very good cases for (effective) masks being (properly) worn — by symptomatic people, so they don’t cough all over the rest of us, and by health care providers who must examine and treat symptomatic people. How much additional “safety” mask wearing will give to people already six feet apart outdoors in open air, I have no idea (and neither, I think, does anyone else); but I wouldn’t be surprised if pretty soon, anyone who doesn’t wear a mask will be labelled a Traitor To Their Community. In some communities, rocks will be thrown — or worse. [I hope I’m wrong about this, by the way.]
Cabin Fever on Steroids
The official “isolation” policy, by breaking the usual bonds between people (touch, voice, presence, communal eating and celebrating) may exacerbate these problems by distancing us emotionally. Electronic means of communication are not the same as face-space (as many studies of internet behavioural pathologies have shown). When this distancing and dissociation coincides with a wave of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, it becomes all too easy to yell at each other on Facebook from our too-quiet houses. It become easy to mistrust and blame each other, to imagine that everyone’s fate hangs on whether a neighbour wears the right kind of mask or washes their hands for exactly the right number of seconds. Scolding each other can all too easily become a higher priority than supporting each other.
Some of our anger and tension is plain old “cabin fever.” I feel for those unfortunate folks in France who are not allowed to ride a bike at all, or take a walk more than 2km from their homes. We know from decades of research that loneliness and isolation contribute to ill-health. We know that fear and stress also contribute to ill-health. Confinement indoors, and separation from fresh air and sunlight (and trees) contribute to ill-health.
I find myself wondering about the impact on young children, suddenly deprived of playmates and grandparents. I wonder about the impact on us all. I have to trust that these measures really are helping to slow transmission rates; I don’t think they’re helping our mental health.
Other Viruses We Can Resist
What I observe is that many people are deeply frightened and panicky, even in the remote and relatively safe place where I live. The media frenzy and government directives have contributed to this panic, and frankly I wish I lived in South Korea right now.
Testing, by comparison with universal lockdown, removes uncertainty by quickly revealing who is “clean” and who might be contagious. Uncertainty is more stressful than solid data. In the absence of solid data, mistrust and hostility are easily evoked. I’m not happy about what this is doing to us — as communities, as moral beings.
The most precious thing in any community is our kindness to each other. (“And the greatest of these is Charity.”) If fear drives us to divide our community into “worthy” and “unworthy” people; if we feel free to vent intemperate anger and blame on selected scapegoats, regardless of the incompleteness of our knowledge; if we become more narrowly concerned with other people’s obedience to a set of rules than to our solidarity as a community; then the virus has done far more damage to us than it should. It has affected not just our lungs, but our hearts.
So how can we resist our gut-level programming, and avoid falling into the age-old behaviours of division, hostility, and intolerance?
We can be kind and generous to each other. We can give each other the benefit of the doubt. We can resist paranoia and mistrust.
I implore anyone reading this to consider carefully our own responses to neighbours and friends. It is still possible for reasonable people to disagree, even during a crisis — even the experts have incomplete data and are not always speaking with one voice at present. For example: if you feel strongly compelled to wear a mask at all times, by all means do so; but I suggest resisting the temptation to send an all-caps “HOW STUPID CAN YOU BE?” to a co-worker or friend who doesn’t.
On other issues the experts are in strong agreement. If cleaning with bleach makes you feel safer, why not? but there is no need to scold others who use soap and water; Covid-19 is easily destroyed by soap, and not using bleach is not the same as being irresponsible or TRYING TO KILL US ALL!
If you feel that the six-foot rule is inadequate and that people should under no circumstances, ever, for any reason other than survival supplies, leave their homes… then I suggest not leaving your home, if that makes you feel safer. Please do consider the possibility that the neighbours who take their dog out for a walk in the fresh air are also taking care of their (and hence, your) health, so long as they’re observing the basic precautions. They’re not trying to DESTROY OUR COMMUNITY or kill your grandmother; they’re just your neighbours taking a walk — bolstering their own resistance to disease, alleviating their own cabin fever, and being careful. There’s no need to call the authorities.
I suggest trying to remember also that People From Outside are not necessarily more “dangerous” than people from within our communities, so long as we are all following the basic protocols; almost every community on earth is going to be touched by this, no matter how many drawbridges or walls we try to hide behind. In other words, Local Purity is most likely a lost cause, so we can stop assuming that it exists and then vilifying people for (allegedly) compromising it. I’d also suggest that the “blame” for this pandemic, like the blame for climate change, is spread around so widely that we all own a share, and we can’t pin it one one person or group of people.
Most importantly, when the dust settles, what we remember and what will shape our future is how we treated each other during this scary time. Unkindness will be remembered. So will kindness.
In our keyed-up and isolated state, rarely seeing anyone in person, we can all too easily burn old friendships — spoil professional relationships — get into bitter fights with family members — enable or commit bullying — stir up faction and bitterness in our neighbourhood or village — be unfair or uncharitable to others. Desperate to control an uncontrollable situation, we can easily try to surveil, control, police, blame and punish our neighbours and friends.
The perennial (and contagious!) human-hosted viruses of exclusion, faction, intolerance, self-righteousness, anger and even hatred can infect us just as quickly as a virus that attacks our lungs. We need to fight off those viruses, just like we’re trying to fight off Covid-19. Can we practise patience, tolerance, perspective and kindness, as assiduously as we practise six-foot interpersonal distance and hand washing? Surely it’s worth a try.