“The tone is exactly the same as in the mainstream. Hateful, mocking, derisive.” That is what someone said to me about the comments sections of various outspoken Covid dissidents.
I have noticed it too. Each side differently identifies right and wrong, good and evil, fact and nonsense, ignorance and reason, but the basic social dynamic within each opinion tribe is the same. This makes me sad, because the whole Covid policy disaster—along with other tragedies of the collective human experience—is rooted in precisely that social dynamic: dehumanization and othering.
During Covid, we who resisted, protested, or objected to Covid policy were excoriated in the media as reprehensible human beings. Inexcusable. Selfish. Narcissistic, Psychopathic. Inhuman. Granny-killers. Irrational. Mainstream media personalities advocated that we be denied medical care. Noam Chomsky (whom I once admired) suggested we be locked in our homes. Polling showed wide popular support for punishing those who expressed anti-vaccine views. I remember reading Tweets like, “Anti-vax parents should be tied up to writhe and scream as they watch their kids being forcibly vaccinated.” Of course, most people were not so extreme in their professions of hate, especially offline, but the atmosphere of dehumanization permeated all of society. As has happened repeatedly throughout history, in a time of stress society looked for a class of scapegoats upon whom to project blame. Dehumanization of the scapegoat is a crucial part of a process that can proceed toward loss of rights, ostracism, exclusion, and even genocide.
That was the real contagion of the Covid era. The disease we called Covid was but the vehicle for a much more serious disease, a social disease of dehumanization, mob morality, and sacrificial violence. It rips through the social fabric like a shredding machine, severing friendships, dividing families, shredding organizations and communities. Underneath the rational veneer of ethical or medical principle (those who refuse the vaccine put others at risk and could use up hospital beds, etc.) was something primal: fear, hate, and revulsion toward those who refuse the rituals and ignore the taboos that define one as a fully human, full member of society.
Similarly, something primal lurks beneath the rationale for punishing the architects of pandemania, the calls for a Nuremberg II, and so on. The rationale is about deterrence and “holding people accountable.” The ideal is “never again.” But are we immune to more savage impulses masquerading as ideals? The lust for revenge, the desire to dance triumphantly over a humiliated enemy? Can we distinguish rational measures against a recurrence of genocidal madness from the madness itself? The madness which seeks to control evil by projecting it onto a sacrificial victim whose removal from society cleanses evil from the world?
Did Nuremberg I prevent a recurrence of genocidal madness? Did the perpetrators of the Rwandan massacres pause to think, “Hold on, if we slaughter a million people we will be punished?” Come on. The purpose of Nuremberg was not deterrence. It was a sort of theater. It was an attempt to affix onto a few individuals culpability for an unspeakable, mystifying, and therefore all the more terrifying crime. True, those individuals stoked the furnace of anti-Semitic hate and rode it to power, but they did not invent the fire, and could not have carried out the Holocaust in the absence of a kind of collective madness, whose symptoms range from howling bloodlust to cowed acquiescence. It is the same madness that fueled the witch hunts and other horrors. It is indeed, as the word Holocaust implies, an all-consuming inferno. The hysteria of the mob is a terrifying force. It is primal, animal. It defies sense and reason. Yet the way we try to corral it into a narrative, through performances like Nuremberg, feeds its underlying fire. That fire is the meta-pattern of dehumanization. It is the energy of hate.
Unfortunately, subjection to scapegoating does not immunize one against this social disease oneself. When times change, the dehumanized subclass usually goes on to dehumanize others. Those of us who were included in the scapegoat class, those of us who were fired from jobs, expelled from organizations, canceled from platforms, excluded from public events, barred from restaurants and transport, disinvited from family gatherings, and so forth, are just as prone to this original social disease as any of our fellows.
The metabolism of this disease is simple. It feeds on anger and transforms it into hate. It is like a psychic virus that commandeers the genetics of the soul. Anger is a sacred force that powers the response to a violation. It is supposed to clear the cause of the violation. The scapegoating virus hijacks that force and diverts it onto hate for the most proximate or convenient target. That target could, as in the case of Dr. Fauci, have played a key role in the injustice, or, as in the case of the unvaccinated, had nothing to do with it. Either way, once the infected “psychic cell” has spewed forth its genes of hate, they continue to spread throughout society. Hate begets hate begets hate. The inferno rages.
When we refuse to divert anger onto hate, it is free to fulfill its purpose. We don’t get sidetracked onto the easy but usually false solution of punishing someone, thinking that if we could only punish the criminals, the crime would not be repeated. But as long as the people are prone to dehumanizing each other, they will always be susceptible to fascism or other forms of totalitarian control. The elites cannot control us without our help. The power-hungry need but point to a them to form the fascistic us and ride it to power.
The distinction I am making here between anger and hate can seem unsupportive to those who have been seriously wronged. Who am I to tell the victim of persecution or abuse not to hate her abuser? She may think I am telling her not to be angry. No. We have every reason to be angry. By “we” here, I speak not only of those who were harmed by Covid policies. I speak of all the victims of modern civilization: the colonized, the oppressed, the exploited, the enslaved. I speak in fact of all of us living in such a degraded travesty of what the world could be. The world is not divided into perpetrators and victims. Most of us fall into both classes, in various ways, at various times, because the truth of our interbeing is inescapable.
So no, I do not seek to limit or deny your anger. Without its force, nothing will change. But if you allow it to be diverted into hate, you will have fallen for the oldest trick in the book of tyranny.
The distinction between anger and hate mirrors another important distinction: love and trust. In my last essay I explored the impulse to forgiveness, and the conditions under which to accept Emily Oster’s call for amnesty. I named contrition as a starting point. Some commenters were outraged. “Just because someone admits they were wrong and agrees to look into why, doesn’t mean we should trust them with power.” I fully agree. That isn’t what I was advocating. Contrition only opens the doorway. Trust must be earned back.
It is impossible even to begin that process if the violator doesn’t acknowledge she did something wrong. “Mistakes were made,” isn’t good enough. A good enough starting point is more like, “We did terrible things out of ignorance. But why were we so ignorant? What is the source of the corruption of our institutions of knowledge? How can we fix that?” And again, that is the starting point. Imagine you were in an abusive relationship. One day after he beats you up, he says, “Sorry babe, something came over me, let’s forget it ever happened.” Not good enough. If he says, “I am terribly sorry, I don’t know why I did that, but I am determined to find out because I don’t want to hurt you again,” that is better. But even then, you probably don’t want to be in his power, not until he has proved his sincerity and shown evidence of real change.
So it is with our health authorities and political authorities. They should not be in positions of power. Same for the media and tech companies that suppressed the truth. When they dismantle the apparatus of censorship and remove the censors from their positions, I will be happy to grant them amnesty. When Fauci and Gates and Walensky and Bouria and Trudeau and Trump and Biden and the rest of the crew realize that their actions have harmed billions and say, “I am deeply sorry, and until I get to the bottom of why I did that I should not be trusted in a position of power,” they will have taken the first step back into public trust.
Emily Oster didn’t make it explicit, but more fundamental than the plea for amnesty in her article was a plea for love. I would like to echo that plea. Love never writes anyone off and consigns them to eternal damnation. Love always holds open the possibility of redemption. Love never reduces someone to the status of a horrible person. Someone may be twisted to the point of committing unimaginably evil acts, but at the very bottom, they are still a divine soul, born of God, a vessel of life. Anyone who loses sight of that truth is not operating in reality. Realistically, maybe the worst of the worst will never change. Maybe only the death process will unlock their divinity. But who are we to know that for certain?
I recall now a story I told in my book The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible about Christian Bethelson, a Liberian warlord who went by the nom de guerre of General Leopard. He operated in a milieu of child soldiery in an unspeakably brutal civil war. If any human being is irredeemable, it would be him. After the war was over, he was on his way to ply his trade (of killing) in another country, when he got stuck in the mud. Also stuck was another vehicle carrying members of a peace group, the Everyday Gandhis. He told them who he was, expecting them to beat him, punish him, but instead they hugged him and told him they loved him. He dissolved. Last I heard, he had become a peace worker himself.
My friends, the world is in a very bad state. We need miracles on the level of Bethelson’s. We cannot force them to happen; all we can do is occupy the consciousness that allows their possibility. Put-downs, derision, contempt, snark, write-offs, belittling, vengeance, and punishment are foreign to that consciousness. These are the tools of us versus them. These are the tools of dehumanization, of scapegoating, of war and of hate. They work well for their purpose of rallying the troops. Dehumanizing the enemy (as many are doing now in the context of the US midterm election) frees the warrior from his conscience. Once we have firmly fixed someone in the category of villain, of deplorable, a terrorist, a “threat to democracy itself,” or whatever synonym for evil gains currency in the in-group, than any act is justified in what becomes a war of good versus evil.
I am speaking here to those who seek any form of social justice, not just Covid justice.
Again, the fact that both sides in the Covid war tend to use the same dehumanizing tactics doesn’t mean that both sides are equally wrong. As in many situations, there is a clear abuser and victim, a clear imbalance in power. But when the anger of the oppressed turns to hate for the oppressor, the tragic result is that, if they win, the former victims become new oppressors. How many times have we seen that happen in revolutionary movements across the world?
The world is in bad shape, and we need a deeper kind of revolution than that. We need to hold open the door for a change of heart. Love opens the door, and love bears no condition. Then comes a new phase of the work: the rebuilding of trust.
Many responded to my last essay with, “Your price for amnesty… it will never happen. They will never agree to disclosure. They will never come clean. They will never repent.” Maybe not. It does seem unlikely. But if we don’t open the door to a miracle, then our cynicism fulfills its own predictions.
The world will heal only with coherency among human beings. Not the fake amicability that comes from pretending injustice never happened, but the healing that starts with acknowledging that it did. Amnesty and disclosure lean upon each other. Amnesty, forgiveness, trust—these are conditional. But they rest on love which is not.
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What a great essay. The presence of love in your words is moving and the possibility for miracles and how this can happen through keeping the heart door open is an inspiration. I love your work Charles. It has lead me down many paths of curiosity and openness in spite of the intensity of these times. Thank you thank you!
This essay and the last are very thought provoking. I know I stumbled on the word amnesty. Emily didn’t ask for forgiveness but amnesty. I found that weird. Amnesty has a specific definition regarding a pardon by a government usually for political reasons. It’s a legal term. I am not trusting the sincerity because of the use of that term. I didn’t feel any love coming from her essay. It came across quite flippant to me. I wanted an apology not excuses. I am willing to forgive. And your essays provide the reasoning for forgiveness. Your essays provide the very necessity for forgiveness. I can be angry and forgive. I can be angry and still love. I guess I am not trusting yet the motivation for the original essay by Emily. And the use of the word amnesty instead of forgiveness. They aren’t the same. I look forward to hearing what you and others think and continue the dialogue. K