“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Disapproval makes me nervous. I hate people hating on me. Some folks thrive on argument and controversy, but I am a fan of the smiley-cuddly-quiet life. I didn’t write for a terribly long time because I found the hostility that I contended with every day just from walking in the world as myself too exhausting to allow me to deal with a whole second stream of criticism. Being different, whether accidentally or on purpose, is still considered an act of provocation. Yet, being a writer requires a thick skin. You can’t please everyone all the time, and in our digitally oriented world of instant circulation and viral shaming anyone can get their feelings or opinions nailed to the wall a million times over just for having the sheer audacity to share them. The internet makes writers of us all, leaving us all open and vulnerable to criticism, disapproval and shaming.
For the argument’s sake, I’m going to call this Phase Two. The initial terror and panic have been replaced by blazing anger, gnawing fear and damning vitriol. Everyone, it seems, is a Snowflake or a Karen (covidiot didn’t really stick, did it?). The internet has always (at least in my experience) been an angry place, but as the battle lines over reopening are drawn there’s so much hate and hostility on both sides that tuning out of politics and tweeting about puppies can feel like the safest, sanest thing to do. The current situation is laying open our differences in brutally visible and tangible ways, with new polarising stories constantly breaking and public policy uncertain and unpredictable. Politics and religion, those classic conversational minefields, have already stirred up huge social discontent in our lives, pitting friends and family against one another through the whole Brexit-Trump debacle of the last four years. Now the days of Brexit seem positively halcyon as folks are publicly shamed for walking two-abreast, derided as ignorant disease-spreaders, mocked for being paranoics or accused of suppressing civil liberties. This is not a time where any of us can gain wholehearted approval for anything we do, say or think.
Right now, talking (and writing) make me nervous. With frustrations running high as the debate over reopening intensifies and we are bombarded with increasing numbers of conflicting studies and diverse expert opinions, it’s hard to know what to think, never mind what to say. Untrustworthy news sources are the icing on the powder keg. Fake news has gone from a source of horror to a joke to an accepted part of everyday life, allowing us to choose what we believe and creating an ideological battleground where everyone claims that science is on their side. With each of us affected differently by the crisis, we all have a divergent take-away and even among intimate friends and family unexpected differences of opinion are emerging. Small things that we may not have noticed or cared about before become sticking points. Some people are immediately easier to converse with than others, and it may not be the ones you’d expect. But how to get there in the first place? Sounding out safe conversational ground can feel like a dance across a field of social landmines that could explode into a cloud of shaming at any moment. We’ve all been shocked at things our friends and relatives have said, as they undoubtedly have been by us. Even those of us who want desperately to keep everyone happy are unable to open our mouths (or our browsers) without putting somebody’s back up.
Most of us yearn for a fair, tolerant society where different viewpoints are valued and included, but once you throw death and poverty into the mix, the pressures of survival force us to push for what we believe will meet our needs safely and in the quickest, simplest manner. Empathy dissipates in the face of righteous panic, making our divisions more potent and dangerous, and at times it feels safest not to say anything at all. When this is all over, how will we go back to communicating openly, knowing all of each other’s hidden weaknesses and prejudices? Can we ever look at one another the same way again? Will we ever be able to trust in the objectivity of the information we’re able to access, and how will the balance between individual and societal needs be restored? Will any kind of approval or consensus become an oxymoron relegated to history? When the only certain thing is uncertainty and it’s hard to trust anyone or anything, the future seems a very bleak place indeed. If this really is our version of the Black Death then we may still have the Dark Ages to come.