Trust withers in an environment where anyone who does not dutifully repeat the orthodox refrain by rote hazards condemnation as a rumourmonger spreading disinformation. The ubiquity of mask-wearing in public has become an apt metaphor for a situation in which we cannot have meaningful dialogue or rational debate.
From a classical perspective, a mask covering the mouth symbolizes the suppression of the distinctively human capacity for participation in intelligent speech. COVID has logos itself under virtual lockdown.
In an environment such as that, where politics properly so-called as befits free people seems to be on indefinite hold and all that remains is the direct and blunt exercise of power by the authorities, what are we supposed to do other than obey? We must remember that whatever the government decides to do to us is hardly the whole story. This is what I most want to emphasize.
I know that I don’t know whether the vaccines will prove safe and effective in the long run. I sure hope so. I have no business telling anybody whether they should or should not take them. I know that there’s little I can say to dissuade politicians from their course of action if their calculations tell them to make some people’s lives more miserable in order to better protect the rest of us. I have no public policy recommendations of my own to offer.
Read the fourth article of Convivium's COVID-19 series: A severe social side effect of the pandemic is the disconnection between those in authority we must trust and our personal experiences that contradict what we’re told, Travis Smith writes.
That said, whatever policies the State imposes, it is a further question how we will treat each other, irrespective of whether we count ourselves among those eager to take a vaccine or those inclined to decline it, even if only for a while to wait and see. On this subject, I do have an opinion.
It’s not earth-shattering, novel, or ingenious, but I think it’s worth humbly submitting as a gentle reminder: Endeavour to remain good neighbours. Be kind, be friendly, be accommodating, be accepting, be decent, be polite, be generous, be compassionate, have empathy.
These are all qualities that Canadians take pride in and sometimes get teased about. Canadians are also on average inclined to trust the government and follow the rules—something else we get mocked for—and I’m not here to champion disobedience. All I want to say right now is that whatever the government decides to do to us, we should take care to be as good to each other as we can.
After a year of watching civil society’s steady erosion, rather than behaving in ways that would further hasten its disintegration we should salvage and bolster what we can of it. We should have respect and sympathy for each other as we all face difficult choices in difficult times.
We’re all largely in the dark about so many things—stuck trusting our best judgment without knowing much of anything with certainty. We’re all struggling, exhausted, disoriented, and trying to cope, and under these conditions it is okay to be unsure. Decisions made under conditions of duress are bound to be desperate. Let’s be patient with each other. It’s not like this dreadful situation is going to evaporate rapidly as it would if life were like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Admittedly the masks and the distancing don’t help—they can make us mistrustful, withdrawn, and grumpy. But we can learn to smile with our eyes and maintain a degree of mutual respect through our masks, despite our differences. This goes both ways. On the one hand, if you’re the kind of person who is determined to refuse the vaccine, please respect those who haven’t hesitated. It does not help to contemptuously call them eunuchs or barren, serfs and slaves of the impending global techno-tyranny. Don’t flagrantly flaunt basic public health measures just to look tough and antagonize.
On the other hand, if you’re enthusiastic about getting in line but encounter someone who has decided to abstain, keep in mind that this is probably not an easy choice for them—especially as it means continuing to brave a greater possibility of infection, politically imposed sanctions, and social stigma. You don’t need to make it worse for them. Don’t take pleasure in any penalties imposed on them.
Try to understand that nobody is trying to kill your grandma. My own grandmother, come to think of it, has likened her experience of this past year, kept isolated in her retirement home, to her time surviving the Blitz, retreating regularly to her Anderson shelter. I suppose that from this point of view, Premier Ford is something like a latter-day Churchill.
In addition to any voluntary assistance that you could provide to those further inconvenienced by the government, I imagine there will be business opportunities for entrepreneurial types among those who have recently lost their jobs—for instance, providing delivery services and the like for those who are forbidden from living more normally (or made to live more abnormally, rather). I also expect an uptick in the demand for homeschooling resources. It’s not going to help the economy recover if there are dueling boycotts, against companies that either do or don’t discriminate against employees or customers who aren’t vaccinated.
In general, I hope that restrictions aren’t so strict or persistent that an underground economy forms around them, leading to measures to crack down on those, as that will only facilitate pernicious conspiracy theories.
I wish I could take it for granted that Canadians will remain good neighbours despite their disagreements. As a nation we don’t seem quite as divided as Americans appear to us, although there are pressures on all sides pushing us to emulate them more on this count. Social media in particular brings out the worst in people; it’s available to exacerbate whatever divisions arise. It’s disheartening to see people express glee online whenever individuals they detest test positive.
The more divided we become, the more isolated we feel, the more social trust declines, the less we look out for each other, and the more we regard each other as threats, the more power we are going to be willing to let the government assume in order to preserve us.
Theorists of modern democratic psychology have long worried about the way prevailing public opinions tend to become irresistible, going straight for the soul as Alexis de Tocqueville said, demanding conformity of convictions. We democratic people hate the appearance of inequalities and presumptive superiorities, but we cannot avoid them. Differences in opinion tend to mean each person thinks their view is right and good, i.e., better, while those of others are wrong and bad, i.e., worse.
Everybody wants to think of themselves as smarter and more righteous than those with whom they disagree—even when they could not know that they’re right and are only taking somebody else’s word for it on trust. People who want to decline the vaccine don’t want those whom they think might be mistaken about it gaining advantages over them. Many who can’t wait to take it won’t understand why somebody else might hesitate and are apt to be offended by their obstinacy, supposing it proves that, on top of being dangerous, these other people presume they’re somehow better or special. How dare they?
It’s worth observing, however, that the attitude that says, “if it’s good enough for me, it should be good enough for you, too,” actually betrays some doubt about something’s goodness.
I recommend moderating any tendency toward zeal on all sides. Let’s exhibit respect based in humility instead of demanding either conversion or coercion. I’d like us to avoid generating a new underclass of people subject to shunning, scorn, belligerence, and recrimination—unclean outcasts subject to exclusions and ostracism, a newfound Other on which to blame our woes, against which the political community may define itself so as to cement its solidarity. Wouldn’t it be nice to think we’ve learned to stop scapegoating by now?
Canadians take pride in welcoming people from diverse backgrounds who arrive here to avoid harsh treatment by the authorities. That’s part of our national DNA. Let’s keep striving to live up to that self-image. Surely by now we have learned that when governments single out some portion of the population for punitive treatment, if you assist in hounding those so targeted instead of showing them compassion, it usually doesn’t look good on you in hindsight. Throughout 2020 we have been told repeatedly that “we’re all in this together.” Well, the real test of that is coming.
I look forward to the time when I look back upon the concerns to which I’ve given expression here with relief—not merely because the vaccines proved exactly as safe and effective as promised, but also because governments revoked all of the policies instituted for the sake of harassing those who refrained from taking them rather than entrenching and expanding upon them; and beyond that, our social fabric has bounced back and thrives, more resilient than ever. Until then, if you’re sure I’ve been worrying about nothing, all I can do is ask for your forgiveness. Trust me, I hope you’re right.
Read part six of Convivium's COVID-19 series: Taking COVID to Court
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