The End Will Not Come Easily
The end of the pandemic will not come easily.
These words, from Danish political scientist Michael Bang Petersen in today’s New York Times, state what is self-evident to many, particularly here in Canada where the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has dominated the news over the past week or so. For many, relinquishing the emotional urgency that this pandemic has thrust upon us has the feel of a bitter concession. “The End of the Pandemic May Tear Us Apart,” warns Petersen’s ominous headline, and after the two years we have all endured, few would doubt this is true.
The article is refreshingly sane, measured, and wise and is well worth reading in its entirety. But I was particularly struck by Dr. Petersen’s succinct and, to my mind at least, accurate portrayal of what’s going on in so much of what passes itself off as public debate these days:
For two years people have debated the value of masks, vaccine passports and more, to the point that they are no longer opinions but identities. And when opinions become identities, they warp our understanding and make it harder to change one’s mind as the situation changes. The truth is that we are all biased.
Well, yes. This seems painfully obvious here in Alberta these days with road blockades and protests and fiery responses dominating the news and everyday conversation daily. The situation might not be as acute where you are, but I suspect you would only have to stick a toe in the shallow end of the social media pool to be afforded rich confirmation of Petersen’s assessment. We live in a world where increasingly opinion = identity, and identity is all. This is not good, to put it mildly.
Two years into this thing, some of us have so thoroughly made our opinions about Covid a key piece of our identities that it almost defines us. For many, Covid has become the grand narrative that gives life meaning and purpose (even, sadly, many Christians). When this is the case, dialing back the intensity becomes extremely difficult. We cannot concede that we may have been wrong or at least less right than we imagined. We can’t acknowledge that in a fluid situation where things change rapidly, and in a media context that incentivizes polarization and hostility, we have all misread, misinterpreted, prioritized wrongly, spoke out of ignorance, etc. Going back to “normal,” however gradually, could seem to lay all of this bare. Indeed, some may not even want things to go back to normal. Chris Hedges wrote a book with the memorable title, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It certainly is and does. And for many, that meaning will be difficult to give up.
Well, what to do about all this. I have no idea how to solve the macro problems, but on a micro level I can only believe that if we are to in any way make the end of this pandemic come easier, we will have to at least try to reach across the divides we have created (or accelerated) and try to inhabit the experience of those who do not think like us, however odious we find their views, however threatening to the identities we have spent the last two years constructing and fortifying this might be. I wish there were some easier path that didn’t involve enmeshing ourselves in the stew of ugliness and complexity and self-interested signalling and half-truths and partial information and identity posturing. But there is no other way. We will have to reach across and attempt to genuinely understand those who are different from us. We will have to come to re-imagine one another as human beings instead of avatars of this or that ideology or political perspective.
When I was in graduate school, one of my theology professors made us do an interesting exercise on our final exam. We were given three statements that were currently generating theological controversy in the church. We had one hour to write on each one (and were told that if we didn’t use the full hour we should not expect an A!). We were instructed to marshal all of the course reading and lectures in our response, to make the best theological case possible for how and why we had arrived at our conclusions. But there was a catch. No matter how strongly we disagreed or agreed with the statement we were attempting to refute or defend, we had to start by laying out the position we disagreed with in the best possible terms. We were to affirm everything that could be affirmed, even if it wasn’t much. Most importantly, we were to describe the viewpoint that we were opposed to in terms that would be acceptable to someone who held that particular view.
I have never forgotten this exercise. I have returned to it often in my writing and pastoral ministry more broadly. Is how I am talking to or about this person or position something that they would recognize and affirm? It’s a vitally important question to ask. Nothing is easier than taking cheap shots at a caricature. Nothing is easier than labelling all protesting truckers as white supremacists bent on spreading “hate.” Nothing is easier than labelling all Black Lives Matters or Defund the Police protesters as anarchists or mindless rioters. This is a very easy path to take, and many take it.
We need to do better. In how we stagger out of this pandemic and in our discourse more broadly. We need—somehow—to recover a view of those we disagree with as neighbours instead of enemies.