A face by Aldo Tolino

This essay, on the need to rebuild the public sphere, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets”.) It was published on 20 December 2020, under the headline “We want to trust in each other. But it’d be easier if we weren’t so isolated”.

Volunteers from Sikh communities – some from as far away as Coventry – provide food for stranded lorry drivers in Kent. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, apologises for breaching Covid rules after a newspaper publishes photos of her talking to three elderly women at a wake, socially distanced but standing and not wearing a mask.

Not just two very different events, but also two events that represent opposite poles of what we might call “public mindedness” in the pandemic. One, an act of giving, the other of finger-pointing, both of which have become essential parts of Covid culture, and which expose the tensions that now define our social relations.

When the pandemic forced the first lockdown in March, there was much hope that the crisis would bring people together. Community support has flourished this year because it has had to – volunteer organisations, mutual aid groups, food banks have all stepped in to cover for the failures of the state. What has also flourished, though, is the kind of “public mindedness” exemplified by the Sturgeon affair – the calling out of individuals for minor infractions of Covid rules.

There is something to be said for greater scrutiny of politicians or other public figures, especially those who impose or demand limits on the behaviour of the public but seem to imagine that such regulations don’t apply to them. Yet, if we really want to hold politicians to account it would be far better to challenge the corruption and chumocracy that has become embedded in Covid policy, or the failures of the administrations both in London and in Edinburgh to protect care homes or properly organise testing systems, than merely revel in personal lapses.

What the call-out culture reveals is cynicism not just about hypocritical politicians but also about people more generally, a willingness to see the worst in humans, an unforgiving view of people’s indiscretions. Back in the spring, polls showed that most people thought that they were observant of lockdown measures but also that most other people were not. Now a poll suggests that a third of the public blame the government for the recent rise in coronavirus cases, but the majority blame other people.

None of this should surprise us. Trust in others rests on our ability to engage with them, and on a flourishing public sphere. To have a chat at work, argue over a pint in the pub, mingle after worship in a mosque, a church or synagogue, debate in a seminar or public meeting, or simply gossip with a friend you bump into on the street – all these little moments serve collectively as the foundations of a thriving civil society. Much of this the pandemic and the lockdowns and the tiers have taken away. Zoom calls emphasise the distance between people as much as they allow them to interact. In a more atomised, self-isolated society, community-mindedness becomes more difficult, fingering others more natural and acceptable.

Call-out culture and the public shaming of individuals has long been an embedded feature of social media. As real life has become more individuated and fragmented, so sometimes it can begin to resemble the interaction on social media.

In his book Humankind, the Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman challenges the “persistent myth” that civilisation is “nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation”. In reality, Bregman observes, the opposite is true, that people are generally sociable and generous, especially in a crisis, while all the time believing that “by their very nature humans are aggressive, selfish and quick to panic”.

Covid, though, is a crisis like few others. While other crises – from Aberfan to Grenfell, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – have compelled people to work together to provide support and aid, Covid, and the authorities’ response to it, has required a greater individuation of society, in which social distancing and self-isolation have become the most vital expressions of social solidarity.

What is remarkable is that at a time when the public sphere has been so eroded, and regulations make it much more difficult to engage with each other, such a high degree of community-mindedness remains. What brings out the worst in people is not human nature but the social structures we inhabit that shape the ways we relate to each other, structures that too often incentivise the cynical and the selfish and deprecate generosity of spirit.

Whatever the new normal of 2021, rebuilding the public sphere, and working to be a little less cynical of other people, is perhaps our most urgent task.

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