If anyone is feeling a little confused these days, you have my complete sympathy.
On the one hand, coronavirus news has flooded the airwaves, the front pages, and the social media outlets from here to the asteroid belt. (I’m happy to say that Ceres has yet to report its first case.) In among the unceasing reminders on how to wash our hands – our kindergarten teachers must be so disappointed – we’re constantly told to do our bit to make sure the virus doesn’t spread. “Stay home if you’re sick.” “Isolate.” “Quarantine in place.”
Introverts everywhere, our hour has come.
On the other hand, this is also an election year. And so we’re also being bombarded with images of campaign rallies on every side, urging people to let the nation hear our voice. “Get up.” “Get out.” “Show your support.”
So we desperately need to engage … and we desperately need to separate.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind simultaneously and still function – is making more and more sense.
I know, we’ll work through it. Not just because both elections and public health are necessary. But because frankly, this kind of chaos and tension is nothing new for us.
We’ve been dealing with this for generations.
It’s a phenomenon that Bill Bishop addressed 16 years ago in a book called “The Big Sort.” Given the ability to live where they want, he noted, people mostly choose to live near people like themselves. By itself, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. After all, who doesn’t want to get along with the neighbors?
But politics in a democracy depends on multiple voices engaging and finding common ground. That’s one thing when you may be constantly brushing against friends and neighbors who hold different perspectives and maybe challenge your views. But if more and more of the people you encounter are ones like you, where your beliefs and assumptions are taken for granted, that skill of engagement and compromise has less opportunity to be used.
What doesn’t get used, withers.
The process had already been accelerating with the increased mobility in the decades since World War II, when the internet and social media came along and sent it into hyperdrive. People had more power than ever to choose their “neighbors,” to choose their news sources … in a way, to choose their reality.
And when that reality finally collides against another, when the bubbles burst, the result becomes not compromise but conflict.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of American democracy or too dark a picture of the online world. There’s always been a certain amount of conflict within the process, and even outright violence. (You could ask Alexander Hamilton, for example … but better do it quick, he’s got a duel at dawn.) And the same internet that can isolate has also introduced friends that would have never met, opened up experiences that would have been unreachable for many, and allowed outright explosions of imagination and creativity. It can and does allow for increased connection, even when isolated by disability, circumstance, or, yes, illness.
Politics and the internet are tools. They can be used for good or ill. And right now, they’re throwing one of our most basic conflicts into stark relief.
The need to engage. The desire to separate.
Long after the coronavirus has been dealt with, that clash will still be there. And it’ll still be the real challenge. These days, even under a quarantine, one can stay within the walls of their home and still be connected to the world.
But the quarantines of our minds – now THAT’S a barrier. And one we’ll have to resolve for as long as we’re living together on this planet.
Though I hear Ceres is very nice this time of year.