As panic about Covid-19 grips the world, also locally, a corresponding increase in racial discrimination against people from Asia has emerged.
Global and local reports of such incidents represent a worrying trend of increasing social tolerances for racism and behaviours of micro-aggression in local communities.
This relates not only to public displays of racist behaviours, such as students at the University of Venda taunting a man of Asian descent over the virus. Similar and worse incidents have been reported around the world. In Birmingham, a Chinese student was violently beaten, and in London, a Singaporean student, both for being “Chinese” and “causing” the pandemic.
The global increase in hate crimes relating to the virus corresponds with a worrying trend of posting derogatory jokes and images about China and its people on social media.
It’s as if racism has found a new target and opportunity to win back its lost space as a social dynamic. Although it will not succeed in its goal, what the global wave of panic and racist vitriol that follows it reveals is the reality of the social dynamics and politics of anxiety in the life of a society.
More than simply referring to the emotional and physical sensation of anxiety, the “politics of anxiety” refers to the a very real logic that underpins the way people think about and respond to events of their world, and its impact on relationships.
On the one hand, anxiety may simply be a direct result of what threats are present in everyday life – you are anxious because of incidents around you that seem to pose a real or perceived threat. In response, individuals, families and communities, as much as formal organisations, rethink relationships and behaviours, try and quantify the risk, and then adopt corresponding interventions to resolve their anxieties.
However, therein lies the conundrum, because the more information circulates and interventions are taken, rather than decreasing them, anxieties increase as the knowledge of the threat filters through all layers of society.
By quantifying the risk, a heightened awareness of the threat triggers a heightened social suspicion of the unknown, and of the stranger and the foreigner. This means that anxiety as a social and political response offers no real solution to a perceived threat.
This means that anxiety as a social dynamic plays a different role than mediating threats and risk, namely a role as a mobilising force for political action. Anxiety will drive communities and citizens to follow leaders and solutions that promise to destroy threats, leading them to support a particular political agenda.
The triggers for political action by citizens then are the messages of fear that relate to two scenarios: fear for what was in the past, and fear for survival in the present. The anxiety is never about what is possible in the future.
This means that the politics of anxiety displaces people’s sense of time and place, to be fixated on now and the past, focusing on what traumas bedevilled the past and the perceived immediate threat facing society.
This is the second possible logic of social anxiety, namely to disrupt an established sense of what works and reimagine novel ways of being and doing – to be anxious about a rampant virus may well drive us closer to one another, rather than further apart.
Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities at the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute