There have been other occasions when differences of opinion have come to the fore in the public arena (e.g. the debates about marriage equality, the Vietnam War, climate change, etc), but the recent rise of the anti-vax, anti-lockdown, anti-mask element in society is different.
For a start, it does not follow political party lines, nor along layers of social stratification, nor is it based on ethnic, gender or religious categories. One might assume there might be differences in levels of education between the two sides, but though the ‘anti-‘ side might, on average, be less educated, it is by no means definitive. There have been some high-profile, well-educated people who have pitched their tent on the oppugnant side of the river.
Unlike social divisions in my youth, where only a few key spokespeople were widely heard on a subject, today everyone can have their opinion spread around the world in a flash on social media. The debate, often far from polite and respectful, goes on in thousands, or even millions of conversations on Facebook, Instagram, et al. It is uncertain whether we are more divided than we used to be, or just more aware of the divisions.
However, the current campaigns/protests by the ‘anti’ elements are different in one very unfortunate way: they champion the selfishness of the individual against the common good. This was not the case in the recent debates on marriage equality or the peace protests in the 60s and 70s or the case of aboriginal land rights, which were ideological differences; i.e. they were examples of a kind of tribalism rather than a focus on the individual.
The disturbing aspect of the current protests is that it is a rebellion against measures to protect the people, particularly those most at risk. Protesters are saying, in effect, “I don’t want to do anything to protect my fellow human beings if it imposes restrictions on my ability to do what I want, when I want, where I want. My wants are more important than the well-being of anyone else.”
This result is not unanticipated, for it has been coming for my entire life and beyond. A couple hundred years ago, most people lived in towns and villages, and the settlements that would become cities were still in their infancy. Life was not always easy, and government services did not exist, so people had to rely on one another. Because they lived in much smaller communities, people knew a significant proportion of their neighbours. When there was a need, they helped out the best they could because, if for no other reason, there was a very good chance they might be the ones needing help in the future.
Humans evolved as social animals because those pre-human variants that were not social did not have as good a chance of surviving and having offspring. Social animals help each other survive, and this cooperative mind-set rendered them more fit to succeed in the evolutionary stakes.
As life became easier, the need for others decreased. Our pride is such that if we can be independent, this will be our preferred choice. Communities also grew in size and populations became more mobile, which meant that people no longer got to know most of the people who lived in the same locale. Government agencies and programs started to take over the care of people who struggled with life, thus relieving the rest of the responsibility they previously carried for contributing to the care of one’s neighbours-in-need. In short, as the need for a tightly knit community decreased, the interest in being part of the community also decreased.
The withering of community has been a constant theme in my life as I’ve gone from growing up in a small town, where the notion of community was a real part of my experience, to the anonymity of bring just another nameless person in a big neighbourhood, most of the people of which were also anonymous. It is the one big, lingering sadness in my life about the state of human evolution.
The deadliest aspect of the current pandemic is not the threat of Covid-19, but the growing selfishness of so many people. It represents another nail in the coffin of human community, and ultimately, in the coffin of the human race.
The church bears a quite different message, and it is an increasingly urgent message: we are ONE. What affects one affects all. The notion of individualism is but a pipe-dream that risks taking us all into a nightmare.