Human evolution is a long old game. We still have our coccyx, the remnant of a long-vanished tail, and our wisdom teeth, from when we needed them to grind food like an elementary mill. Even getting goosebumps is just a hark back to the time when we needed, like dogs, to raise our hairy hackles at potential or perceived threats. It’s just as well that that’s developed out of us, because right now, there’d be a hell of a lot of hackle-raising going on from our regulation two metres apart. We’d be like a kennel of pit bulls.
While physical changes to our bodies evolve at a glacial pace over dozens of generations, our brains are rewired with almost indecent haste. Already, you see a photo of friends clustered together, grinning inanely at the camera, and you gasp at the sheer recklessness of it, and screech the mantra, “social distancing, people! Two metres! Now!” And then you realise that it is a photograph from only three weeks ago.
The first time it impressed on me how quickly, and how thoroughly, our behaviour is impacted by an external change in circumstances came with the smoking ban in 2007. Almost immediately, and despite the law covering only public places, it became unthinkable to light up in someone’s house. Smokers became pariahs overnight. When the BBC recently rescreened zeitgeist 90s drama This Life, the middle-aged were terrified that our cherished memories would be trashed, but actually what made us ache with nostalgia was not the copious shagging, but the carefree smoking.
There is plenty of evidence that the digital age has already significantly rewired our brains, and so our behaviour. I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me, rather shamefacedly, that they don’t really read books any more because they don’t think they can concentrate for long enough. Our butterfly minds skitter around, hopping from one diversion to the next, and never quite finishing any of them. Is there anyone using lockdown to learn Portuguese or read Ulysses, as we were so ambitiously proclaiming at the outset?
In times of crisis, the change accelerates rapidly, and the goalposts of normality shift fast. Right now, they could go either way. We have, on the one hand, already seen a phenomenal surge in community organisation; neighbours, including many who have never even spoken before, forming shopping and support networks, or going out of their way to look out for the elderly and vulnerable.
For every one of those however, there is someone whose idea of looking out for their neighbours goes no further than filming them through net curtains in order to dob them in to the authorities. “We are getting calls from people who say ‘I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’”, said an incredulous spokesman for Northamptonshire police on Saturday, and that “We have had dozens and dozens of these calls.” He then forgot to add, “now excuse me, while I fire up the camera-drone; we’ve had intel that there’s someone on a footpath just outside Kettering.”
(For what it’s worth, the police may find that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew by taking on the fundamentalist wing of the Ramblers Association. These are people who know their rights and will very happily reel off, for as long as it takes, every single one of the relevant sub-clauses of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act. And don’t try and do them for lack of social distancing either. They’ve not made eye contact with anyone since 1988.)
Which way will we jump? Towards using this crisis as a way of reminding ourselves of what matters, of reordering society, of closing its gaps and rediscovering the value of community? Or towards further atomisation, suspicion, hostility and othering, covertly encouraged by despots with crack comms teams? It’s one or the other, and it’s time to choose.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: