IN THE war of the pen, much has been written about our shattered confidence in leaders and institutions. And rightly so. Yet these are essentially abstract things: elites we’ll never meet (luckily for them), corridors of power we’ll never walk. We hear less about our loss of faith in real-life family and friends. Yet quietly, insistently, this too has taken place, on a vast scale.
The obvious pressure points were lockdowns: people forced to spend far more time with each other than they ever dreamt they would. For some this was a boon, for many a disaster. So much for the nudge-nudge, wink-wink banter about ‘Covid’ babies. With the vaccine scarcely a fertility elixir, and stories still emerging of the horrific abuse of cooped-up children, it was even more hideously misplaced than we thought.
Well beyond the confines of house arrest, social relations have come under unwelcome, often intolerable, strain. Nobody expects or even wants to see eye to eye on everything. While politics has always aroused strong emotions, the old Labour-Tory fault line (when there was one) seldom stopped people rubbing along, even within marriage. Yet here we are now, on the same tiny island, aghast at the worldview of hordes of our fellow citizens, and they at ours.
It’s bad enough when a stranger displays meek conformity to ‘normie’ shibboleths: vaccines safe (check), climate warming (check), ‘refugees’ welcome (check). But when such opinions are aired by people we esteem or love, including our own flesh and blood, it casts a strangely sombre shadow. We sense a subtle unmooring, a faint but discernible loosening of bonds. We care for these people; we once credited them with wisdom.
One index of the new social disharmony is online dating profiles. I’ve lost count (all in the cause of research, you understand) of the number of females who proudly display their woke credentials, who demand ‘No Brexiteers’, ‘No Tories’, ‘No Trump supporters’ while naturally requiring someone who is ‘non-judgemental’. When single women of childbearing age exclude half the male population from possible mate-ship, something is out of kilter.
Then again, when you believe man-made global warming is the greatest threat to the planet, you probably won’t get on with a climate change sceptic. When you think Covid was the biggest challenge we’ve faced since World War Two, you will doubtless clash with someone who knows it was a scam. When you claim the West is founded on exploitation and racism, you won’t relish the company of a patriot.
We try to see beyond the philosophical chasm by focusing on what ‘really’ matters about the other person. Yet these days the (alleged) universal significance of woke causes stymies us. As everything gets politicised, from melanin content to sexual orientation, energy consumption to pronouns, the distinction between the public and private sphere collapses. Rather than being cultivated in the fertile soil of shared perspectives, friendship stands exposed on the barren landscape of intersectionality.
Things will get worse before they get better. Battle lines are being drawn; within our lifetimes everyone may need to choose a side. Families will be riven, relationships torn apart. Yet there is hope. Many of us have at last found our tribe. Within it, wonderful new friendships have been forged, based on common values as opposed simply to having known someone all one’s life. Sometimes the wheat is sorted from the chaff later than we expected.
In any case, the best friendships show remarkable resilience; their precious ties will never be severed. The 17th century parliamentarian Major General Sir William Waller illustrates this. In a letter to his close companion and royalist opponent Sir Ralph Hopton in 1643, Waller wrote:
‘That great God who is the searcher of my heart knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service, and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy. We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy; let us do it in a way of honour, and without personal animosities.’
In our less chivalrous age, and less cohesive society, it isn’t easy to emulate Waller’s example. But if adversaries in battle can preserve such respect for each other, the divide-and-conquer progress of today’s ideologues may yet be hindered.