“And still we don’t get it.”
A recent thread on twitter asked for a six word story of our Covid 19 experience and the words above shouted themselves into my brain.
I wasn’t talking of the fact that in my family so far we seem to have been lucky in not getting the virus, I was speaking for the world, for people I do not know, for groups I do not belong to, for leaders I despise.
For I believe we have the best opportunity for learning from this crisis, and are squandering it with our usual human obsession of control and competition. The human failings that created and exacerbated this unprecedented situation are the same failings that will ensure we do not learn from it, we do not change the way we behave and we return right back to how we were after it is over. That’s what is most upsetting; The failure of humans to learn. We complain about the lies we are being told by most of our political leaders and yet we will continue to live our lives telling ourselves the same lies we have always told ourselves, refusing to see the damage we wreak.
A friend in Chicago sent me a photograph from one of his walks around the city. It was of the American flag, on its side, pinned to a fence, with a discarded surgical mask on the ground in front of it. To begin with I didn’t know what to do with the picture. It left me cold, empty, disengaged; I thought it had no impact and then I realised that even no impact is an impact.
I replied to my friend, “all I see are two huge symbols of complex, lie-ridden debate and sadness. Two symbols of ineptitude and ignorance. Two symbols of mankind’s furious attempts to control in the face of naivety, and a far more complex world than we will ever appreciate. If it was intended to induce pathos I am afraid it only induces anger and despair in me.”
The photograph would be a terrific front page image for any journalistic piece about Covid 19 and the impact of it on politics, on society, on human experience. It was a powerful and highly relevant image, and I wondered what others would have to say about it? Of course we interpret images through our own lenses and those lenses are coloured by our lifelong experiences, by our worldviews and by how we see whatever is happening in our lives at the time. What then did I feel about Covid 19 and the way in which it was being managed in my country and across the world?
What this crisis has shown me is that life, the world, other people, are not controllable. And yet we strive, constantly in everything we do, to control. Governments might claim to serve their populations but in fact they control them. Science aims to help us to live better lives, but is controlled by the academy, the archaic evidence based peer review system that would work better if it functioned on merit and not on nepotism and notoriety. The control of the masses is not new; we can trace it back to the feudal system in the UK, and we saw how it was operationalised through religion, where the serfs were kept in fear of the wrath of God. When that mechanism weakened, we witnessed control through education, which is no longer about the divergent development of people and their thoughts, but about conformity and convergence with a norm that is often determined by what is useful to the state rather than to society.
The more we are controlled, the greater our need to escape. Not from our lives but from the control we neither want nor need. Lockdown in the UK has been fascinating. Many of us started to observe it before the Government mandated it – we knew it made sense even if our leaders were slow to recognise that. Seven weeks later, we also know that total lockdown is unhelpful in the long game that needs to be played with this virus and some people are started to venture out again, albeit with sensible and cautious social distancing approaches. The Government needs to recognise this and treat us as co citizens.
Most people are respectful and intelligent enough to be able to coexist mutually, rather than hierarchically. If we have information, and are treated as though we can and will act with respect and in moderation, we can do that. It is only with stringent and non communicated dictates that people act rebelliously; treat the population like stupid children and they will act like naughty teens. Respect them as colleagues and fellow humans and they will respond.
The industrial revolution has a lot to answer for. It confirmed to the ruling classes the concept that the masses could be managed like machines can be managed. Then as now, there was a mistaken conflation of money and intelligence. Donald Trump is perhaps the best 21st century poster boy for the fallacy of that correlation. Very often those with the most money are the least socially conscious. Making a lot of money usually involves maltreatment of others in some way. So why are they the best people to lead us in times like this?
If Covid 19 has brought anything positive it is a salutary lesson in leadership, showing that countries whose leaders communicate truthfully, who admit they don’t know, who treat their citizens as equal are far more able to cope. But it is also a great opportunity for us, as the citizens, especially in the English speaking countries, to recognise that the rules of the games we are forced to play by are wrong. We are not our neighbours’ enemies, we are not in competition with them. We are in this life together, even if our social and political systems do their best to persuade us we are not. But waiting for the likes of Trump and Johnson to change things is utterly pointless. Just like lockdown, it is time we took matters into our own hands.
We can’t change the world but we can change our worlds and we can bring about small changes for those with whom we come into (two metre) contact. If nothing else both during and after this, we need to call out the control, act with mutual respect, and live collaboratively.
In Charles Kingsley’s children’s novel, The Water Babies, there were two characters whose names amused me when young. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby treated everyone as she would wish to be treated herself and so was kind and considerate, and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, meted out treatment to others which reflected the treatment they themselves had enacted. As you can imagine much of this treatment was not kind, it was punitive. I wondered which character best represents us today and come to the conclusion that we live in a reactive rather than a proactive society and that we as individuals are therefore far more reactive than proactive in return. Few of us are the Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby type – far more of us are the Mrs Bedonebyasyoudids. Further more, the former are rarely if ever recognised, and the latter tend to succeed through control and fear. But then that is to be expected when proactivity, initiative, creativity and agency is frowned upon and even punished. In a society that seeks, nay demands conformity, what else can we do?
If Covid 19 is to change anything once it is over, it will require us as individuals to change our behaviour. We can’t afford to wait for our leaders to do so. They are lost causes. We need to engage in a quiet revolution, by refusing to adopt the attitudes and practices of our toxic leaders. We need to learn to accept that life cannot be fully controlled, to find our own joy, and not measure it by the yardstick of others. We need to start treating people as we would wish to be treated, and calling others out when they do not respond in kind. We need to stop the isolation that comes with the control and fear with which we are ruled, join hands and hearts with those closest to us, and rebuild the world we want to live in out of the ashes of the old one.
President Obama said much the same: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Let’s stop sitting back and blaming the politicians and start to enact the kind of world we want to see. If we wait for them, we will wait forever. Until we get that change starts with us, we will never get it.