Much debate has been evident about how long the public’s patience with lockdown rules will last. Questions are being asked about what kind of irresponsible infection-spreading behaviours may emerge as restrictions are lifted. This is a very serious and vital concern. We do need, though, to begin to think much more seriously about the feelings aroused more generally. These are evoked by the virus itself, with its unknown threats, by the restrictions we’ve been living under, and by the social situations we have been forced to live in – from unwanted isolation to uncomfortable locked-down ‘intimacy’. Feelings of vulnerability to illness and death, loss of liberty and income, uncomfortable experiences of self and others, judgements about political competence, all combine to make for a potentially dangerous emotional mix.
It has been, to an extent, reassuring that there has been some discussion about threats to mental health, the risks of increased domestic and child abuse, during Covid-19. But, as always, there is the danger that we simply ascribe the problem to ‘the mentally vulnerable/ill’, or the ‘bad people’, rather than recognise the collective drivers and risks, and think about ways of working with them. Optimistic or pessimistic about what the world will look like after the pandemic, however many ‘waves’ it produces, we must squarely face the fact that a widespread emotional backlash may occur, to different extents, and in different ways.
Such a backlash will, inevitably, include retributory, divisive blame, and various kinds of expressions of the rage I discussed in yesterday’s post. Finding vehicles and targets for such feelings will, just as inevitably, exploit the anxieties, grievances and social divisions that have been so readily harnessed by politicians, ideologues and various kinds of ‘influencers’ in recent years, in the UK and globally. United Nations head, António Guterres, recently said that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”. He highlighted anti-foreigner feelings, anti-semitic conspiracy theories, and attacks on Muslims, fed by Covid-19 anxieties and anger. We could add so many things to that depressing list, including 5G conspiracy theories, and Antivaxx campaigning (now infecting our local ‘nextdoor’ online network). Basically, the anxiety, resentments, the felt and real costs, of the pandemic crisis are likely to find fuel, and opportunities for expression, by combining with, and harnessing, pre-existing social unease, dissatisfaction and anger.
As a society, we urgently need to face this risk, and develop ways of recognising and addressing the underlying drivers of grievance, the emotions they evoke, and the behaviours involved in their expression. Many of us are cheered by the positive ways in which much of society has risen to the challenges of the virus. We welcome the warm social solidarity so evident, the heartfelt recognition of so many ordinary and extraordinary people carrying out vital tasks. Many are hopeful that the crisis will lead to greater valuing of, investment in, and support for public services, especially the NHS. Some see an opportunity to reconsider and reform economic, political, business and organisational models in the light of our experience and learning from the pandemic crisis. I, for one, hope that much of this will happen. But any such ‘better world’ will emerge only if society and its leaders attend to, and work to contain and manage, the potentially toxic individual and group emotions that are also evident. Political or social policy and action without engagement with these emotions will be less than effective, especially if partisan positions about what to do intensify, rather than contain, such feelings.
I am not able to outline anything like a strategy for addressing this risk. Even if I were educated in all the disciplines that may shed light on the problem, the point is that I’d still need to be amongst others, debating, weighing up, challenging. The situation is complex, multi-layered, varied. Intentions, strategy and methods are likely to risk unintended consequences, including fanning flames, rather than dowsing them. Open, diverse and thoughtful debate, involving many perspectives, will be vital.
My experience as a therapist, manager and consultant does suggest some ideas, though. First, the feelings need to be open to discussion. They need to be explicitly recognised, with the opportunity to get hold of what might be driving them, of how they are influencing behaviour, of how they might be otherwise managed, of what will calm them. People need to feel recognised, heard, empathised with, and spoken to in a language they understand. They need to trust that their needs will be respected and attended to. Leaders trying to stimulate and support such processes safely in our complex society will have to recognise and think about the nature and lived experience of many different (sub)cultures, the languages, aspirations and circumstances of many different social groups. Age, class, financial circumstances, geographical location, ethnicity, and lifestyle are some of the dimensions that will need consideration.
Understanding of who, and what, various groups of people listen to, with what expectations and attitudes, will be vital. This should direct collaborative work to promote communication that meets and addresses the emotional climate of the diverse ‘audiences’. Sub-cultures have their own languages, values, myths and symbols. All sorts of media, local government, political and religious groups, professions, sports and cultural bodies will need to be drawn into the debate. They will need to explore how to respond to the underlying risks, and to develop strategies and methods to begin safely to acknowledge and help with feelings that risk more than our vulnerability to a dangerous virus. ‘Influencers’, cultural, social and political leaders, local and national, need to be identified, engaged and enabled to promote action, in their own languages and ways, and responsive to the cultures of their particular communities. The risk of serious toxic social backlash, once society tentatively steps into the post-pandemic world, is too great not to get moving on such a project. Unless, of course, we simply leave it to the victims, the police, the wider criminal justice system and health and social services to manage the costs of inaction.