I’ve always been enthralled by the story of the Trojan horse. Though I couldn’t see the appeal of a wooden steed that moved only on wheels, I could, as a horse-mad teen, relate to a culture that held horses sacred. And I identified with Cassandra long before my stint as a professional oracle. Anyway, the other day, I’d been researching the fall of Troy while exploring its subversive horse as metaphor – the idea of undermining by stealth sparks my interest, perhaps because it speaks to my medical history – and I was going to write a post titled ‘Beware of geeks bearing gifts’. Too corny, though; plenty of writers would have thought of it.
Like the author of a think piece in a right-wing magazine, featuring Bill Gates and vaccines. Predictable, and not just for an ex-seer. What surprised me was the extent to which it echoes my own perspective. Most right-wing propaganda just repels me. Yet this example demonstrates (along with countless others I’ve read, though the Guardian etc. attempt to keep count for me) that the world is at war – not with bioweapons or nuclear bombs but ideologies. If vaccination isn’t the point, or not in the way conspiracists think, it is nonetheless a test of our loyalties. Trust the science, say the faithful, but science is a very broad church; true belief requires an open mind. And where there’s politics, there’s also psychology.
‘Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine short-changes identity.’ So writes psychologist Andrew Solomon in his doorstop study Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012). Recent examples include the backlash against ‘fat-shaming’ – a charge sometimes levelled at research on risks related to morbid obesity – and the canonisation of Greta Thunberg, admired for her directness, while detractors just see a child on the spectrum. But for nearly two years, our worsening Western obesity epidemic and rising seas/temperatures have been eclipsed by a new kind of mass identity crisis.
Take the recent fuss surrounding the misnamed Australian Open. Officials granted the world’s top tennis star a visa thanks to a vaccine exemption. And, having had Covid already, Novak (‘Novax’) Djokovic posed no more threat than anyone. But we needed a scapegoat, not a sports god. So he got deported lest his presence fuel ‘anti-vaccination sentiment’. The phenomenon of identity has truly assumed a life of its own, overriding medical science.
Anti-vaxxer: it’s an emergent category of identity in today’s virally challenged climate. Discard the mask. Wave the placard. Protest your exclusion from non-essential shops and venues. Because what is identity politics, if not a manifestation of the individual’s need to belong – to be part of a group instead of an isolated unit? And it’s ironic that this trend should gain momentum at a time when the urgency of our quest to assert an identity enables corporations to harvest and use our data to market products and services back to us that negate true diversity. Meanwhile, most of us put more energy into defining and defending notions of identity than we do into resisting the forces complicit in quickening global warming – as if we prize identity above ongoing survival; as if we could keep our identities when we die (of heat exhaustion, viral contagion, food/water contamination or shortage); as if identity, or ID, can’t be altered, discarded, created, faked, stolen or used to incriminate and detain us.
Some identities run deeper than others, of course – but corporate-driven digital culture is horizontal, not vertical. Trading off surfaces, it denies our rootedness in the Earth, connects us to a virtual or substitute sense of belonging while disconnecting us from our origins. Over-identified with how we present ourselves, we’ve lost our primal, instinctual, inborn sense of what our bodies need. Which is how alternative culture, which logically should be anti-capitalist, left-leaning and green, can become mixed up with far-right extremism. It’s as if our corporate-owned digital culture has turned the world inside-out; extracted our souls from our sensibilities while we thought we were controlling it; reduced us to characters in a story that can’t end happily, when we thought we were its authors.
What if all the energy spent on protesting lockdowns etc. could be redirected at, say, climate inaction? But no. One thing that lockdowns, masks and mass vaccination mandates do is attack people’s sense of being special and unique, free agents and free-range consumers: the freedom, such as it is, to imagine oneself as an individual. ‘Rights’ stand revealed as privileges. Some hope to restore the old sense of entitlement by conforming: things will soon return to ‘normal’ if they don’t rock the boat. Others think it’s leaky: a case of sink or swim. My body is sovereign, some intone, as if immunity dances to an ideological tune.
Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, wrote Solomon. Witness the phenomenon of rebels against the system mocking the masked in countercultural meccas like Mullumbimby, while, from a medical perspective, masks and sanitiser reduce the ‘spread’ (hence surgeons wear masks, gloves etc. when they operate). But as Solomon said, medicine short-changes identity. At its crudest, that can mean someone active with a sufficiency of dietary zinc and vitamins C and D, and immune to colds or flu, rating the same treatment as an obese, diabetic, sedentary smoker and drinker. The main message mandated mass vaccination sends is one size fits all. Small wonder too many ‘adverse events’ get dismissed or ignored.
Which brings to mind another quote: ‘Treating an identity as an illness invites real illness to make a braver stand.’ Though Solomon refers to individuals, the same goes for Western society. The myth that the unvaxxed were the sole obstacle to beating the virus was shown to be misguided when NSW case numbers soared before the unvaxxed emerged from lockdown. Yet the stigma persists amid fudging of figures along with media hype. Meanwhile, content to blame the unvaxxed, some of the vaxxed continue to spread and catch (and even die with) the virus. Real illness has a field day while hordes remain in denial.
But is that taking ‘illness’ too literally? If we stretch its definition to include states of mind, we find ourselves up against the social construct of mental illness. It’s a game two sides can play. According to psychology professor Mattias Desmet, lack of social bonding, loss of a sense of meaning, and free-floating anxiety, discontent, frustration and aggression have left society more vulnerable to hypnosis, or ‘mass formation’ (see Freud on ‘Massenbildung’). And what we’ve increasingly seen since the botched rollout of vaccines is the labelling of those not joining the queue as ‘vaccine-hesitant’ (the charitable suggestion that they just need encouragement) then (when it appeared that some were refuseniks and so must be punished) their condemnation as ‘anti-vaxxers’: a synonym for ‘batshit crazy’ or ‘domestic terrorist’.
Attuned to the power of language, Desmet counsels respect when talking to those who don’t share our views. But his theory resonates with many who find themselves shut out and shunned, and it’s been restyled as ‘mass formation psychosis’. To call someone ‘psychotic’, though, is akin to calling them ‘crazy’; it’s typically said with dismissive intent, and the clinical diagnosis can be used to discredit or to justify restraint or confinement.
So now we have a society split, if not neatly nor evenly, into new classes or castes: the virtuous (or blackmailed) fully vaccinated (the bar is rising), the vexing unvaxxed, and the single-dosed who’ve taken their time or remain undecided. Compassion, not meddlecine, will be needed to heal the divide.