A personal reflection on viral fear and the polemic pandemic
Words & images © Paul Ransom
First things first: the tyrant is not the other. We are the tyrants. Our tribal, social/normative species has a penchant for policing and enforcing adherence and, just as our history is littered with cruel examples, we continue to impose orthodoxy and obedience upon one another and to use psychological, cultural, economic, legal, and violent means to pursue this objective. Thus, whilst social cohesion is a desirable goal, we routinely lurch into all manner of personal, political and moral militancy as we struggle to find the balance between the individual and the group.
- However, before we rush to cast all norms as analogous to tyranny, let’s remember that social species like ours depend upon a network of agreed rules in order to maximise the multiple benefits of cooperation. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the key signs of maturity is the ability and willingness to curb our often unconsciously triggered impulses in order to maintain the personal and societal bonds we require to live out our lives in the reasonable expectation of safety, inclusion and basic fairness.1
As we enter the 2020s, we are witnessing the amplification of ancient me/you/us/them tensions. The dramas of disease and social fracturing, of power versus protest, America against China, etcetera; these fissures point to the practical and ethical dilemmas of negotiating the interplay of freedom and responsibility and to the difficult balancing of competing interests. The trade-off between my rights and yours, between individual agency and healthy group function sits at the heart of any society, large or small. The core question, as ever, is: how do we want to coexist and what are the best ways of organising this? Unfortunately, we appear not to be addressing this question with sobriety, but rather with fear, polemic, narrow self-interest, virtuous display, and thinly veiled other-blaming. (Doubtless there are exceptions, but these do not obscure the rule.)
Indeed, as I watch the spectacle unfold around me – in the media, the streets, and in personal interactions – I am reminded of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Albert Camus’ The Plague. In both works there exists an omnipresent sense of social surveillance, of group policing. While opaque authority complexes hover in the background, the day-to-day oversight, the censure, the control, is close at hand. Neighbours, friends, co-workers.
Rather than concentrating on state-based tyranny, Ionesco and Camus were alluding to one of our species’ darker habits; that we will zealously prosecute those who deviate. We will ridicule, vilify, exclude, betray, and otherwise punish breaches of group norms. We will embrace the blunt force of herd power and willingly pursue the supposedly moral objectives and ‘common sense’ prescriptions of mob mentality. Indeed, we are cognitively and psychologically primed to conform.
To be fair, the herd mentality is exacerbated in crisis. Fear tends to narrow our focus. This is not necessarily a failing of character, but something bred into us, inherent in our cognition.2 After all, fear is a powerful and effective evolutionary mechanism – and when that fear is existential, as it is when we are confronted by disease, or our livelihood is threatened – primal impulses kick in. For the majority of us, our response is to become more risk (or threat) averse. This ‘safety first’ setting engenders a desire for greater control; or rather, the perception thereof. And one of the things we seek most to control is other people.
As has been noted since the virus arrived, many of us are now asking what it means to care. Teasing this apart, we might also ask:
- When does care become counter-productive?
- When does care become control?
While it is clearly a good thing (and instinctive) to care for one another, it is prudent to sift out caring from the pose and the spectacle of caring. We have all heard about the person who beats their spouse and molests their children because they love them, and we all know holier than thou sorts whose bleeding hearts and incessant virtue are a form self-seeking moral theatre. For these people, care is both veil and permission. A licence to abuse, feel superior and exert authority.
Point being, care often hides/reveals a range of psycho-emotional impulses and imperatives, principally those clustered around fear and self-preservation, as well as our desire for status and approval. In the end, the waters of care giving are decidedly muddy.
Looking out from my admittedly small and idiosyncratic corner of lockdown, what I observe is the democratised tyranny that Ionesco, Camus and countless others have drawn our attention to. The caricature of the pitchfork mob – burn the witch, burn the witch – is not so far removed from our present reality as many of us wish to believe. As the virus weaponises our disgust reflex and fires up our existential dread, our proclivity for group policing has come to the fore – and we surely all know something about police brutality by now.
Although I am yet to have anyone kneel on my neck or chase me out of the village, I have encountered numerous incidents of judgement, shaming and attempted control. Here below, a couple of the best examples.
- At the onset of lockdown here in Australia, I tried to visit a close relative, only to encounter the castigating sneer of her new partner. This man not only stood several metres away – presumably in abject terror – but proceeded to regale me with a litany of told-you-so, bunker stocking, self-righteous, paranoid hysteria, as if somehow ‘people like me’ were about to unleash a plague of apocalyptic misery on him and his. It was like, how dare you.
- In a supermarket queue, observing the store’s physical distancing protocols, I was upbraided by the woman behind me. “Stop swinging that bag,” she insisted, referring to the empty cloth bag I was absent mindedly twiddling in my left hand. I turned to look, and she was glaring at me with utter disgust. “Your bag, your bag,” she whined, as if the offending article were a hive of coronaviral death. “Can’t you at least try to be responsible?” Whilst my jaw dropped, others nearby nodded approvingly, and for a few seconds I was the super-spreading guy callously disregarding the sanctity of human life.
Clearly, these are small, isolated examples. However, I imagine many of you have encountered such censure from strangers, work colleagues, Facebook friends and loved ones.
For me, the big picture take-out here cuts to questions of freedom and control and, within that, our habit of ‘othering’ responsibility, our routine innumeracy3 around risk, our deep seated denial of mortal fact4 and our often hubristic sense of entitlement.
Indeed, as much as the pandemic has highlighted a core human kindness, it has also shown us our selfishness – and when our sense of self-interest and sovereignty narrows to pathologise or exclude the other, the thin veneer we call civilisation begins to crack. Society is a shared endeavour, an implicit contract, in which we all participate (to a greater or lesser degree). As such, when the ‘circle of empathy’ retracts, and dog looks at dog as threat or food, the pack becomes less support network, more dragnet, ensnaring and victimising.
But of course, we tend not to accept responsibility for our own tyrannising tendencies, Instead, we outsource them to the state or the so-called system, to the 1%, the banks, or any number of demonised agencies somewhere out there in the theoretical distance. The virus is their fault – a plandemic, a Communist Party plot, a result of gross incompetence, etcetera. Meanwhile, the social media hordes, (many of whom appear to have become epidemiologists overnight and can now claim to be experts in the running of large scale health infrastructure…wow, who knew?) are busily berating the ether and hectoring each other to stay home. Heaven forbid we should cough.
Yet, perhaps the most lurid examples of oppressive projection can be found in the self-righteous, fundamentalist squawk of conspiracy addicts, for here we see, in distilled form, simplistic cause/effect narratives, us/them stereotyping and other-blaming vitriol, all of it coupled with a jihadist sense of rightness. Zooming out from that smug bubble of bullying certainty, we see how conspiracy preachers exemplify the manner in which we revert, when threatened, to blunt either/or prescriptions and the crude essentialisation of out groups, as though readying ourselves for an all-out holy war.
In saying this, I am not denying the existence or deleterious effect of excessive state power, elite clusters of wealth and privilege, nor indeed the perverse incentives embedded in our current models of economy. However, though this may come as a shock to some, those in government, wealthy cohorts and positions of economic power are also human beings. Whether we like it or not, they are also us – by which I mean, social animals prone to fear, delusional control dramas and a penchant for telling others how to behave. (Yeah c’mon, we’ve all been there.)
Thus, while the classic tropes of tyranny posit the menace in oligarchy and cast ‘the people’ as victims, we are, if scratched, nearly all prepared to be the plain clothes cops of tribal conformity. And now, with the surveillance state in our back pocket, we are ever-ready to name, shame and coerce one another into virtuous display. We fly our flags, wear our colours, quote the stats that back us up, post our memes, like & troll, invoke deities and dead celebs, and carry on with the vainglorious insistence that if only everyone else did it like we did everything would be okay.
(Gosh, all that free enlightened expertise out there…and yet somehow…)
In my admittedly thin sliver of experience, the virus has unmasked, even legitimised, another pandemic. A plague of punishing, moralising diktat. Not so much from the pulpits of presidents but from Facebook feeds and passers-by. It has been hugely revealing to witness the popular uptake of snitch mentalities and the suspicious sideways glance of social control. Whereas many are making the standard argument about broken systems and corrupt/incompetent leadership, it seems to me that the true source of tyranny is being laid bare once again.
When faced with a complex array of possible threats and the probability calculations they infer – and confronted with an ocean of conflicting information – we intuitively reach for explanations and purported solutions that smooth out ambiguities and offer to assuage our fear of uncertainty. Cognitively, we struggle with things that violate our expectations, (registering them as threats), and also with the rational and statistical assessment of future risk.2 The appeal of simple, linear narratives and black/white binaries is that they create a sense of what is called cognitive ease, which in turn makes us feel that things are in order, and that we can act in the knowledge of such. Against a background radiation of novel virus, economic disruption, a febrile polity and global warming, the allure of apparent certainty has magnified into an outbreak of righteous assertion, ethical trumpeting and open suspicion. With this combination of exaggerated fear, blunt surety and moral licence we have set about tyrannising each other with even more vigour.
Yet, just as we are both social and individual, we contain within ourselves the light of kindness and the heel of authority. Indeed, the boundaries are blurred to such an extent that we often lose sight of them. How many tyrants believed they acted in pursuit of the good? How often did the helping hand become a debt obligation? Our love is so often conditional. Care so frequently a trade.
Then, when we overlay our conflicted selves with a rationalised patina of values and objectives, it is little wonder we stumble so readily into the stampede of herd-sanctioned control. Then, because we conflate this largely illusory control with safety and security, the command reflex is duly primed, and our numerous tyrannies are unleashed. Thus, the dictatorship of the masses awaits…at the supermarket, on the bus, online, at home.
(Look in the mirror. Hail the Dear Leader.)
How easy it is to sheet all tyrannical impulse home to the so-called system, or to blame (insert favourite hated out group). When the oppressor is always the other, we can rest on our apparently virtuous laurels and, if only the president would listen, see off the virus with a quick tweet and visit swift but deserved punishment on all unmasked sinners; leaving us free to signal our manifold virtues in an ever escalating arms race of moral exactitude. Because, thank fuck, it’s always someone else’s fault.
Tyranny, it seems, has many faces. Order and chaos are two of the most apparent – with poverty, silence and distance also notable – but I am beginning to suspect that we are the true fount of such. By which I mean, our habitual recourse to policing behaviours and the various levels of brutality that flow from them. If there is a vicious super-state, we are its staff. All of its cruelty and violence is ours. Until we truly own it, we shall remain its victims. Its victimisers.
Yet we do not have to tyrannise one another. Yes, we are hardwired for orthodoxy and cognitively tuned to preference norms, but, knowing this, we have choice. Even if that choice is limited, and biased by unconscious drivers, it is still an opportunity. We can continue to register self-interest in narrow terms, or we can expand the scope of it to include the interests of people we will never meet or truly know. Likewise, we can stick with unexamined fears and assumptions, or we can at least begin to unpick them with timely questions. The tribe will probably always be both a swamp of enforced, moribund conformity and an energising network of exchange – our challenge is to decide where on the spectrum we wish to sit.
However, as I walk the streets of pestilence, I hear a familiar tale of tyranny on repeat. It is the story we tell ourselves – the one where forces of monolithic, mechanistic inevitability crush us with their cameras, their rules, their hellfires and divine autocracy, all the while hatching relentlessly foul plots against us. These ubiquitous slave narratives are, ironically, our readily available excuse for the democratised tyranny we visit upon ourselves.
Consequently, the pandemic has further bolstered the authority of The People’s Republic of Orthodoxy. The care/control line is now even more blurred. Group monitoring has gone viral.
But it is not the Orwellian apocalypse of conspiratorial fantasy. Not yet anyway. Those reviled others we tell ourselves are on the brink of total control may well wish they were – and may even try to convince us their Übermensch approach is in our best interests – but their success will depend upon our foot soldiering. Because the elite is nothing without the mob. Just as we are nothing without each other.
Therefore, as the virus simmers and ideologues bristle, it occurs to me that we all have a choice to make, individually and collectively. Not a choice of sides, per se, but one of attitude. Of approach.
- Do we place our bets on the apparent certainties of control, of dominion and denial, or…?
- Do we take the risk of trust, of allowing, of accepting that we do not, and cannot, micro-manage our way to eternal and virtuous perfection?
- Shall we remain in blame, ever on the lookout for monsters and scapegoats, or will we take true responsibility for the society we have created together?
In conclusion, while humanity may not yet be in ICU, there are clearly symptoms. However, self-isolation may not be the best remedy.
1: Although ‘justice’ is an abstract and frequently contentious notion, humans do appear to have an innate sense of fairness. In a social species like ours, this is perhaps an adaptation that prevents excessive self-predation. Without a functioning ‘fairness instinct’ unregulated individual aggression would soon undermine group unity, thus sacrificing the benefits of cooperation, splintering clans and, as a result, adversely impacting reproductive choice and weakening genetic diversity and resilience. Indeed, if we pull apart the complexities, we arrive at a simple intuition for a fair share. Even as children we are tuned to this. Furthermore, we might conceive of fair sharing as one of the key intuitive/emotional foundations of ethics, justice and civility.
2: As cognitive & neuroscience have revealed in the last few decades, we have evolved an array of unconscious (and occasionally conscious) mechanisms for ordering incoming data, making sense of our world and constructing a congruent notion of self. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to what he calls Systems 1 & 2, or fast & slow thinking, which he uses to illustrate the manner in which subconscious/intuitive triggers drive our perceptions, shape our behaviours and choice making, and underwrite our innate sense of ‘normal’. In this schema, fear can be regarded as an active and intuitive response to the abnormal, to anything in the world that violates expectation. The unusual could be a threat, and as such, fear triggers greater cognitive focus and attention to detail.
3: As it turns out, there is now a raft of experimental & observational data to confirm how poor we are at statistical thinking, weighing up probabilities and assessing risk (especially in stressful situations). The disgust/shaming response of the lady & onlookers in the aforementioned supermarket queue was at least partly rooted in an extremely poor (but not uncommon) reading of the odds.
4: I refer to this as The Central Denial, and it is present almost everywhere in all human cultures. For more on this, and how it maps out in the everyday, check out my 2019 book, The Pointless Revolution. Or refer to The ‘Nature’ Problem elsewhere on this site.