The popular story tends to go that in times of fear and uncertainty the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary strengthens, not weakens. We stick with our friends and family, putting our own needs first. But, despite being faced with so much grief and apprehension during the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen communities do the exact opposite. Across the world people have come together in solidarity, showing compassion, kindness and gratitude. Hundreds of thousands have volunteered to support the NHS in the UK, mutual aid groups have sprung up all over the world, refugee medics have stepped forward to offer their skills and expertise. This reaction of togetherness has been seen time and time again in disasters and crises the world over.
Here at the Common Cause Foundation we talk of something called the perception gap. This refers to the finding from our research that a large majority of people overestimate the importance that their fellow citizens place on ‘self-interest’ values (like public image, wealth and power) and underestimate the importance that they place on ‘compassionate’ values (like honesty, community and protecting the environment).
In the UK, for example, 74% of people place greater importance on ‘compassionate’ values than ‘self-interest’ values. But 77% of people perceive a typical fellow citizen as placing greater importance on ‘self-interest’ values, and less importance on ‘compassionate’ values than is actually the case. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, this misperception is central to maintaining the status quo.
This conceit – that most of us are more self-interested than is actually the case – propped up the old pre-corona system that we have seen crumble so rapidly. It crumbled first with a mass outpouring of public concern about those in our societies who are most vulnerable, and then second (often reluctantly and belatedly) by governments swept irresistibly along by this unequivocal statement of ordinary people’s priorities. The truth is laid bare now for us all to see: people are more concerned about the wellbeing of others than we were led to believe.
Of course, it’s not a process that’s complete. The mainstream media and our politicians still cling to the old order – peddling the “covidiot” and hollowly insisting that things must rapidly return to pre-corona ‘normality’.
As we surface from the initial scramble to adapt to physical distancing, putting in place the necessary policies and procedures to keep people safe and secure, we’re seeing organisations and individuals begin to question how this outpouring of kindness and compassion can be supported to flourish beyond COVID-19.
When the world stabilises and the restrictions that many governments have put in place are eased, will we also see an erosion of this kindness between friends, neighbours and strangers that has kept many afloat over the last few weeks? A great many vested interests will be trying to push the genie back into the bottle.
Understandably, there is a sense of urgency around making sure that this can’t happen. Here at Common Cause Foundation, we’re feeling this urgency too. But we have also been trying to resist the immediate attractiveness of reaching for some kind of strategy or action plan.
Though we see this moment as being potentially transformational for our movements, our culture and our world, we also recognise that this is a time where we each are experiencing confusion, stress and fear.
Considering our broader focus on values and culture change, we feel that our immediate contribution may be to hold a space in which we can explore the tensions between these two poles: confusion and the need for urgent action; stress and possibility; fear and hope.
Everyone will be affected by this in one way or another. Many of us will experience sickness, bereavement, mental illness and loss of jobs, income and dreams. And the pandemic is further exacerbating existing structural inequalities. Activists and communities working towards a better world on the far side of this crisis will not be spared. A question therefore exists as to how best we can support the emergence of something new under these circumstances while also taking care of ourselves?
We don’t have the answers to this challenge, but would like to offer a space to explore it together. Please join us on Monday 6th April from 1-2pm BST for a virtual conservation to look at what we might need in order to respond effectively to our current situation and to have the best chance of building a resilient, healthy and kinder society for all of us to enjoy in the future. Please find the Zoom details and RSVP here.