We’ve all seen, and probably ourselves indulged in, the dark art of passive aggressiveness. Where we attempt to minimise our underlying state of aggression by refusing to break polite custom, and instead convey our disapproval through laconic participation: subtle facial expressions, expertly timed groans and heavy breathing.
I think we may have found its closest sibling: passive self-defensiveness. Anyone who has ventured into a major supermarket over the past few weeks will know what I’m talking about. Shoppers moving around at half-pace, forcing smiles and small-talk through gritted teeth. Pausing before venturing down an aisle, feigning uncertainty whether any ‘spices, oil and canned fruit’ are required, covertly using the opportunity to survey whether the path ahead is occupied by a rogue cough-er or – the most dreaded prospect of all – someone sporting an out-of-season fever (whatever that might look like).
With the slightest suspicion, we’re overcome by the need to seek cover in the relatively wide expanses of the frozen section.
It is embarrassing. I for one am certainly not comfortable with the level of hyper-vigilance and suspicion that has been creeping into my consciousness over the past few weeks. But, on the other hand, we are dealing with a threat the potential impact of which has never been seen before – at least not in my lifetime, and probably not in yours, either.
It’s also a threat that we can’t see. In war, the enemy has historically taken the form of humans and vehicles in distinct attire. In contrast, COVID-19 presents us as individuals with an overwhelming level of often contradictory information, from which we’re left to discern what the enemy looks like and how we need to combat it.
And, while the archetypal soldier is required to remain alert, he only engages in battle occasionally. And when he does, he is able to do so in an unrestrained, instinctive way, after which, when the threat is no longer immediate, there is respite. He revels with his fellows. As Australians, we associate conviviality and horseplay among soldiers as part-and-parcel with battle and conflict.
We currently find ourselves trying to fight an enemy that demands us not only to maintain a state of seemingly constant hyper-vigilance, but also to isolate ourselves from our society and even our family.
Conviviality has been banned. Even basic human connection seems under threat. The pubs are closed. The gyms are shut. The theatre of AFL and our other beloved sports are on-hold indefinitely. So, where do we find relief from the extreme tension we’re all experiencing?
If we’re to believe social media images, Italians have taken to their balconies en masse, singing national favourites.
But what do we, as Australians, do? While we may not be able to replicate the exact modes used by those of our ancestors who fought in the great wars, their experiences can at least be instructive. Last year I came across a collection of journal entries of my grandfather from his time spent in the middle east during World War II. Unsurprisingly, it describes hard-working, resilient soldiers. But what struck me most from his accounts was how much time he spent connecting with others. Making impromptu visits to vague acquaintances on the other side of the camp, where one beer would turn into 8 hours of story-telling, joking, and working through the six degrees of separation that we, Australians – a nation of mostly immigrants – find so fascinating.
But how we tell and be regaled by stories, when we can’t see each other? At least not physically. How do we joke with one another? How do we continue to make new connections, in a time where we are prohibited from the social activities which ordinarily connect us with strangers?
I’m not entirely sure. But Australians are also innovative, and adaptive. I suspect that, at least part of our solution, will involve adopting video technologies, including as a medium to connect with strangers.
Tomorrow night, I’ll personally be participating in the first virtual edition of ‘Music Group Night’, which is ordinarily the bi-monthly coming together of six friends in a Whatsapp group dedicated to music. The physical catch-ups take the format of the host cooking dinner, and sharing one album with the group, generally with some basic analysis or commentary. We then take it in turns to play a song that we’ve associated with the featured album.
For all its structure and focus, at the end of the day (or rather, night), the event is such good fun because it provides old friends with an opportunity to reconnect, use music as a way of learning new things about each other, and have a laugh.
I hope that over the next few months the virtual form of social-connection proves to be an acceptable, even if inferior, equivalent. Perhaps for the sake of humanity.