Covid-19 and the ‘Privilege of Ignorance’

This is a longer piece which I hope will be the first of an ongoing series of weekly posts on the coronavirus and the ongoing systems collapse it has brought about.

In this post I want to talk about the broader social responses to the reality of Covid-19, both across the globe but more specifically here in Australia. In particular, this post will focus on Socio-economic Class and its implications regarding the slowly tightening net of social distancing as we move inevitably to the total shutdown of Australian society.

The ‘OMG moment’

All of us have reached, or will soon reach, our ‘OMG Moment‘ with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is the moment when everyone, whether societies, groups, or individual people, inevitably switches from ignorance, indifference, denial or insouciant bravado, to a realisation that the danger from this epidemic is real.

All too real.

Many of us have not got there yet, like those those who spit on their credit card in a supermarket because they can’t use cash, or take the ‘Coronavirus challenge’ and lick a toilet seat (no, really…), or simply refuse to believe that there is any need for social distancing.

The question is – why have some people been able to adjust to this new reality, while others cannot – or more importantly, will not?

The doxa – the social construction of reality

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the shared reality in which we all live the doxa (ie the orthodox understanding of reality). What this means is quite simple – we all carry an understanding in our head of how the world works, ‘the rules of the game’, the way we all interact with each other, and the set way our relationships with those around us (and physical reality itself) are supposed to work.

You could call this our commonsense understanding of ‘the way the world works’.

The interesting point about the doxa, from Bourdieu’s perspective, is that our relationship with this commonsense reality is a ‘two way street’ – we are both constrained by the doxa, while at the same time reinforcing it for others (and ourselves!) by the way we act and think.

Take, for example, the social behaviour of waiting in lines. We do it because it is a generally accepted social norm of behaviour in Australia (while it is less so in other cultural contexts). We find we constrain our own behaviour to match this social norm, while at the same time expressing disapproval of others who break that norm.

We are both policed by the norm, while policing it ourselves – and thus reinforcing it for both others and ourselves. It is a ‘two way street’.

Social distancing and the changing doxa

The point about Bourdieu’s concept of the doxa, and the whole concept of the ‘social construction’ of reality, it that these realities can change.

Sometimes they change slowly, such as attitudes towards wearing seatbelts, smoking, or physically disciplining children. The slow nature of the change allows people time to adjust to new ‘social realities’, and as more and more people accept the new reality they enforce it (often unconsciously) through the simple fact of their behaviour. A tipping point (the ‘OMG Moment’) is eventually reached, and all of a sudden the social enforcement becomes so entrenched that holding out becomes intolerable except for the most socially intransigent.

The doxa changes.

We have seen this happen with marriage equality around the world, for example.

And here’s a classic visual example – it’s explained through terms of leaderships (and followers) but it is also a clear demonstration of how the first dancer eventually changes the entire social reality.

The first dancer (the leader/early adopter) is at first completely uncool and faintly ridiculous – but by the end those who don’t join in are the outliers. The pressure to join in (the social enforcement) becomes too much to resist).

However, when the doxa changes quickly, most obviously through a rapid crisis or event, like the spread of Covid-19, the situation changes faster than many of us are able to adjust to. This is the dynamic at play with social distancing and the movement towards a total shutdown.

Some people (and some political entities, such South Korea, HK and Singapore or the Australian states of Victoria and NSW) are shifting more quickly than others (and yes, I’m pointing at you Trump and, to a much lesser extent, ScoMo).

Intransigence: explaining the hold outs?

So what can explain the resistance on the part of many to changing our behaviours, and accepting (and practising) social distancing? One explanation is that people often resist the changing of their shared social reality depending on the extent in which they are invested in it.

If we are doing very nicely, thank you very much, in the current social reality, then we will obviously be much more loath to change that reality (and thus our behaviour).

We can see that in the backlashes against feminism and ‘political correctness’ – realities are changing, and those who feel most threatened by those changes are the most likely to resist them. In these two examples, the resistance may well come from identity.

But the impact of coronavirus is a little different, I feel.

Covid-19 and the influence of socio-economic class

I think socio-economic class becomes really important with respect to the impact of coronavirus. And the reason is once again connected to the extent to which someone has been invested in the pre-virus doxa.

That is, those who have been ‘winning’ in our hyper-connected globalised world, whether socially or economically, will be more invested in the continuance of that reality.

They will not want to change their behaviour, because this only happens if you accept that the reality has changed. No acceptance of a change in the doxa – no change in behaviour.

And there will be no change in a person’s acceptance if this implies a change in their economic or status situation.

My comfortable wealthy life is a result of my own hard work, and it is intolerable that it may change through no fault of my own…

This does obviously not apply to those super-wealthy who are isolating themselves, but it might well apply to those who cannot accept the reality of the change facing us all.

Evidence for this hypothesis?

The prevalence of coronavirus cases in the wealthier suburbs of Melbourne, for example, would seem to bear this out. Stonnington, which includes South Yarra and Toorak, and the wealthy seaside enclave of Portsea, are perhaps the biggest infection hotspots in Melbourne.

These are areas where people have been travelling overseas, and manifestly do not want to change their behaviour upon their return.

Thus we have the case of the couple that just returned from Aspen Colorado (a famous winter holiday spot for the wealthy) and did not think it important to socially isolate themselves… instead heading ‘out and about’ in Sorrento. I cannot speak to their thought processes, of course, but I wonder to what extent this behaviour is indicative of an unwillingness to accept that the social reality has changed?

We have seen such an unwillingness in the recent pronouncements of Elon Musk, or members of the Trump administration and the Trumpist right wing in the US.

Ok – but now I want to stop bashing the wealthy and turn the lens of ‘wealth’ onto all of us, more generally, as Australians.

‘Relative wealth’ and The Privilege of Ignorance

Therefore, at this point, I want to introduce a new aspect of privilege that I think is very much in evidence today – and that is the Privilege of Ignorance. This is not merely a privilege of the super wealthy within Australia and other countries, but is widespread amongst the relatively wealthy citizens of the developed world as whole.

In other words, this is not applicable to those sheltering in Portsea… but too all of us as Australians.

We have become, in the evocative words of John Howard, extremely ‘relaxed and comfortable’ as a society. The biggest example of this is the willingness many of us have had, as the virus spread, to choose to not watch the news or follow what has been happening.

Choosing to remain ignorant of the uncomfortable realities of the world, especially of the possibility or inevitability of unpleasant change, is a privilege. It is the privilege of being able to believe that ‘nothing like this could ever happen’.

It is the privilege of postponing the OMG Moment for as long as possible, in the comfortable complacency that it will not be as bad as ‘the experts’ are saying.

How could it be as bad as they are saying? That would imply that everything is much more fragile than we are comfortable imagining or accepting, and thus we postpone the awareness for as long as possible…

It is a privilege – and one worth acknowledging for the collective safety of us all depends upon us acknowledging it, and rejecting it.

Remember, this Privilege of Ignorance, the privilege of ‘not thinking’ about the essential fragility of our comfortable lives in any meaningful sense, is a symptom of wealth. The poorer citizens of developing countries have ever been able to entertain such a privilege. They live, day in and day out, with an uncertainty of existence that has, ironically, made them much more resilient than we, in the ‘developed West’, currently are.

We need to wake up, and quickly.

Our comfortable Australian lives are enmeshed in an interconnected global world in which events anywhere can affect us in Fortress Australia more than we think.

Like the Hobbits of the Shire, we are not untouched by the events of the world, however much we want to ignore ‘Far off tales and children’s stories‘… and have another beer.