Contempt Is Corrosive

I have been able to write nothing about the current situation. Nothing and everything. I have written nothing about it explicitly. And yet it has emerged in everything that I’ve written.

But before I can carry on, I must step back.

I end up not updating this blog regularly because, contrary to what many people seem to think, I don’t enjoy writing about myself. And it’s not just the writing I don’t enjoy. I also deeply dislike – and have a huge problem with – asking other people to read something that I have written about myself (which is effectively what I would be doing if I were to click ‘Publish’ on a post that was entirely self-centred).

That’s one of the reasons I make up stories: so that I can try to explore my own truths in a way that feels like an act of reaching out, rather than drawing in.

I also don’t enjoy writing about specific others. Heaven knows, I have plenty to say about the people in my life (I’m sure they have just as much to say about me) but as I’ve indicated on these pages before, I think it would be cruel, insensitive and ultimately pointless to air my views on other individuals in a public forum.

That’s another reason I make up stories: so that I can try to understand the behaviour of those around me in a way that feels like an act of compassion rather than judgement.

Finally, I viscerally detest trying to compose brief, soundbite-style pieces about ‘the state of the world’, or the latest horrors emerging from Downing Street, or whatever it is that Agent Orange in Washington DC has said or done to bring us one step closer to All-Pervasive Global Despair. Again, I have a good deal to say about all these things, but not in nugget-sized chunks. Because I think those are reductive. They try to simplify issues that shouldn’t be simplified. And they tend to be more about style than substance.

That’s yet another reason I make up stories: so that I can create as broad a canvas as my brain can imagine, and then allow a subject to emerge on it with as much slowness and deliberation and complexity as it deserves.

In other words (here’s a reductive soundbite for you): I’m not really suited to blogging. The very drive to compress thoughts into portions that can be consumed during the daily commute is completely at odds with my reasons for writing.

But sometimes, all these rational politenesses are shoved aside. Because I get cross. (And even then, I try to count to ten – several times – because I cannot abide giving in to being cross. And I don’t like the idea that if anyone ever finds this blog, all they’ll see is one rant after another. A series of futile attempts to let off steam and vent frustrations and find as many different ways as possible to scream, “Why does no-one else get it??!”) And I convince myself that the only way to stop being cross is to get the feeling out of my system… by writing about it.

So what’s the thing I’m currently cross about?

In a line: the selfishness, unkindness and dishonesty that have been exposed by the Coronavirus situation. And I don’t mean on a political level. I am not in any way referring to Johnson and Cummings and all their cronies. I am talking about ordinary people. Family members. Friends. Our nearest and dearest.

I always knew that lockdown and all its ramifications would bring out everyone’s true colours. But I don’t think I’d quite imagined what those colours would be. Yes, to be sure, some of the hues we’ve seen have been glorious. Rich, iridescent and life-affirming. But many have been singularly unattractive.

Very specifically, for the purposes of today’s post, I am referring to individual decisions to ‘interpret’ (has that word ever been more problematic than it is at the moment?) lockdown rules in different ways. As I’m sure you’ve experienced in your own lives, some people have chosen to follow the rules to the letter. Some have chosen to make up their own slightly stricter versions of the rules. And some have decided to go the other way and adopt a cavalier attitude to everything the Powers That Be have said we should and shouldn’t be doing.

This variation was inevitable. We were never going to have a scenario in which we all did the same thing, clone style. But what I don’t think was quite so inevitable was the nastiness which the different factions have displayed towards each other. And sadly, from what I’ve seen, the direction in which most of the unpleasantness has travelled has been from the cavalier camp towards the people trying to exercise greater caution. “It’s a massive fuss about nothing,” they say. “Pure exaggeration. Nothing to get worked up about. No reason to resort to pathetic measures such as maintaining  a safe distance between family members, or not inviting people indoors.”

I would love nothing more than for history to show us that much of our care has been unnecessary. That we did err too far on the side of caution. That we could have spent all of this time feeling a tiny bit more relaxed. But right now, we don’t know what history will show us, and I cannot comprehend how some people feel so firmly they are in the right that they’re willing to take huge risks with the health and well-being of their loved ones.

But that’s not what really makes me cross. The thing that upsets and infuriates me more than anything else is the dishonesty at the heart of all this. Here’s what I mean.

Fictional Jack reassures his elderly dad that it’s all right for him to step inside his dad’s house because he’s pretty much been in total isolation himself for the last few weeks, so the chances that he’s carrying any bugs are pretty low. But Jack is saying this not because it’s true, but because he knows it’s what his dad wants to hear before he’ll let Jack inside the house. In fact, Jack is outright lying. The night before, he met up with some friends for an energetic round of football in the park. He then popped round to a cousin’s house to help her sort out some trouble she was having with her internet router. And just before going to see his dad, he went to the supermarket, handled lots of tins, packets and bottles (many of which he placed back on the shelves) and didn’t really pay attention to the markings on the floor when he was queuing to pay.

Fictional Jack can do all these things if he wishes to. Some of them may be against current guidelines, but even breaking guidelines is something that Jack is free to do. And I’ll be the first to admit that finding anomalies within the guidelines isn’t exactly challenging. (How many times have you heard the one about putting your house on the market so that your parents can pretend to be prospective buyers and can thereby see you when they arrange a viewing?) But what is immoral is that Jack decides to lie to his father. Because that is the very essence of contempt: the belief not only that another’s views are wholly wrong, but that the other person doesn’t even need to be dignified with the opportunity to make choices that are fully-informed.

Say Jack’s dad is being over-cautious. Say he needn’t maintain any distance between himself and his family. Say he could safely let his son come inside.

What I don’t understand is what makes Fictional Jack think that he has the right to play God with his father. What makes him believe he has the power to withhold the very information from his dad that he knows would directly influence his dad’s decision to let him come inside the house or ask him to stay outside?

It must be contempt. It must be the utter conviction that other people’s views are mere trifles – to be ignored completely – if they inconvenience our own in any way.

Or maybe it’s weakness. Or fear. Perhaps that’s why I must try not to be harsh in my assessment of it. Maybe it’s such an extreme inability to acknowledge the reality of what is happening around us, that it leads to denial and an attempt to rationalise one’s own actions by belittling and ridiculing those of others.

Or maybe contempt and weakness and fear are one and the same thing. A weakness of the imagination. An inability not just to place oneself in somebody else’s shoes, but even to acknowledge the value of trying.

I thought one of the saving graces of this time would be that it would allow me to see examples of compassion, kindness, consideration, empathy, patience. And of course, I have seen some. But what I mostly seem to see around me at the moment is bigotry, short-sightedness and selfishness.

Has writing this helped me get it out of my system? I don’t know. I think I’m still cross. But I’ll click on Publish (for once!) in the hope that these words may echo in the minds of others who feel as let down and hurt and disappointed as I do.

And then I shall step away from the keyboard. And increase my social distance from everyone else even further.

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