Neighbourhood watch: Curtain-Twitching and Coronavirus
This week’s regular blog from Anthony Peacock covers virtue-signalling in the time of coronavirus lockdown. Although it can be easy to judge others during lockdown life, Anthony prompts us to consider our motivations for this. Are we simply acting out of fear? In the end, it would be better to forgo our judgements and act with compassion and kindness. Read on for a thoughtful perspective on quarantine humanity.
Of all the horrendous stories I’ve heard about this country in immediate post-lockdown syndrome – and I’ve heard quite a few now – the most alarming was perhaps the tale from a suburb of London recently, where a lady (who probably had several other urgent and pressing matters to attend to) was ‘outed’ in her neighbourhood WhatsApp chat for not having emerged on her doorstep at 8pm on a Thursday to clap for carers.
I don’t know anything at all about the background, but I imagine that the poor lady in question was accused of uncharitable behaviour or something similar by her coven of uptight neighbours.
While lockdown has brought many people together, we’ve also seen the nasty side of virtue-signalling raise its ugly head on a regular basis. If I were the lady concerned, I’d be sorely tempted to move out of my house and turn it into a homeless shelter instead. All welcome.
Then we would actually see what the bourgeois neighbours thought about charity really coming to their doorsteps – and I imagine that they wouldn’t necessarily be applauding then.
But seriously: in these times, who would actually berate someone – without any knowledge of the individual’s circumstances – for not showing sufficient solidarity during what’s become a mere national ritual? Who are we to judge? What gives any of us the right?
Virtue in the wrong hands is more dangerous than a chimpanzee with an Uzi. The sort of people who abuse their neighbours for no reason tend to be the same sort of people who take pride in wearing high-visibility jackets and wielding clipboards for fun.
Some peoples’ life experiences have made them like this, so ultimately they are more deserving of sympathy than disapprobation. But that’s often hard to muster towards these die-hard disciples of health, safety and other people’s morality.
Those who act this way often do so out of fear. A normal counterpoint to fear is aggression, which is why the people who seem particularly angry or censorious at the moment are frequently those who are most affected and frightened.
Take social distancing (or physical distancing as some business owners prefer to call it, in a bid to persuade people to come out and socialise – just in a different way). There’s been a general relaxation of the rules and even the government, specifically Boris Johnson, has called upon people simply to use their ‘British common sense’.
The problem is, the definition of what exactly that constitutes varies wildly from person to person. I’ve personally seen about five cases of heated conflict happening just in the last week in London and it’s always roughly the same argument.
One person, often wearing a mask, says to another ‘stay back’ or ‘keep away from me.’ The other person – perhaps insulted by the insinuation that they are somehow toxic – retaliates with something along the lines of: ‘if you’re that scared, then just stay at home.’
In the most extreme example I witnessed, it ended with a threat to call the police amid accusations of racism, as one of the two was Chinese.
But who is scared of who? In truth, both are petrified of each other. The mask-wearer is scared of the other person, while the one who answers back is scared of the world and what it has become – which he can no longer control. It’s entirely understandable. Those people – the aggressors – are terrified of living in a world where they have to interact closely with other (masked) people and trust authority. They are scared of being small and powerless, because ultimately they are scared of themselves. But that doesn’t make them bad.
It sounds far-fetched and extreme, but there are many who will recognise a bit of both of those people and attitudes in themselves. I know I do.
What’s harder to work out is the undisguised glee that some people seem to take over snitching on others. I guess that’s down to the famously British sense of fair play: those who live doggedly by the rule book think that it’s unfair on them if others don’t. But fair play is also about not jumping to conclusions and respecting the opinions and actions of others, even if you don’t agree with them.
If people are being asked to use their common sense when it comes down to what to do – which seems to be the case – then common sense must also apply when it comes to judging others, rather than letting the inner freelance policeman take over.
By increasing enforcement you decrease individual thought and responsibility. At some point – probably very soon – we’re all going to have to decide when we feel it’s safe and appropriate to recommence our normal day to day activities. That point will come at different times for different people, for very different reasons. But the current situation simply can’t go on forever: the economic damage is already too great.
So now is not the time to claim the moral high ground, which too many people are over-eager to climb. Nobody knows exactly what’s going on in anybody else’s life. Instead, consider what really matters – rather than just what you want to show people you are thinking or doing – and demonstrate compassion towards those feeling more frightened or cynical than you. Their fear is real, but curtain-twitching or shaming doesn’t solve anything.
For more of Anthony Peacock’s coronavirus content, why not read some of his recent articles?