In the 1990s, as part of a poverty action group, I happened to attend a Grey Power meeting in the Hutt. It was run by a couple of old communists and did they tear into each other when it came to discussing which line to take. But then communism has never been kind; if you want to take over the means of production and then, if successful, defend the new state of affairs from the capitalists who will be attacking you with every weapon in their arsenal, kindness is not on the agenda. Ask the Cubans. Various hui I have attended have also often been volatile as issues were debated, with often a surprising level of vitriol. Except, after the debate, in both cases, camaraderie existed once more.
I suppose I prefer this state of affairs, when issues and ideas rouse strong emotions, to the culture of kindness, which comes from a middle class charity. It was the duty of Victorian ladies to visit the poor and sick in their vicinity and dispense kind words and some physical sustenance. It gave a greater purpose than the round of visits and chat and gossip that characterised the rest of their life – unless they happened to be secret novelists.
In Civilisation and its Discontents Freud argued that culture is the balancing act between instinctual, pleasure-seeking impulses (eros) and the feeling of shame and remorse for hurting others when following these impulses. And then, when that shame and remorse is anticipated, the internalised super ego has formed, known more generally as conscience, that then guides our actions. The judicial system follows this paradigm: the court process is geared to promoting shame and remorse and then, in the penitentiary (the place of the penitent), a superego is supposedly acquired, and once that is measurable, the wrongdoer can be released back into society.
Accordingly, with the lockdown (in response to a rampant death threat), we deny our pleasure seeking instincts and follow the strictures of a superego as dictated by the state mother or father figure. And the disobedient, the hunters and gatherers, the surfers, the hikers and bike riders, the pleasure seekers, are shamed into remorse. For the first time in history, a cabinet minister’s career is in tatters because he went a walk with his family on an isolate beach.
Such a situation produces neurotic tensions in instinctual life: the bad boy spitting on others, the cursing of supermarket workers, domestic violence, racism toward Chinese people…but also eruptions in the dominating super ego: spying and dobbing in, a schizoid search for safety behind masks, a paranoia toward the other as threat, the over compliance of the schiz child (judging himself as guilty), an undercurrent of sadism and cynicism not read by the media or the politicians.
Here’s an example. Below our cottage is a track that leads to a field that is a sort of commons. For years it had an absentee owner, allowing for the commons to develop, but was then bought by the local dairy farmer. Being on the other side of the road, he uses it mainly to grow silage, with once a year, grazing his heifers on it. Our whanau and some others, walk our dogs there. The farmer is happy about that, except he requests that we don’t do so when the heifers are there – and we are happy to comply. Recently the silage has been cut and baled and yesterday the picking up of the last of the bales coincided with my afternoon walk. As I wandered back home a tractor came dashing across the field and a rabid farm worker started shouting at me. ‘This is private property, we are in lockdown, the dog’s not on a lead, if they saw you here they’d shut us down.’ He had the same twisted face that once ordered people to scrub the footpath. I started to explain the customary relationship, that the social distancing was about one kilometre, that this is part of my local, but he would have none of it. ‘If I see you here again I’ll call the police. I’ve spoken to the boss and he agrees.’
Not in the wildest dream did this have anything to do with possible transmission of the virus, but the lockdown had created this unreason. I suspect that this is the end of the customary use of the field. Who knows. Maybe I will need to be secretive and check that he is not present before venturing. But it will no longer be a free act.
To what extent this is universalised is a matter of interest. The fear of a gathering of people may well linger. What this will mean for marae and tangihanga is anyone’s guess. We may all start to wear a mask as a matter of habit, the over compliance may continue, as may the violent undercurrent of the thwarted impulse. Meanwhile the data collection will proceed apace, we may compliantly download the app that traces our contacts and our movements. The Universal Basic Income is approaching with strings attached, as is the technological revolution and ArtificiaI Intelligence. Blake’s poems resonate; the kindness of ‘Little lamb who made thee’ balanced by ‘Tyger tiger burning bright…’ and the dread contained in the prophetic works.
Maybe this is paranoia and kindness will solve these issues. It would be nice if this were so but I am sceptical. At least we need to be discussing these paradigms openly and honestly.