“I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings,” remarked Tom Lehrer in the introduction to “National Brotherhood Week”, “and I hate people like that.” If one were to quote this on social media today, it might be just as well to mention that the irony is deliberate, perhaps adding an “lol” for clarification.
There must be a word in some language, German, I suppose, or possibly Greek, which means “cruelty in the act of demanding kindness” or “insensitivity in virtue-signalling”. An early epidemic of this behaviour, if not the first, followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Journalists and members of the public who demanded that Prince Charles or the Queen should “show some emotion” seemed to have no idea how boorish they were being. Mobs of people who had never met the deceased told those who had actually been bereaved that they should be wailing and gnashing their teeth in public, perhaps booking a slot on the Jeremy Kyle Show (if that national abomination existed at the time) to share their grief with a studio audience. Nor was this the worst of it. At least one woman announced on television that she felt as though she had lost her own daughter when she heard of Princess Diana’s death. Imagine being that woman’s daughter.
Remaining calm in the face of Diana’s death was seen as proof of heartlessness. How could one fail to be moved by such a tragedy? Very few were prepared to point out, at least in public, that it is unkind to tell a bereaved husband how he should grieve for his wife, or to inform your daughter that she means no more to you than a woman you only ever saw on the cover of a magazine.
Over two decades since that revolution in national decorum, calls for kindness in public discourse have become shriller, more strident and more conspicuously unkind. There are many examples, mainly in the spheres of racial politics and social justice, but the most egregious has undoubtedly been the collective insanity surrounding the new coronavirus which came to public notice early in 2020. There are many coronaviruses, and this one is not particularly special, but to say so or, heaven forfend, to compare it to influenza, is to invite the wrath of a whole troop of strangely fervent enthusiasts, eager to extol the deadliness of this new malady. One would think the virus must be their wife or mother, perhaps even their god, so zealously do they defend its honour.
This year, these kind, caring people have demanded that the world stop turning to accommodate their cowardice. They have insisted on imprisoning whole nations of people in their homes. They have brought on an epidemic of loneliness, early death, physical and mental anguish, divided families, domestic violence, and suicide. They have severely harmed the educational prospects of young people, and reduced whole sections of society to penury. They have destroyed businesses large and small, projects in the performing and visual arts, scientific endeavours, and humanitarian programs. They have demeaned themselves by begging already authoritarian governments to adopt even more draconian measures against personal liberty. They have informed on their neighbours who had the temerity to leave their houses, sneered at grandparents who wanted to hug their grandchildren, and harangued anyone so indecorous as to enjoy a drink with friends or go to a beach on a summer’s day.
I am not convinced that the degree to which you care about other people is precisely correlated with the amount of scolding and virtue-signalling in which you indulge on social media. Nor does it seem obvious that becoming obsessed with a single fashionable illness is proof that one cares about sick people in general. Around 60 million people die each year. Is it imperative to shout about how much we grieve for every cancer and cardiovascular ailment, every death from diabetes or dementia? Is it more virtuous to care about deaths from an illness that was new and exciting six months ago, though saturation media coverage has since made it even more tedious than Brexit?
The coronavirus enthusiasts have caused immense harm to the world, far more harm than the virus they worship. We are constantly told that this is an unprecedented situation, but plagues and pandemics happen all the time; the only new factor is the overreaction by people who seem, for the moment, to have made a virtue of panic, while stigmatising stoicism and proportionality as heartless. The killers in our midst are not those who want to go to the pub or the beach, or who would rather not dress as a bank robber when shopping for groceries. It is precisely those who have been making the most noise about caring who have caused the most harm. There is no shame in being frightened, but it is shameful to try to frighten others, and to allow your cowardice to make you cruel.
Those who squawk about coronavirus, but fail to care about any other deaths, including the ones caused by the panic they have created, are not worthy of our attention. Whether they are frightening people on social media with ghoulish pictures of coffins and respirators, fussing about when and how to wear face masks, or lamenting the glory days of March and April when their beloved virus really packed a punch, their attempts to spread alarm and despondency should not be mistaken for altruism.