Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

No sanitizer, no toilet paper, no certainty ... no problem. Just be kind

A disease can teach us a lot about how to be human, writes contributor Chris Martin.

COVID and kindness: what a disease can teach us about how to be human


Are we all afraid of the dark? It might sound like an absurd question, but at the level of individual cognition and in regard to our shared cultural experiences, there can be nothing more frightening than the uncertainty that the dark symbolizes.

Being left in the dark means that we feel a lack of control and security.

In a Maclean's article about toilet paper panic-buying, author Jason Kirby includes insights such as this one regarding a fear of uncertainty and what it has done to our supply of other products, like hand sanitizer and food.

Toilet paper companies have since come out and assured the Canadian public that production has not been affected and more is coming.

Yet folks are still buying in bulk. It's an effort to get back a sense of control and comfort when these feelings are really what is in short supply.

In this climate, it's useful to think about the fear of uncertainty, as well as insights from Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, whose newest book, Talking to Strangers, appeared before the pandemic, but is timely. 

In a world where all of us encounter strangers more than ever before, it is deeply important to think about concepts like the "truth-default theory," Gladwell writes.

Malcolm Gladwell's book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don't Know explores what happens when your perception of a stranger leads to an incorrect judgment. (Celeste Sloman)

According to Gladwell, truth-default theory describes situations where we assume other people are telling us the truth and that they are generally worthy of our trust, rather than approaching encounters with others while trying to spot how we are being deceived, misled or lied to outright.

It is a social contract between people, like the truth-default, which allows humans to thrive in such large cultures like the modern city.

Wayne Chaulk — best known as a third of of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers — wrote the classic lyric, "Some go to where the buildings reach to meet the clouds/Where warm and gentle people turn to swarmin', faceless crowds" in the tune Saltwater Joys 20 years ago.

While the lyric might be originally referring to outmigration of Newfoundlanders for work, it has taken on a new meaning of late.

Divisions among us

In Ottawa — where I live with my family, with over a million people living close by — we can all feel immense connections like those that stem from shared frustrations over the recently opened light rapid transit system and the pre-pandemic Ottawa Senators, or we can choose to see each other as potentially dangerous strangers.

Throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, government financial woes and scandal form points of essential gossip to connect upon and build up shared trust in one another.

Yet with all the news surrounding COVID-19, there has been an increase in the risk of divides forming between people, their neighbours, and their community.

Simple acts like walking down city streets or forming in a line to go into a store can mean a chance to view others as potential threats, rather than fellow citizens sharing in the same vulnerable situation.

All one has to do is imagine what kind of looks that clearing your throat would get you in that lineup, even if the cough has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Indeed, the defining moments of humanity have always come from the tests of character that occur during a crisis or emergency.

Indeed, since the World Health Organization's March 11 designation of COVID-19 as a pandemic, it seems there have been near hourly updates, each with panic-inducing headlines that have stirred up everything we know and rely on.

We are in uncharted territory in terms of a potential for decreased trust among strangers and increased panic from a fear of the dark.

With a lack of control, a lack of information, and a lack of a forecast of risks, humans are left in a rather precarious position.

So, where do we turn for some stability and ideas?

Gladwell's appeal to truth-default is one such kernel of knowledge we could certainly use.

'Suspicion, rather than compassion'

When we think of strangers, we may well consider the sort of people our mothers told us to avoid.

This mistrust of strangers, particularly in large cities, is a growing attitude that causes fracturing disconnects.

These disconnects can play out on large geopolitical levels, but they can also play out in interpersonal relationships.

Those "swarmin' faceless crowds" that we look at with suspicion, rather than compassion, form examples of what academics in the field of ethics call the dehumanization of the other. In other words, we see others not as human first but as potential threats.

Washing hands regularly, and appropriately, has been a defining element of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Handwashing, avoiding touching one's face, social distancing, and staying away from others if we suspect we might be sick are individual actions we all can, and must take during this pandemic. But it's what we do as collectives that will ultimately matter and define us in this time of uncertainty.

Indeed, the defining moments of humanity have always come from the tests of character that occur during a crisis or emergency.

Importantly, history has taught us that the dehumanization of others is the first step to violence, in all its forms and manifestations.

But the capacity to care for the other has always been what has made humans the special beings we are.

One only has to consider first responders and health-care providers who manage crisis and adversity and do so in the interest of helping strangers and caring for others before they care for themselves.

COVID-19 is a global human problem which has the ability to separate us — or to bring us together like never before.

Choose to just be kind.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Chris William Martin is a professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He is originally from St. John's and holds a PhD from Memorial University in sociology.

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