The sight of a grown man in pyjamas crying on his doorstep because he couldn’t go out to play during lockdown was only a stunt. But does this symbol of the new normal, of adults demanding their feelings be considered above all else, embody something more sinister?
At the beginning of lockdown, society showed encouraging signs of maturity. In sudden, enforced reflection, there was big talk of reading, mending things, going without, budgeting and cooking real food, even talking with strangers. But as the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, social media filled back up with a depressing litany of finger-pointing at anyone buying too many loo rolls and calls to grass up those still indoors at 8pm on a Thursday.
While some showed strength of character and self-sacrifice keeping health and other essential services going, Mumsnetthreads featured posters cheering each other on for adopting teenage responses to the crisis: lying on the sofa, randomly crying, bingeing on interminable TV shows, guzzling wine and pizza. Are the decline of self-esteem and disappearance of discipline really worth celebrating?
For many adults, emotions were already the starting point for serious decision-making. Like children, grown people are now basing serious choices – voting, financial decisions, relationships – on ‘feelings’. Children, in the impulsive ego stage of development, place their desires and emotional responses at the centre of their lives, reacting immediately and loudly when their demands are denied or they imagine a bogeyman under the bed. So we now see even the middle aged joining in the millennial wail to cancel and shut down people who express ideas or opinions that give them a bad feeling. Rather than engage in respectful debate, they cry for censorship and legal changes to protect and reflect their feelings, seeing Nazis at every bus stop.
And then came the brutal death of George Floyd. Whether as the result of more time to spend scrolling through memes or suppressed anger at the restrictions, grown-ups sprang out of lockdown to join a wave of demonstrations. On Instagram, men and women who had recently talked only of geraniums, sourdough and the perfect white shirt uniformly posted black squares and exerted great pressure on others to copy and paste. Loudly claiming to be ‘educating’, the message sounded more like ‘it wasn’t us.’
The issue of race relations is at once thorny and simple. Simple because to react solely to another’s skin colour, whether fawningly or with abhorrence, is a ridiculous stance in a developed society. Ironically, complete acceptance of fellow humans, regardless of ethnicity, is the one lesson that most adults could do well to take from toddlers.
Talking about race requires equality of viewpoint, a knowledge of history, a recognition that societies mature and attitudes change; it also needs to acknowledge the continuing existence of slavery.
Provocatively smashing and defacing things you do not like are not the hallmarks of a mature and civilised society. Grown men and women brawling in the streets does not teach our children how to live together; instead it provokes division, ‘them and us’, name-calling and illogical demands. How can these responses further improve a society that, in a global context, is legislatively inclusive, diversely representative and, on the whole, tolerant? Reducing racism to a binary meme – black good, white bad – is insulting and, yes, childish. Yet we laud this cartoonish perspective and call for the silencing of those who dare acknowledge grey areas or call attention to inconvenient truths. Meanwhile, Facebook groups previously content to discuss television and sport are becoming increasingly studded with a chilling rhetoric last heard from the BNP.
If these immature ways of addressing social disharmony continue, those screaming most loudly for everyone else to make the monsters under the bed disappear may end up finding real live Nazis on our streets.