Will we use this crisis to rediscover the value of community – or for more suspicion and othering?
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:
Part 1: We’ve been told before that things will never be the same again – can we mean it this time?
Part 2: Last weekend’s pandemic-panic awayday was inevitable – but so was the visceral response
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Sadly history does not give us many examples of the mass of people following progressive principles when society becomes unstable and afraid, but embrace the tyrants with simple solutions to complex problems .
Some of what’s going on reminds me of a novel by Isaac Asimov whereby people very seldom actually met in person, at a distance apart, but “viewed” one another.
Not Ulysses, that is unreadable but just done Aeneid and over halfway through Iliad with Odyssey to come. Chuck in a couple of detective type stories and Nicolas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” and that will see me OK for a while. As for despots they are precisely what the Anglo-Norman psyche drools over . The most subservient people on the planet yearn for a strong person to tighten their serf collars on a regular basis and this recent version of the Enabling Act is quite mild compared to what the Daily Mail would wish. No surprise that 1984, V for… Read more »
not usually a Mail reader but Peter Hitchens isn’t the usual Mail writer -https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2020/03/theres-powerful-evidence-this-great-panic-is-foolish-yet-our-freedom-is-still-broken-and-our-economy.html
Wales has always had a strong basis of community, and I see no reason why this should not survive a pandemic. Parker might be correct as regards social conventions like smoking, but he should not confuse adherence to/abandonment of those conventions with human nature. People want to get back to how things were before, and as soon as possible. Once again, a pointless article with a misguided premise.
I am using the time to learn Cymraeg. I think I know a couple of the “curtain Twitchers”, they regularly report our neighbours for parking outside their house, it’s a perfectly legal place to park, they just don’t like people parking there. I remember seeing a documentary about some of the documents found after the fall of Nazi Germany, thousands of people had been reported to the authorities by their neighbours
Parking outside people’s houses can be terribly annoying. Slamming of doors, revving motors and, maybe worst of all, tooting the horn merrily as you drive away, especially at night!
Seek out the movie “The lives of others.” Must be on-line somewhere.
“Community” is a good thing to aim for but don’t expect much input from politicians. They appear to be most concerned about talking down and/or adopting values from other countries uncritically, despite frowning on cultural appropriation ! Indeed any immediate impulse to shift in a positive direction could be met with suspicion as most of our communities have been s**t upon from a great height or just abused by being ignored and/or neglected for so long. Any move to rectify that drift will need to be communicated clearly and invite their participation in depth.
Thank you Mike for another superb article.
In my opinion, the Welsh people are capable of creating a caring society. Our society.
When rural people cant go on a 5 mile hike across a mountain to nowhere … thats martial law