Commuters wearing mask on train. Image: Davyn Ben via Unsplash

2020’s Greatest Lesson We’ve Yet To Learn

Thirty-three years ago, Former President Ronald Reagan pondered optimistically on how an alien invasion would unite the world. Unfortunately, rather than tackling his central theme, we launched conspiracy theories about possible alien invasions – clearly missing the point.

“And yet,” he continued, “I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?”

Of course, war is a human characteristic. It’s not really that alien to us. Even the Neanderthals went to war. But what is alien to us, at least in the beginning, is COVID-19. And with its tight clutch on the human race, it has managed to divide us through social distancing and the rise of misinformation.

We are, as Ronald Reagan predicted, dealing with an alien invasion. And yet, where is the unity? Where is the coming together to fight off this invasive disease? It definitely wasn’t seen in the supermarket…

In my home country of Australia, people have breached quarantine or snuck across borders, not caring about their fellow Australians. And don’t get me started on masks! How could anyone be so hell-bent on refusing to wear masks because it goes against their rights? As if it’s their right to catch and spread diseases to people who are most vulnerable.

Where’s the right for immunocompromised people to not die from their fatal negligence?

But I digress…

The fact is, an alien invasion simply won’t bring us closer together. In this 2018 article in Psychology Today, PhD academics Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth disagreed with Ronald Reagan’s optimistic belief that an alien invasion would unite the world. For one, we’d probably lose. But our track record in global unity is a little disheartening.

“One in ten people in the world are currently fighting malnourishment and millions are dying every year due to poor nutrition,” the article reads. “The same people are also killed by a wide variety of curable diseases. Their existence is in danger. Unfortunately, however, these are problems that don’t seem to concern those who don’t have them. Thus a unifying common enemy needs to be affecting, at least potentially, everyone.”

We already know a global pandemic doesn’t unite us. COVID-19 has allowed the soulless to flourish. I don’t need to wear a mask, it’s my right! And even past epidemics haven’t united us. Remember AIDS? It fueled homophobia, with doctors avoiding patients as if they had the black plague. And this was after knowing how HIV was spread. Not to mention the millions of families it has broken apart, where parents could not fathom the sight of their dying gay son.

Going back to the article by Emre and Robin, the only viable candidate for uniting the world is climate change. But even that ain’t doing justice.

Of course, if we can unite on a group level, surely we must be able to do it on a global level. All we need is to find common ground, which requires effective communication. But with our current media landscape, the chances are looking bleak.

Whatever Happened To The Gatekeepers Of Information?

Phone showing COVID-19 news. Image: Obi Onyeador via Unsplash
Phone showing COVID-19 news. Image: Obi Onyeador via Unsplash

The rise of anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers is not a product of the political landscape, but a consequence of free speech. To be specific, the freedom to freely disseminate whatever nonsense you wish on a wide scale. But this was not always the case. Prior to the 2000s, the mainstream media (print, TV and radio) had all the control. They were the ‘gatekeepers of information.’

Of course, while some would hope they’ve lost all control thanks to the rise of the internet, the sad reality is they still hold most of it. And while we all hope they’re totally unbiased with their reporting, that’s definitely not the case, either. All media outlets who rely on ratings to survive are biased. It’s what has divided us into political factions, polarised and unable to reach a common ground.

Take Donald Trump, for instance. His reign over America has divided people so much that you either love him or you hate him. There isn’t any in-between. As a trained journalist who follows all sides of the media, I’ve grown indifferent to Trump. He’s not as bad as the left make him out to be, but he’s definitely not “making America great again” like his followers believe. Yet it’s the media that perpetuate these differing sides. Because the number one rule in creating any great story is to add conflict. It’s why we read the news.

Of course, while I don’t believe the media should be ‘the gatekeepers of information’, we must, at least, separate fact from fiction. Especially on social media and personal blogs where misinformation is rife. And no, I’m not advocating for censorship. I think everyone should have the right to say what they want – even if it is bonkers! But everyone else has the right to true and accurate information, which is why misinformation should be labelled as such. We also need to teach our young kids how to listen and think critically.

However, building on our communicational standards is the first step in generating unity. The other step involves shifting individual and societal perceptions.

We Are All One Race

Commuters wearing mask on train. Image: Davyn Ben via Unsplash
Commuters wearing mask on train. Image:  Davyn Ben on Unsplash

In 1932, when the great depression swept the world, Albert Einstein penned a questioning letter to Sigmund Freud.

“Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” he asked.

Freud replied with critical scrutiny – but even he couldn’t pinpoint the ultimate remedy for war. He did, however, raise an effective strategy for generating unity: establishing sentimental ties.

“These ties are of two kinds,” Freud writes. “First, such relations as those towards a beloved object, void though they be of sexual intent. The psychoanalyst need feel no compunction in mentioning ‘love’ in this connexion; religion uses the same language: Love thy neighbour as thyself. A pious injunction easy to enounce, but hard to carry out!

“The other bond of sentiment is by way of identification. All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.”

When it comes to eradicating discrimination, identifying others as just another human being swipes away any desire to discriminate against them. As a gay man, I can attest to this, because recent history shows the power of identification. For too long, queer people have been labelled as the other. They were immoral, gross and against nature. But because we transcend all demographics, we were able to swiftly change society’s view on us over the last 30 years by simply coming out of the closet. Eventually, we became more than just gay people; we were aunts and uncles, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, shopkeepers and academics, politicians and personal trainers.

When the “otherness” becomes obsolete, we begin to identify others as fellow humans who are just like us. And how can you fight with someone who looks and acts just like you?

The year 2020 has dragged society through the mud. Instead of standing in solidarity and doing simple things to help eradicate the virus, we succumbed to our own personal interests. We’ve hoarded toilet paper and snuck across borders; refused to wear masks and failed to social distance.

We’ve become our own worst enemies.

If we’re ever going to make 2021 our year, even while still in the clutches of a global pandemic, we need to work together. For that, we need effective communication and greater societal connection.

We may have heard it a million times in 2020, but its sentiment rings truer than ever: We are all in this together.

Feature image: Davyn Ben via Unsplash

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