“But now old friends are acting strange / They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed”
– Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
We have been learning a lot about each other, haven’t we? Lately, I’m having difficulty recognizing Canada and many of my fellow Canadians. I find conversations among friends and acquaintances, remarks overheard at meetings and social gatherings, not to mention opinions posted to social media and online comments sections, exhibiting distressing levels of suspicion, accusation, repulsion, rebuke, resentment, contempt, schadenfreude, spite, indignation, panic, vanity, enmity, and plain old nastiness—even among people I remember as kind and warm-hearted. It’s sometimes jeering, sometimes sneering, and occasionally seething. It’s almost like something has gotten into us and turned us into to something we’re not.
I don’t want to exaggerate and pretend it’s unremitting and all-pervasive, but the degree to which it’s noticeable is notable. One must be careful not to mistake social media for reality, of course, but for a lot of people over the past year and a half, social media has effectively become their reality. I see churchgoing Christians sharing mean-spirited memes and messages unabashedly passing judgments such as “Good riddance!” with respect to people who are being fired or placed on leave. I even see pastors disseminating that same attitude unashamedly. I’m waiting for them to announce that everyone is welcome to share the Lord’s Supper—except for you-know-who.
Meanwhile, our prime minister and our premiers talk about having “no sympathy” and “no patience” for a significant number of individuals they are tasked to represent. Their words are designed to embolden and justify ordinary people looking askance at their neighbours with similar disregard and disgust, while news anchors, pundits, and public health experts urge us further.
I anticipated that our leaders might try to do this to us in an article back in January, arguing that standing together against efforts by public authorities to divide us would represent the real “we’re all in this together.” Some of us, however, have proved most enthusiastic about turning on each other. The question now is: How hard-hearted are you prepared to be? How excited are you to finally have a state-sponsored excuse to practice discrimination?
The desire to mistreat others who don’t agree with us and won’t conform their behaviour to our own is a deepfelt primitive impulse that modern liberal society, with its ethic of toleration, usually frustrates and frowns upon. Now it’s being given the nod, the go ahead, the all clear. How much misery are you giddy about seeing others endure? Get ready to savour it. Will you actively contribute to bringing it about, or are you simply pleased to passively watch while the immense power of the State apparatus and its corporate partners do it on your behalf? Luckily, you’ll have nothing to worry about; you’ve done nothing wrong.
I understand why people are impatient. For a year and a half, the authorities have made sure we’re constantly afraid, feeling vulnerable and desperate. Now and then we’re given reason to imagine that we’re getting closer to pulling through, only to be told instead that the crisis has been prolonged yet again. Our life-plans have been upended, our retirements put on pause, our minds assailed, and our physical well-being compromised. Some of us have survived a terrible illness; others have not. Many of us have been told for a year and a half that we’re fundamentally “inessential.” That will take its toll. Our society has denied the inherent value of so many of its members’ lives for so long that we’ve been primed for treating the lives of others as if they are in fact without value—especially if that gives us hope that maybe we’ll be allowed to reassert our own value eventually.
Nowadays, well-meaning women and men are pinning their hopes on the expectation that if only we could get everyone over the age of five to take their shots quickly, we would finally get back to normal. These people don’t mean anybody any harm; they sincerely desire the common good, and they just want a way out of this mess. Whenever I hear that sort of hope expressed, I cannot help but wonder whether it’s blissful or willful ignorance.
Given our leaders’ track records—not to mention how many booster shots our prime minister has pre-ordered for several years to come—I’m pretty sure it’s unlikely things will go that way. Should breakthrough cases continue to rise—and as Peter Stockland has proposed, “breakthrough case” is only a euphemism for vaccine failure—we will soon see kids four years old and younger receiving the brunt of the blame. The little monsters.
Right now, it’s the animosity cultivated toward the uninjected that is most outwardly and obviously ugliest. Consider the Toronto Star’s now-infamous August 26 “Let them die” bold-above-the-fold fearmongering, or the National Post’s earlier front-page paranoia from May 29: “They live among us.” But under today’s unstable and volatile circumstances, what’s ugliest might change, perhaps suddenly. I am particularly concerned about the discontent brewing among a portion of the uninjected in reaction to the government’s perceived untrustworthiness as well as its punitive measures.
Already anticipating a series of frightening scenarios, ranging from a second, deadlier pandemic to Internet outages, power grid and supply chain problems, massive deaths among the injected or mass incarceration of the uninjected, all the way to martial law enacted with the support of foreign troops, there is no shortage of imaginative theories about what’s next. On October 3, I saw Ontario MPP Randy Hillier asking people on Twitter if they were ready to defend themselves using force. Among those who have been gearing up, a few seem disturbingly eager—vaingloriously imagining they’re sufficiently prepared to save themselves. It looks to me like they’re already caught in a trap.
You may want to reassure me, “This is Canada; things could never get that bad.” Unfortunately, I feel like we’ve been living in Not-Canada for a while. Among different kinds of conflicts, those between groups who identify themselves as righteous and their opponents as wicked are generally worse than mere clashes between classes or quarrels over territory. What is clear is that a blame game is afoot, and two groups of victims are being pitted against each other: Covidians versus Covidiots. They’re being made to blame each other for a situation that is ultimately the fault of neither.
I asked an acquaintance in a career related to family law whether anyone in their profession thinks our governments have been behaving in ways that resemble abusive spouses or parents. “All of us, every day,” was the reply. Even if our authorities only ever meant to sincerely serve the common good—and not seize immeasurable power and wealth for themselves and their partners indefinitely—it does not alter the fact that they have done so in a manner that is effectively indistinguishable from abuse, leaving us all scarred, scared, bewildered, and bitter.
So that we don’t keep taking our aggravations out on each other, more of us on all sides need to try to be more understanding and respectful of each other, not less, admitting to ourselves how little truth about what’s really going on any of us actually know.
There is a pandemic of people pretending to know things they could not possibly know. The difference between us is not that many of us surely know the whole truth whereas the remainder is altogether ignorant—whichever side you think which. Rather, we mainly disagree over who to trust and what not to trust. Unfortunately, it is that very distinction upon which holy wars are grounded. Thus, we sorely need to resurrect the virtues of humility, forgiveness, compassion, and toleration, rather than suppress and censure them further.
The principal distinction being drawn is between people who either think that the virus is the worst, but the vaccines are really great, or that the vaccines are the worst, but the virus isn’t so bad. We Canadians, with our faith in progress, both moral and technological, have been educated to believe that it is rational to expect happy endings in this world. We trust in our abilities to arrange or engineer them.
What if, instead, the divide described above is a false choice, and the truth is less comical. What if the virus is indeed bad—particularly for those in high-risk categories—and the vaccines really aren’t so great, for us as individuals or as a species (especially if the mass deployment of leaky vaccines in the midst of a pandemic involving a highly mutable pathogen turns out to have been unwise—to sample but one grim theory presently circulating and awaiting confirmation).
Beyond that, perhaps the passports and the mandates supposedly being implemented to fight the virus and promote the shots are worse and worse still in other ways. Canadians are not inclined to imagine or prepared to accept prospects like these.
As a result of lockdown measures and other policies that have inculcated fear and distrust for so long, we have largely stopped talking to one another as we used to, as we should. Even before the pandemic we could see how coarse and tribal our virtual interactions online tend to become. It is so easy to hate each other through a screen; sometimes it seems almost obligatory.
If we are to remember that we are all in this together, rather than allow ourselves to be turned against one another for the profit and empowerment of others, we should start talking to each other again. We must remember who we are and how to properly relate to each other rather than seeing ourselves and each other as our leaders and their arms in the media seem to want us to. They’re preaching poison, and too many of us are consuming it and in turn spewing it. The pandemic will leave lasting consequences for how we see each other—friends, neighbours, colleagues, family members—from which it will be difficult to recover. People will remember and many won’t be quick or able to forgive.
Before we allow ourselves to be turned against each other in irrevocable ways—before we watch perplexedly, smugly, or callously as our government treats a minority of its citizens as enemies within to be personally and permanently ruined—we need to remember what it means to be Canadian. Remember how much we pride ourselves on our friendliness? The whole world used to make fun of us for it. If you’re finding that memory too difficult to retrieve, ask yourself why, and for whose benefit that has happened to you. Would the 2018 versions of ourselves have ever believed we’d allow ourselves to get like this? Would the 2018 versions of ourselves be proud of who we’ve become? Who are we willing to become by 2022?
If you know someone who disagrees with you on the important issues of the day—especially someone whom, upon reflection, you’ll faintly recall isn’t simply stupid and bad—do not shun them. Talk to them. Take whatever safety measures you believe are necessary, of course, but talk to them, just for starters. Seek understanding. Be forgiving rather than reproachful. We all know a lot less than we think we do, as I’ve said, and our disagreements are mostly about who to trust. There are many reasons why some people choose to trust and many reasons why others have stopped trusting.
I have to hope we are not so intoxicated by venom and dread that it is no longer possible for us to coexist. The bureaucracy may treat all of us like we are only data points, but we must remember to treat each other as human beings, as persons. To date, they’ve been very successful at dividing us. You know what comes after divide.
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