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Why Are We Like This?
Respectable people have become addicted to the mode of moral judgement that Covid has enabled, and they can’t or don’t want to give it up.
The sun came out last week and people gathered in the street in great numbers. They drank, they sang, they stood too close to each other; when they departed from St. Stephen’s Green and South William Street they left piles of empty cans cigarette cartons and food wrappers, and, presumably, given the absence of public toilets, great sloshing rivers of sick and urine. Outrage was expressed by the Head of NPHET, the Taoiseach, the media, and the thankfully diminishing volunteer decorum-enforcers of Blinder Squadron.
To salve the problem of slow vaccination roll-out, the government told us repeatedly we would be able to enjoy an “outdoor summer”. It’s been widely reported in non-domestic media that people all over the world are meeting outside in great numbers to no apparent ill effect – it’s become common to see images of full to the brim sports stadiums, or to read reports about the almost total safety of meeting outdoors.
Our country has touted a science-based approach and there is no scientific reason not to allow large outdoor gatherings; allowing it is explicitly in line with government promises; lots of other places are doing it without collapsing. So what explains the vindictive and hysterical official* reaction? (*I’m using “official” here to cover - government, their advisors-bosses, the non-government political parties who should oppose them but don’t, the respectable domestic media, and Blinder Squadron.)
Why are we like this?
I’m going to run through these in order of reasonableness.
1) It feels wrong.
If you accept the pandemic is real, which most people do, then no matter what the science says it’s counterintuitive to think that a bunch of mostly unvaccinated people can meet is sweaty proximity and shout drunkenly into each other’s mouths for a period of several hours, ankle deep in soup of bodily fluids, and not catch and/ or spread the virus. The natural impulse is to wince and cry “be careful”. I get that and I forgive the instinctive reaction. I also forgive people who have carved off a chunk of their lives trying to deal with this thing, often in the face of a tremendous amount of griping and abuse, wanting the public to restrain themselves.
2) “You’re making a holy show of us in front of the whole world, behave yourself.”
An anecdote: after mass one Sunday when I was about 8 my mum took me aside to give me a non-literal clip round the ear because I’d been fidgeting and talking during the show. What she said in conclusion was “I’m not having Kate saying mine can’t behave themselves.” Kate is my mum’s sister, whose family would have been there at the same time, angelically placid and attentive in their stiff seats. My mum is not religious and neither is Kate to my knowledge. It wasn’t about religion, it was about how things look to the neighbours, whether the neighbours are even watching being a moot point. This is life in a small community (suburban Dublin, but still). Ireland is a small community.
3) We’re run by a surfeit of risk-averse middle managers and everything is arranged to suit and protect them and the Programme, rather than us
This point is linked to the above. Here is how the management layer of Irish life responded to the public being off the leash:
When this story broke, the main news items on RTE and the Irish Times that covered it didn’t mention that other parts of the world (often with similar vaccination rates) are having people meet outdoors and it hasn’t been a problem for them. The media resorted to a minimalist descriptive approach as it does in all cases where it feels itself to be on ideologically unsafe ground. In describing the story, no underlying principle of Covid management was questioned.
When NPHET gave their usual press conference the following Wednesday, no-one put this international comparison question to Tony Holohan. No one asked how he squared the idea that in the past the management of Covid has been positioned as a science-based approach, yet we appear to be misaligned to the science on the issue of mass public gatherings.
Before all this kicked off this week, the indefinite extension emergency powers used during Covid had been working their way through the Irish parliamentary system. In the Seanad, the majority of Senators either abstained or were absent for the vote, so the vote to extend passed. Some Independents spoke eloquently against it but the opposition failed to oppose. When the debate reached the Dáil, Sinn Fein abstained in exactly the right numbers to allow the vote to pass. This is how “opposition” functions in Ireland - facilitating the Government by presenting them with a token bump to drive their train over. In general SF have distinguished themselves from the Government during Covid by saying whatever the government is trying to do, we need to do more of it, and harder. “Opposition”.
What does all this add up to? The standard operating procedure of a middle manager in any organisation first is to protect the system and second to protect themselves, often achieving the latter by doing highly visible but probably useless things. The impact of this approach on the “customers”/ stakeholders/ subjects of the system is neither here nor there. In practice means on the one hand keeping information from the public, and on the other invasively micromanaging their lives in order to be seen to be doing something. We got both approaches this week.
4) Respectable people have become addicted to the mode of moral judgement that Covid has enabled, and they can’t or don’t want to give it up.
This is the least forgivable explanation. I’m talking about it in the Irish context but it’s not purely an Irish issue.
Putting Covid aside - one of the reasons that the social justice/ activist mindset is so popular is that its solves the following problem: being hate-filled, judgemental, mean-spirited, reductive, bullying, controlling and so on are bad, and bad for you, but also very fun. So you still want to do them, but know you shouldn’t. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to be judgemental and hate-filled (etc etc) and not only not feel bad about it – but feel *good* about it, and have it recognised as positively laudable behaviour? This mindset performs the alchemical trick of raising your social credit score by allowing you to be a self-righteous bully.
You can also apply this to the moralising during Covid. I think it explains in part why the people running the country have momentarily put aside their usual “hormonal best friend reminiscing about school days while crying” tone this week, and enjoyed the opportunity to behave like red-faced Foxrock dowagers writing to the Irish Times letters page.
Summarising all of this:
I think it’s ok to be pissed off about what happened in Dublin last week (and looks like continuing this week). I think if you’re a person with a chronic illness, or a vulnerable older person, or a loved one or carer for either type of person, then I think it’s normal to be concerned by those images, to ask that people restrain themselves, and some kind of additional care or preparation to be taken. For my own part the scenes pissed me off, but that’s because on the subject of public order I am complete bourgeois fascist and think that people should be buried alive for littering – nothing to do with Covid.
You can’t say that such and such control is necessary to address the Covid situation based on the science, but then abandon science when it doesn’t provide sufficient cover for you to micromanage people’s lives.
What does all of this tell us about Ireland and what Covid has done to Respectable People in Ireland and around the globe?
This thing has driven everyone crazy in different ways. Some people have become addicted to the thrill of being moral bullies, and of judgementally micromanaging the lives of other people, and from the power that flows from that. You could think of this as virus within a virus and I have no faith that it will go away when/ if Covid does; particularly since it’s so congenial to a system overfilled with functionaries.
We are run at every level by middle-managers whose job is firstly to protect themselves within that system, and second to enact a technocratically pre-determined programme rather than interrogate or change it. It’s fine for some group of people to be like that, systems need technicians. But systems need visionaries and critics as well, and (certainly in Ireland) we basically don’t have any of those in positions of authority inside the system, and that includes in opposition. The situation isn’t getting better - it’s a topic I won’t go into here but if anything the operators of the system are making it harder to be a critic, not easier.
Dark times on Consensus Island.