With the Omicron variant, the fearsome debates and troubled interactions between people with differing views on the pandemic returned in full measure.
Emotions again run high, and panic again determines how people respond to the threat – in intimate spaces and as citizens. It is as if for the first time, we are now confronted with questions with which we are in fact well familiar.
We know this story. We know the fear, the loss and destruction that follows in the wake of infection, as we do the solutions that works to fight the virus.
Above all, we know the ideological and social distances that torment societies, communities and families – how the pandemic aggravates the political, social and economic hierarchies that sustain, rather than solve unjust societal hierarchies.
In short, with Omicron, the greatest threat to a healthy society returned – the terror of societal polarisation. When we are familiar with the societal dynamics that confront a nation in a pandemic, how does one make sense of a return to that terror?
One way to do so is to read the myriad polarising events, incidents, and discourses as an expression of the underlying psycho-social need of societies to maintain a sense of balance in how it functions.
This is the hidden project of citizens, groups and the state to retain a measure of calm in the belief that peacefulness will ensure stability – a societal “balance of belonging”.
When collectives, communities and citizens know their place and how they relate to others, an equilibrium of togetherness will follow, the argument goes.
However, for each to know their place and keep to it, high levels of sameness in groups, and difference with other groups, are required. This means identities, beliefs and behaviours must be reduced to the bare minimum of defining traits.
Stereotypical notions of your and other groups become every day, making it easy to define which arguments are right or wrong and, therefore, who is friend or foe.
Read in this way, what on the surface seems to be a project to achieve a societal balance of belonging and peace, unintentionally becomes a project that ignores social complexity and bolsters polarisation.
A different societal balance to achieve from the one of simplified belonging is the “balance of embrace”.
This is the project of citizens, groups, and the state to direct people and discourses to shared spaces of design and decision-making in the belief that doing so will present solutions to common problems, even if such interactions disrupt the peace.
When people deliberately join forums to debate various opinions, they find their established notions of who others are and what they believe, challenged. More importantly, they also discover the diversity of opinions, lived experiences and identities within their own group.
This means the measure of belonging becomes the common search for solutions rather than the reductions with which society polarises its groups and opinions. Read in this way, the project for togetherness, in fact, represents a collective project of becoming – a project to become a society with deep commitments to a shared humanity and to work together beyond known divides.
This makes deep struggle during the pandemic not a new project but the same project to realise freedom, now only in a different landscape. Arguably then, what a new variant of Covid offers a society is another lesson to embrace the stranger – a lesson to reach out to those most different from you, to listen, share and hold the space for different views to enrich our discourse and the decisions we face.
* Rudi Buys is the Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities at the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and Editor: African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
Cornerstone is an independent, not-for-profit higher education institution engaged in teaching and learning in service of others, to advance human dignity and social justice for all.