THIRTEEN THINGS THE VIRUS IS REVEALING
We are more socially contagious than the virus is biologically
Those of us who live in the west have been shaped by a centuries old tradition that tells us we are each an island. We talk about individuals. It isn’t even an easy word to say, but it peppers our language and is the preferred term for economists. In the process we are stripped of our relational capacity. It’s believed we each make rational self-interested choices, neither influenced by others nor needing to take their life into account. Behavioural sciences started to eat away at this illusion several decades ago and the global pandemic will speed the process up. We are each profoundly influential. Knowing this makes us more human and empowers us to believe our quiet hope that we can each make a difference. The love of God is deeply infectious in those who believe that and show it and the virus shows how all contagions spread exponentially.
It's time to re-assessing touch
First it was the uncovering of systematic sexual abuse, often by individuals protected by silent or disbelieving institutions. Then #MeToo arrived. Harvey Weinstein became the new Jimmy Savile, and the scale of rape and sexual harassment of women by powerful, entitled men began to emerge. How we use our hands to touch one another has undergone long overdue scrutiny and we are still in transition. Coronavirus has added to this. The inability for consenting people to hug and kiss one another has been a painful blow to well-being. Learning how to use touch in a healing and affirming way is a task for the twenties. It has always had a role in the healing ministry of the Church and we should express this confidently where it is welcomed. But we need to talk more about what it looks like now.
Technology is a blessing, but it will never be as satisfying as meeting face to face
Imagine how hard our social confinement would be without the internet. It has alleviated social isolation, spread humour and allowed smart interventions. Some people may be Zoomed-out already and tired of having to look attentive because you never know who’s looking at you at any moment, but there will be many who want more of these meetings when our lockdowns are lifted. After all, it shrinks the carbon footprint and saves on travel time. But there is a power in meeting physically that can never be matched by gadgetry. Intuition is compromised by Zoom. Interpreting the subtle movement of facial muscles and body posture is harder and likelier to lead to greater misunderstanding and conflict.
We have been created as social beings. There is already a body of research which shows the healing power of face to face conversations that mediated ones cannot recreate. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has led in this field, with Reclaiming Conversation showing how we have sacrificed conversation for connection and Alone Together showing how technology distorts for the worse the relationships immediately in front of us. Being with people cuts it; being separated from them doesn’t. Imagine the first Day of Pentecost mediated via laptop.
Life in second gear is better than Friends suggests
There came a point in the nineties when life began to speed up, courtesy of two developments. The first was the tech revolution. In a matter of years we became networked 24/7 and the expectation of many bosses is that we live it. Over the same period, the UK began to jettison Sunday as a Christianised sabbath. We no longer had clear boundaries for where work and leisure, public and private, lay. The effects are manifold and increasingly well-documented.
In an ironic twist, we have just had a truck load of sabbaths dumped on us, demanding self-disciplined home-based rest. The cumulative effect is bewildering, but it has led some to ask, wouldn’t we benefit from slowing down? And if we did this, perhaps unplugging one day a week and connecting with friends and family would be a start. There will be huge pressure to make up for lost time when the crisis abates, but to hit the ground walking, not running, may be the wisest recourse. Could we manage it? Don’t hold your breath for society-wide alterations, but cultural change begins small.
Selfishness is what other people do
When will any of us properly learn that we do it, too? Our conversation, personal and mediated, has been full of accounts of the self-centredness of other people. The little chemical hit it gives our brains to blame other people is a gift that keeps on giving. We create a moral universe of microscopes, not mirrors. Other people’s actions are scrutinised forensically in a petri-dish. But we permit no glass to look at our own lives through. We have become skilled at confessing little quirks as a way of distracting attention from what we don’t want people to dwell on. This isn’t going to change any time soon.
Finally getting mental health
We’re certainly talking about it more. Baby boomers were poor at it, whispering quietly about colleagues who had ‘breakdowns’, as if that word actually meant anything. Gen Xers, inspired by the late Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir Prozac Nation, opened up. Millennials have been more vocal still, enabling others to break their silence. But it is the iGeneration of today’s teenagers which has seen the steepest rise in mental illness. When they assume public power, mental illness will be treated in an entirely new way, but the coronavirus crisis has exposed whole populations to mental fragility. Might the health of our minds finally become a political priority? Anyone who says this crisis didn’t affect their mental well-being is surely lying.
Now we are all journalists, it’s time to learn from the best
Citizen journalism is becoming more important by the year. We can all have our say online. The hope was always that in a free market of opinion, the best would be shared and the worst marginalised. But that was before social media was assaulted by an army of bots, trolls and organised operations designed to spread fear and lies. A serious journalist checks and re-checks their story and their sources until they are sure of their veracity. In our sloppiness, many of us simply forward, share or re-tweet information and articles we have not studied properly because we like the title or want to be the immediate source of apparently big news for our friends. In our negligence, we do the work of those who spread lies. This has been especially true of coronavirus.
That existential thing
What kind of effect does a crisis on this scale have on people’s sense of purpose, their sense of God? Google searches don’t lie, and they already give evidence of a large increase in people wanting to know how to pray during this crisis. This will not necessarily translate into long term changes of life, because, let’s face it, prayer for some is just an extension of Deliveroo – an occasional takeaway ordered for convenience. But for many it will mean a lot more. Recognising these people and reaching them supportively will be a new mission. But there will be more still who for the first time see the ‘window in the sky’ (2 Kings 7:19) that God has long left open to converse with him through.
While the closing of churches, especially over the Easter season, has caused anguish, it has created new virtual audiences. Figures show much larger numbers viewing online services than attending in person, though these figures need to be interrogated properly. The crisis has hit us existentially. Is the Nicodemus generation also showing up in these analytics? Nicodemus approached Jesus in the night because he did not want others to see the encounter. Church has become alien to so many that, even if they wanted to, turning up to a service where you don’t know anyone or have the faintest idea what to do simply isn’t how to spend an easy Sunday morning. Checking it out via a laptop over brunch is safer. And if this translates into visiting church in time, it is likely to be in a church that comes across well online. This is something we have given only sporadic attention to in the past, but which is likely to change.
For church leaders, there are risks round competition. In the same way the bigger online companies have gained from the virus, so might larger, networked churches, though evidence is emerging of the importance of the local church in online engagement, or where there is an existing relationship. Behind it all, new generations are looking for honesty and authenticity in their relationships and spiritual encounters. No amount of tech can deliver this, only a church that is in tune with God and refreshingly open to questioning.
Experts are back. Possibly.
The last decade has been like going back to school. The adult population is being divided between those who think knowing stuff is cool and those who don’t. The assumption that those who govern belong to the former cohort has been undermined by leaders across the world who are proud of their own ignorance and trust their gut instincts over scientific evidence. Populists maintain that experts are self-interested and fraudulent, protecting existing systems that privilege elites over the people. As historian Simon Schama has observed of the coronavirus, some in the US think science is ‘a lefty plot’. In any case, now we have access to unlimited information, many claim equivalent expertise armed with an iPad, a latte and Google search.
Thankfully, people are beginning to trust experts again, despite the loss of trust in the institutions they represent. Evidence - sifted and analysed - is guiding policy in the UK. But there is rarely certainty in life, especially in the interaction of human beings. Conspiracy theorists have always latched onto plagues, and their currency has appreciated in value online as likeminded misfits find one another. The rise of the expert is linked inextricably to viral outcomes today. Let’s hope it leads us to a better place.
This is an unexpected moment of truth for civil society
Much research suggests that people join bodies and volunteer less than before. Yet suddenly in the UK we have nearly a million people volunteering in the crisis. The seam of goodwill that has been unexpectedly tapped into has been a moment of cheerfulness in a bleak landscape. When the emergency passes, is there a way of harnessing the energy and altruism of a new cohort of volunteers? Some will inevitably slip away, but if newly formed neighbourhood bodies can evolve beyond the virus, and people encouraged to volunteer for existing, poorly resourced charities, civil society could be renewed. We are more aware now of the needs of lonely people who involuntarily self-isolate. The consciousness we sustain of them will show whether we have gained community – or let it slip from our grasp.
It’s also a defining moment for the State
Trillions of dollars have been pumped into western economies run by governments that believe in a small State and reducing the national debt. Ersatz socialism is back, administered by right wing governments. Younger generations, already disillusioned by becoming the first in memory to be less well off than their parents, will have to deal with new heights in national debt long after the rest of us have died.
After the financial crash in the last decade, large sums were injected into the global system, followed by a prolonged period of austerity that hurt too many people least able to cope. These people remain the most vulnerable coming out of the current crisis, but they will be joined by many more who have entered the ranks of the precariat – those without any job security in the new gig economy.
Millennials will eventually assume power, and they won’t forget the treatment they have received, however unintentionally, from their elders. How they interpret the lessons from two major global recessions in a decade will re-shape democratic politics.
And a contest between different kinds of government
The dividing lines have re-assembled since the Cold War between democratic and authoritarian governments and plenty are watching to see who the future belongs to. This dividing line has been complicated by insurgent populists, who can be found on either side. Post -1989 assumptions about the unassailable power of democracies have been sullied by the financial crash and the war in Iraq. Some political leaders note the dominance of China’s economy and envy the reach of its surveillance State. The Beijing consensus of state capitalism and restricted social freedoms appeals to those who want to stay in power for a long time without challenge to their self-enrichment.
Who comes out of the coronavirus best will influence the direction that many countries take. A failure to manage it well, in a place like Iran, could ultimately unseat the regime. China’s initial failure to take the virus seriously and to suppress experts who saw its lethality has shown up the inherent weakness of government without openness. Subsequent propaganda blaming the virus’ existence on the US military underlines the corruption. On the other side, pinning responsibility on the ‘Chinese’ virus shows the unseemly, nationalistic battle behind the war on coronavirus.
If democratic governments fail to deliver, they too may face a reckoning that at best would re-shape their polity and at worst introduce a different kind of virus.
Will the mainstreaming of extremism gather pace?
Extremists are doing it differently today. Co-ordinated online swarming round other feeds has injected hatred and deceit into social life. Populists are the critical link between extremists and mainstream politicians. They adopt some of the tone and rhetoric of extremists, while denying it, and frighten the mainstream into assimilating watered-down versions of the populists’ arguments so they do not lose votes in turn. In this way, extremism has found viral traction in otherwise peaceful, accepting societies.
The global crash of 1929 was followed by full-blown fascism. The financial collapse of 2007-08, by a virulent new extreme right. This had not subsided by the time of the virus – far from it. What will follow the coronavirus crash that lies ahead of us? This may be the last thing that crisis-weary populations want to have to think about, but there can be no weakness or complacency in addressing this. It lurks with new poisonous conspiracy theories about what has just happened. These are ridiculous, but absurdity is no obstacle for the extremist.
Actually, all I’ve said is probably completely wrong
We get so many predictions wrong – even the people who are paid to search for and analyse trends. Human society is extraordinarily dynamic, and trying to picture the long term implications of the crisis is as reliable as our memory of what happened on a boring day twenty years ago. But there is a God in heaven who does, to whom we pray. And from whom we appeal for wisdom at a defining moment for this world.
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