Coronavirus, conspiracy and bullshit

It’s two days since we were asked to avoid all non-essential social contact, and already I’m sick of the conspiracies and the bullshit. From my mother-in-law, who thinks if you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you’re neither infected nor infectious (FYI, that’s bullshit), to those who keep asking what’s ‘really going on’, there’s ample proof that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has put its socks on.

So here’s the coronavirus bullshit I’m most sick of hearing.

The ‘I’ve heard…’ bullshit

So much discussion about coronavirus starts with, ‘I’ve heard…’

Whenever I state a fact on this site, I try to provide a link to a reputable source that supports it. Anecdotal evidence of the ‘I’ve heard’ variety – usually from a friend who’s a nurse, or an uncle who’s a doctor, or a cousin in Italy – is worse than useless, it’s often dangerous.

Vitamin-C stops you catching coronavirus; if you have a runny nose, it’s not coronavirus; it’s just the flu.

All wrong. This kind of hearsay stuff encourages falsehoods. It dissuades people from listening to sound advice and makes them ignore the very things that’ll help with this pandemic. It leads to them panic buying, stockpiling, pulling their kids out of school, and doing things that go against our best interests. It leads to chaos and individualism, when order and collaboration are how we save the day. It leads to people refusing to follow the steps we need to take to end this because they think they know better.

I often challenge people who make these kinds of statements to provide a source. ‘Google it,’ they respond, as though the onus is on me to find corroborating evidence, not the one making the batshit claim. If you tell me the world’s flat, it’s up to you to bring the evidence, buddy.

So next time, before clicking on that ‘share’ button, do a bit of fact-checking. It’s incumbent on all of us to do our part. If you don’t, you make things worse.

The conspiracy bullshit

The worst, most extreme form of ‘I’ve heard…’ is the conspiracy theory. I’m not going to go into the biological weapon bullshit here. Instead, I want to talk about the significant proportion of society who seem to delight in telling us the outbreak is either much worse than it really is, or else is a minor inconvenience/entirely non-existent virus that’s being exploited to take away our individual freedoms.

The first tends to take the form of, ‘I know a nurse, and she says they’re lying to us – it’s so much worse than they’re letting on.’

I’ve seen that sort of comment, phrased slightly differently, around fifty times already, mostly at Daily Mail Online. ‘The official statistics are wrong’ finds fertile ground among the distrustful minds of this post-truth age. These comments are the height of scaremongering, actively encouraging us not to trust the very government that is trying to help us. I’m pretty sure that, in times of war, this would be tantamount to treason.

But worse is all the NWO crap, that somehow seems to have shedloads of upvotes, hinting at a sizeable body of tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists living among us.

For those who don’t know, the New World Order is a massively popular conspiracy theory that claims a secretive cabal of globalists, Zionists, Freemasons and/or aliens are manipulating the world from out the shadows. Their aim is a totalitarian one world government, often called The Fourth Reich, that will enslave mankind and cull it to manageable numbers. The IMF, the World Bank, the WHO, and the UN are all believed to be arms of the NWO, slowly strangling individual freedoms. Part of Trump’s popularity is because people think he’s fighting back against this ‘Deep State’.

How will the NWO take over? By faking terrorist incidents and mass shootings to increase the government’s power and take away our means to resist (i.e. gun control), and by faking a global crisis that necessitates the suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of martial law. To these believers, Covid-19 is the end-game: all people will now be forced to vaccinate/have chips inserted in their necks to be monitored before being led to the extermination camps. Just go to Twitter and search the hashtag #Newworldorder and disappear down the rabbit hole of nuttiness.

And this would be fine, if it was just a fringe belief, but it crops up in the unlikeliest of places – I’ve even seen it on Asperger’s parental support sites. So every time you say, ‘What’s really going on?’ or ‘They’re lying to us!’ you could be encouraging someone who thinks our alien overlords are about to take over. Stop doing it.

The political bullshit

I’m also sick of all the posts and comments using Covid-19 as a stick with which to beat the Tories in general and Boris Johnson in particular, most notably at The Guardian. They seem to think that the Conservatives want old people to die, and Boris Johnson is doing everything in his power to bring that about. Specifically, they argue that, following a plan drawn up by Dominic Cummings, Johnson is willing to sacrifice the elderly, the sick and the poor, as they’re drains on the public purse, in order to safeguard the economy on behalf of his rich friends.

Do people really think this is the time to play party politics? They seem almost to want thousands of people to die in order to justify their hatred of the government. But though they dress this up under the veil of intelligence – they know better than the rest of us, don’t you know? – even an elementary understanding of politics makes it clear that blaming this on Boris Johnson is ludicrous.

Johnson is not a medical expert. That’s why he’s following the advice of Chris Whitty CB FRCP FFPH FMedSci, a physician and epidemiologist who also happens to be the Chief Medical Officer for England, Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care, and head of the National Institute for Health Research. A senior civil servant and practising Consultant Physician, formerly Professor of Public and International Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, I’m rather sure he knows more about public health than most left-wing journalists and the majority of Guardian readers. So why the constant Tory-bashing?

All this achieves is sowing disunity and discord when we ought to be supportive and cooperative. I’ve even seen calls for Johnson and Cummings to be arrested and put on trial, and for the government to be overthrown and replaced, which is patently absurd.

The supernatural bullshit

But more absurd are the supernatural interpretations of Covid-19. I’ve seen many people argue that Dean Koontz predicted this outbreak in his 1981 novel, The Eyes Of Darkness, because the book is about a biological weapon named Wuhan-400, where the coronavirus pandemic began. This is obviously just a coincidence – more so when you discover it was originally named Gorki-400 and came from Russia, before being renamed Wuhan-400 in the 1989 reissue.

Even more have pointed to a 100-year cycle of outbreaks, in the manner of: 1520, smallpox; 1620, plague; 1720, plague; 1820, cholera; 1920, Spanish flu; 2020, coronavirus. This is such an obvious example of cherry-picking that it’s barely worth debunking, but I will – what about the Black Death in the 1340s; 1665 London Plague; the 1855 plague in China; the 1889 Russian flu; or the 1957 Asian flu? There are always outbreaks of disease so you can do this with any year. Indeed, as this 18-month-old article shows, we were overdue a pandemic anyway.

In terms of supernatural belief systems, many Christians seem to think that God won’t allow this virus to get out of hand. Those who believe aliens are guiding the evolution of mankind agree they won’t let us fall victim to this (unless they’re part of the New World Order and this is their plan). There are many more who seem certain that the virus will just disappear.

The evidence? The late celebrity psychic medium Sylvia Browne, from shows like Montel and Sally Jessie Raphael, predicted that 2020 would see a pneumonia-like illness spread across the world and then disappear. And far be it from me to doubt somebody who:

  • in 1999 told the parents of a kidnapped girl that she had been sold into slavery and was still alive (she had been murdered within hours of her abduction);
  • in 2001 told a woman her firefighter fiance had survived 9/11 (one month before his body was pulled from the rubble);
  • in 2002 told parents that their missing girl was alive and working as an exotic dancer (she had been murdered in 1996);
  • also in 2002 told the parents of a missing 11-year-old that their son was dead (he was found alive in 2007);
  • in 2004 convinced a mother that her missing daughter was dead (she turned up alive in 2013);
  • also in 2004 told a pregnant woman she’d have a healthy baby boy (it was a girl and died after being born 5-months premature).

And dozens more. But sure, she predicted this. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The November bullshit

And speaking of time, I’ve lost count of the number of people who claim they had coronavirus in November, or over Christmas, or in early January. They all speak of a mystery, flu-like illness that laid them low long before the illness left China. The official story is wrong, they say – it’s been here for months already.

You know what other illness has flu-like symptoms and afflicts people in the wintertime? Flu.

Give it a rest, people. This is going to go on for months, and it’ll be far harder if we have to spend them knee deep in bullshit.

School gate politics

Since we live our lives surrounded by other people, I follow one simple rule to avoid complications: be distantly polite. Say hello, ask how they are, keep the conversation to mundane topics like the weather and how your kids are doing, and then leave. Not complicated, is it?

Unfortunately, this seems to be a minority viewpoint. I’ve mentioned before how women with kids can be incredibly petty (Millennial mothers: Grow the hell up!), and nothing I’ve experienced in five months of the school gate has convinced me that I’m wrong. If anything, I think I underplayed how obnoxious people can be.

Just before Christmas we had a new girl start at school from a couple of towns over. She hadn’t been getting on at her school (or I’m inclined to think the mother hadn’t been), so she transferred to my daughter’s school. No probs, no foul. The mother’s a bit full on – you can’t get a word in edgeways – but hey ho, we only see her at the school gate, though her and my wife had liaised about setting up a playdate since our daughters hang around together at school. So far, so normal.

Then yesterday, my wife got a text from her. A very nasty text, accusing my wife of gossiping, spreading dirt, and trying to turn the other mothers against her, saying that she hadn’t gone to the effort of switching schools to be judged by such a spiteful person as my wife, and telling her to stay away from her and her family in future or things could get ugly. To which my wife’s response was: what the hell?

The mother then texted to say she’d seen screen captures of messages my wife had sent, and that she wants nothing to do with us, she’d hoped we could be friends but not anymore.

Now, I know my wife isn’t perfect – she’s irresponsible, stubborn and impulsive – but she’s also helpful and generous and desperate to be everyone’s friend, and calling her nasty and judgemental, and accusing her of spreading gossip, is a gross misrepresentation of her character. Only last week, my wife was telling me how excited she was at setting up a playdate and making a ‘new friend’ – this woman – so it infuriates me to have her so maligned.

Since she wasn’t receiving any coherent responses from this woman, my wife contacted a mutual friend from school, one of the other girl’s mothers, to say that she’d received this nasty text and had no idea why. And then we got the explanation.

My daughter told us one day that the new girl had wet herself at school, so she’d been extra nice to her. It’s no biggee – they’re four, most of them have had accidents at school. When my wife met up with her friend the other night, she happened to mention this in conversation, which I figure is a pretty normal thing for parents whose kids are in same class to discuss – like that one of the girls fell over and skinned both knees, or that the Polish kids all hang out together speaking Polish. I mean, when the only thing you’ve got in common is that your kids are friends, what else are you going to talk about other than your kids and their interactions with their friends?

Well, this ‘friend’ mentioned the girl wetting herself to the girl’s mother, who immediately demanded to know who told her. So the ‘friend’ pointed the finger at my wife, and then showed this woman a text message my wife had sent on the very first day they’d met her, saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ because the new mum had blurted out her entire life story to them at the school gate, warts and all.

Those are the two times my wife has ever mentioned that family to anyone else. A text message from almost three months ago saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ and mentioning in passing that our daughter had been extra nice to the new girl because she wet herself. From that, she’s been accused of running a campaign to turn all the other mothers against the new woman, of being cruel, vindictive, spiteful and judgemental. Even though the ‘friend’s’ daughter has wet herself, like, five times! Who cares? They’re kids.

The way I see it, if this woman is so sensitive about people knowing her four-year-old wet herself, she’s the one with the problem. She’s clearly paranoid about being judged by the other mums, and while I don’t know what happened at the other school, she’s come to this one looking out for any sign that she’s being mistreated and totally overreacted to the very first perceived slight. Which makes you wonder if anything really did happen at the other school, or if this is all in her head. I wonder how many other people she’s going to attack and call it self-defence? Or how long before she pulls her child out of this school because of perceived mistreatment?

I composed a very pleasant response to this woman saying that we didn’t judge her at all, we’re all just trying to navigate this very difficult time in our lives without messing up, and it was never our intention to make anybody feel ridiculed because that’s not who we are. And that’s the truth. But we’ve had no response.

Now, however, I do judge her – I think she’s a bit of a psycho. I’d like to say that I can understand her response and I’m trying to see things from her point of view, but really, all I can see is somebody lashing out and accusing people of things that simply never happened. For someone who doesn’t want to be gossiped about, attacking another mum (who is, I am proud to say, rather popular at the school gate) is hardly a good way to stop gossip; indeed, it’s probably the best way to start it. Because, after all, if you’re a paranoid person the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

I’ve told my wife to watch out for her ‘friend’ too. I mean, who shows someone else a text message about them? Who, when someone is cross because she thinks the other mums are talking about her, pours fuel on the fire? What was her role in all this nonsense? It’s the school gate, not the bloody playground!

And now I shall leave it there, because I’m still angry about how this has played out and I’m feeling the petty caveman building up in me once again. Attack me? Fine, I’ll take in on the chin. Attack my wife and kids? You’d better bring your A-Game, baby, because my dictionary doesn’t go up to B.

I await a rather awkward Monday morning at the school gate. She doesn’t want anything to do with my family? The bloody cheek. I want nothing to do with hers.

But if pressed, I will be distantly polite. If everyone behaved the same way, none of this aggravation would have happened.

Why you should vote

With a General Election in the UK tomorrow that will likely change the way we live for a generation – either by delivering Brexit (Conservative) or re-nationalising utilities and transport (Labour) – most of the people I’ve spoken to have no idea who to vote for, and, therefore, have decided not to vote.

True, it’s a difficult choice – it can seem a little bit like choosing which plug socket to jam a fork into, because we’re going to suffer either way – but if you’re crippled by indecision, here are some things that might help you out of that deadlock.

The difference between left and right is one of opinion, not morality.

I am sick and tired of hearing this banal, simplistic dichotomy of left=good, right=evil; or, to put it another way, Left is right and Right is wrong. You hear all the time from celebrities, campaigners, news sources and anonymous internet users that if you vote Labour (or Democrat in the US), you’re a good, selfless person who cares about the poor and rescues drowning puppies, whereas if you vote Conservative (or Republican), you’re a selfish, uneducated, boorish racist who hates puppies and never tires of seeking out rivers to throw them into.

The world doesn’t work like that. People can’t be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their voting preference, not least because there are really (realistically) only two choices, and picking one doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say and do, just that you disagree with them less than you disagree with their opponent. Rather than being a moral choice, that agreement or disagreement is simply your opinion on how a society is best structured.

Typically speaking, the Right, whether that’s Conservative or Republican, believes in individual responsibility and the free market. They think people should be rewarded for their efforts and punished for their failings; that independence, innovation and hard work should be encouraged, while dependence should be discouraged. They think a free market with the minimum of governmental oversight will give the consumer a fair deal based on the mechanism of competition, and that tax-breaks for the rich will make them spend more money and found new companies and invest in philanthropic enterprises, so the wealth will trickle down throughout society, and everyone will benefit. Essentially, they think people should be left to their own devices and all will come good.

The Left of Labour and the Democrats believes in collective responsibility and the regulated market. They think society controls who succeeds and who fails; that hard work is not properly rewarded and that society needs to take responsibility for your failings. They think the market needs governmental regulation because the mechanism of competition does not give the consumer a fair deal, and that tax breaks for the rich only make the rich richer. Essentially, they think the only way it will all come good is if there’s someone in charge making sure it does.

And that is the difference. True, some people who vote for the Right are racist xenophobes who hate the poor, and some people who vote for the Left are dyed-in-the-wool, hardline Communists, but that’s a minority. Voting Labour doesn’t make you a good person any more than voting Conservative makes you a bad one – it simply means you have a different opinion on whether the basic unit of society should be the individual or the group.

And as someone who sees himself as a political centrist, believing in some things from the Left, like the welfare state, and some things from the Right, like government non-interference, while simultaneously opposing things on both sides, I have no home.

It doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for

As much as the UK champions itself as a democracy, really it’s just an elected dictatorship. Once somebody is in power, they can pretty much do whatever they want for five years, and no amount of protesting will prevent them from, for example, massively hiking up tuition fees or going to war on false pretexts. ‘People Power’ is only really relevant in an election year, and even then, your voice as an individual isn’t actually important at all, especially if you live in a safe seat.

Take my constituency of New Forest West, for example. Created in 1997, it has seen the Conservative MP Desmond Swayne win every election for 22 years. Voter turnout has been pretty consistent throughout this period: between 45% and 50% of the electorate. The least he has won by is a majority of 11,000 votes, back before the millennium. He won the last election by more than 23,000 votes. It doesn’t matter where I put that cross on my ballot paper, Desmond Swayne is going to win. My political power, as an individual, is zero. My vote has never had an effect on the outcome of an election, and likely never will.

But what about marginal seats? Doesn’t every vote count? No. The last time an MP was elected by a majority of one vote was 1910. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for. It doesn’t matter if you stay in bed and don’t bother. You, as an individual, have no say whatsoever.

But you should go and vote anyway

Democracy is a collective endeavour. While it’s true that your individual vote is unimportant, the individual votes add up. It might make no difference if you don’t vote, but if your household doesn’t vote, or your street, or your town, that makes a difference, especially in marginal seats. For politics to work for the people, the people have to engage with it, even if it’s simply to sully your ballot paper as a mark of protest. And while it’s true that deciding who to vote for in this election is particularly difficult, not least because the leaders of both the main parties come across as incredibly odious individuals, if you don’t vote when you have the chance, and after people have fought and died for the opportunity, then you don’t really have the right to complain about the outcome.

My fear is that, with so many people saying they aren’t going to vote because they’re undecided, this election is going to be decided by activists, the people with the motivation to go out and vote. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many political activists who aren’t extremists, running down the other side while blind to the faults of their own. Do we really want those people, whether Left or Right, deciding our future?

The media doomsday cult

I never thought I’d reach the point where I want to look away from the world, but I’ll be honest: I’m the closest I’ve ever been to disconnecting the internet, avoiding the news, and switching channels away from anything other than the comforting banality of Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Sure, every generation thinks it’s the end of the world and humanity can’t survive, and they’ve always been wrong, but these days it’s like watching a slow-motion car crash – or a nuclear strike in treacle. An epidemic of stabbings and mass shootings; a British Parliament crippled by indecision and infighting; a narcissistic lunatic in the White House; innocents massacred in Syria; earthquakes and superstorms; protesters on every street corner; people at each other’s throats; families breaking apart; traditional morals disappearing; and to top it all, the planet is dying. False prophets, nation pitted against nation, wars and rumours of wars, moral decay, signs in the stars, and earthquakes: we’re practically living through the biblical End of Days.

Or are we? I’ve said before that the greatest threat to mankind’s future is the increasing polarisation of society – the division of people into mutually antagonistic groups. Man vs woman, black vs white, old vs young, rich vs poor, left vs right, us vs them, all couched in terms of good vs evil, and as soon as you call the other side evil, or less than human, it justifies whatever you do to them: lock them in cages, deny them their civil liberties, throw milkshakes over them, or acid, drive your car into them, or stab them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s divisive and it’s dangerous and it’s wrong.

We act as though, instead of working together and seeing what unites us, we should double down on the differences and shout at one another, everybody making noise but nobody listening. I’ve never seen a time where civilised debate has broken down into so much name-calling. People are traitors, fascists, Nazis, baby-killers; they’re bigots and racists and misogynists and xenophobes. The validity of their argument is not based on its internal logic, but on their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their sexuality. I refuse to listen to you because you’re a white, male, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied baby boomer; and I refuse to listen to you because you’re a black, working class, trans-female, lesbian, disabled millennial. And you’re evil, not me, it’s you, you, you.

And who has caused this? Everybody. It’s not Trump, not UKIP, though they’ve certainly exploited it as much as the progressives and the politically correct have. It’s all of us. We’ve allowed it to happen. Every time we pick up the Daily Mail or the Guardian; every time we share some random, unsourced, unverified claim on Facebook; every time we argue with somebody on Twitter; every time we demand someone loses their job and their livelihood for having a different opinion to us; every time we question the truth of a message based on the gender or age or colour of the messenger; every time we click on a political video on YouTube; every time we feel satisfaction when someone on the other ‘side’ is embarrassed or humiliated; every time we engage with a book or a TV show or a movie that supports our ideology; every time we buy into this ‘us and them’ rubbish; and yes, every time we vote for people who not only accept but exploit and heighten these divisions, we are part of the problem.

But being on the ‘right’ side feels so damned good, doesn’t it? Fighting the good fight against the evil enemy, we’re all heroes of our own black-and-white morality play. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for shades of grey, or for the people on the other side being simply that – people. People with thoughts and feelings. People who have beliefs formed by their experiences, by their frailties and their fears. People who are sometimes right, often wrong, but are no more evil than you and I. No. The people on the other side are evil monsters. That makes far more sense. And it means we don’t have to think, to consider whether there are other arguments more valid, or more convincing, or more just, than our own.

And while we’re all responsible for the anger resonating around our societies, I think the media plays a massive part in catering to these base instincts. As we all know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Human nature being what is is, we love what stirs our passions, and those negative emotions – anger, fear, jealousy, hatred – feel much more potent, and long-lasting, and somehow more ‘real’ than joy, and hope, and comfort. We even try to justify it in intellectual terms, as though clever, educated, informed people are aware of the world as it really is, and only the dumb, the ignorant, and the ill-informed can be happy. That’s a load of bull.

The media is full of misery because misery sells, and despite claims to journalistic integrity and impartiality, the news is an industry that lives on sales and clicks. The world is incredibly complicated, far too complicated to provide an easily-digestible soundbite for the Six O’Clock news. You can’t provide balance, or nuance, or explain the limits of what we can and can’t predict, or the reliability or likelihood of economic, scientific, or geopolitical projections. It’s far easier to sell narratives that play into good/bad dichotomies of selfishness, greed, murder, exploitation, and the rape of the natural world, than admit that there are positives and negatives to everything, it’s all about balance and compromise, and the influence of this on that is not something we can accurately measure.

The bottom line is that optimism – feeling safe – does not sell papers. But what can kill you, what can scar you, what can make you fear for your future and your family’s future, and what erodes your faith in humanity, is what feeds the media industry. Be afraid: Britain is trapped in Brexit deadlock; there’s a madman in the White House; we’re in the middle of a crime epidemic; and the planet is dying! Be afraid. Don’t miss the next news report! You need to know what’s going on!

Little by little, you disappear down the rabbit hole, and you lose your way back to the light.

So instead of turning away from the news, I think we should seek out the good, the positive, the hopeful and the optimistic – those things that tell us we’re not dying, it’s not as bad as all that. Let’s all stop hating each other and see what unites us.

Here are some news stories you might have missed, because they couldn’t feed into the doomsday cult we all seem to follow:

1. Warfare is at historically low levels. The number of people killed in international wars dropped from 65,000 a year in the 1950s to 2,000 a year in the 2000s despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, from 1989 to 2005, campaigns of mass killing of civilians dropped 90%. There aren’t more wars these days; it just feels like there are because during Vietnam, Cambodia and the Iran-Iraq war, we didn’t have 24-hour news channels and social media showing us every atrocity in real time and sensationalising it for clicks and likes.

2. Global poverty levels were cut in half between 1990 and 2012, a phenomenal improvement to people’s lives in terms of both income and standard of living. And this isn’t just in some countries or continents, but across the entire globe. It turns out that globalisation, the process by which the West exploits the labour and resources of the developing world, actually provides benefits for everyone, but that doesn’t fit into the us/them, rich vs poor paradigm.

3. Every objective, academic, statistical source you consult will tell you the same thing: the crime rate is falling. It rose during the 1980s, peaked in the early 90s, and then dropped off rapidly and has continued to fall year on year. In the US, using FBI statistics, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics records a 71% drop for the same period. In the UK, according to the Office For National Statistics, violent crime peaked in 1995 and then fell two-thirds by 2017. While it is true that the drop-off appears to have stopped in the last couple of years, and certain types of crime (such as knife crime in the UK) have increased, crime levels are still substantially below the levels of the 1980s and early 90s. Anybody claiming we are living through a violent crime epidemic is doing so for sensationalism or political gain.

4. Despite all the dire predictions and catastrophising, there are more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, and far from dying out, they’re actually increasing in number. Indeed, they seem remarkably adaptive to changing conditions. Why? It would appear that thinner ice gives them easier access to seals. The effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict, and talking about it in terms of good and bad denies the reality that some will benefit and some won’t.

5. According to NASA, the world is literally greener today than it was 20 years ago. Thanks to tree-planting programmes in China and agricultural programmes in China and India, there are an extra 2 million square miles of green leaf area, an equivalent size to the entire Amazon rainforest. As Rama Nemani is quoted as saying, ‘Once people realise there’s a problem, they tend to fix it.’ Since it is also the biggest manufacturer and installer of solar panels, China is not simply the mass-polluting monster it’s made out to be in the press, but that wouldn’t keep us all living in fear.

6. The ozone layer is repairing itself. It’s got a long way to go, but thanks to the global community’s efforts to remove CFCs, last year it was 16% smaller than in 2006.

7. By 2018, 101 cities drew more than 70% of their energy from renewable sources, up from 42 in 2015, with 43 powered entirely by ‘clean’ energy. The idea that we’re doing nothing about the environment is at best ill-informed and at worst a deliberate lie to stir up the rage of the young against the old, and the have-nots against the haves.

8. Chinese scientists have developed a new strain of rice that grows in the desert with diluted seawater, meaning global food supplies will be far more stable.

9. The Belize Barrier Reef is no longer endangered. This was thanks to the government of Belize imposing a moratorium on oil prospecting around the reef and implementing protections on coastal mangrove swamps.

And I could go on and on. But you get the picture: there are plenty of reasons for optimism, but only if you go out and look for it.

You know what is getting worse? The suicide rate. And that is the very definition of the victory of pessimism over hope.

There’s a reason for the rise of populism. There’s a reason Trump was elected, Brexit happened (or didn’t). The proliferation of social media, the echo chambers of increasingly divisive left/right media, and our own morbid relationship with seeing the negative in everything has crippled us into cowering intransigence. We’d rather find safety among our own tribe, where everyone thinks just the same as us, and score points against the evil, bigoted, Hitlers on the other side, than reach across the divide and find a solution.

And who benefits?

When people are lost, they’ll follow anybody who claims to know the way.

Even if it’s over a cliff.

The Problem With the World Today

I don’t normally get political or socially conscious on this blog, but damn it, I can’t hold back anymore. Not after the conversation I had with my three-year-old this evening when an Indian gentleman appeared on the TV.

‘Look, daddy!’ my daughter cried. ‘What’s he got on his skin?’

I frowned, unable to see what she was talking about. ‘He hasn’t got anything on his skin.’

‘It’s all black!’ she said.

Ah. The penny dropped. Since an early age she’s been exposed to people of many different ethnicities, but this is the first time she’s mentioned it.

Knowing my response might impact her view of the world, I phrased my words very carefully. ‘It’s not black, it’s brown,’ I replied. ‘That’s just the colour of his skin. It’s perfectly normal.’

‘But, but, he’s a boy!’ she said. ‘He’s supposed to be white!’

As you can imagine, this threw me through a loop. ‘What do you mean he’s supposed to be white?’ I demanded. ‘Who told you that? And who do you know who has white skin?’

‘We do,’ she said.

‘No we don’t,’ I replied. ‘Our skin is a kind of pinky peach colour. Why do you think our skin is white?’

She ummed and ahhed about this, and then started pointing out other people on TV, and saying, ‘He’s white,’ and ‘She’s black,’ depending on their ethnicity.

‘People aren’t black or white,’ I told her. ‘People have different skin tones, from very pale like ours through olive and bronze and all shades of brown to very dark. Like people have different coloured hair and different coloured eyes, people have different coloured skin too, but inside we’re all the same.’

I could have dismissed it as simple childish curiosity, but what really disturbed me was that she somehow knew the manmade categories of white and black – skin tones that rarely, if ever, exist in nature. I have deliberately never spoken to her about race as I want her to treat people as individuals, not as belonging to one group or another. Once you start lumping people together into groups you begin to assign values and assumptions to those groups, and that’s why I’m so determined that she takes people as she finds them – especially living in a county that at the last census was 98% white. The fact that even kids as young as three are arbitrarily dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘ them’ is indicative of the world as a whole, and, I have to admit, makes me fear for the future.

I recently commented on a blog called Pointless Overthinking that asked readers to suggest the biggest problem facing humanity right now. I didn’t have to consider my answer because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for months.

In my opinion, the biggest problem afflicting society right now – in the West, at least – is polarisation: the division of people into discrete, competing and mutually exclusive categories. While this has always been a problem, the last five years seem to have launched us into a face-off with one another that has reached truly frightening proportions, from the level of the individual right up to that of government and state. It isn’t good for any of us and it really needs to stop.

We live in the age of Black Lives Matter, of Fourth Wave Feminism, of #MeToo and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way); Donald Trump and Women’s Marches; Brexit and Trans-Acivists. Every day we hear about patriarchy, white privilege, rape culture, mansplaining. We’re increasingly being divided by our sex, our skin colour, our sexuality – even whether our genitals match our gender identity. We’re being put into boxes, stripped of our individual identities and judged on the basis of arbitrary characteristics that don’t really mean anything at all.

These days, you’re either left or right; a bleeding-heart Democrat or an evil Republican; a racist Brexiteer or an unpatriotic Remoaner. You’re an oppressed person of colour or a privileged white person; a female victim or a male rapist; a trans or a cis. And instead of reaching across the divide and trying to understand the other side as people, all we’re doing is throwing insults, and spreading hatred, and treating whole categories of people as though they all share the same opinions, the same values, the same attitudes and beliefs.

People blame Trump for this polarisation, but it started before him. He wasn’t the cause of it, but a symptom of the growing divisions that are pushing everything to the opposite extremes and leaving the middle ground empty. People are mostly reasonable, rational if complex beings, and should be treated as such, but instead of finding what we have in common, we’re using terms like racist and sexist and transphobic to reduce people on the other side to simplistic bogeymen. Calling somebody a Communist while they call you a Nazi isn’t going to build bridges – quite the opposite, in fact.

What I don’t understand is how we got here. How did social categories – those things I was brought up to believe were unimportant – become so damned important again? I thought we were beyond the male/female thing, the white/black thing, the straight/gay thing. I thought we’d reached a point where we judged people by who they are rather than what they are. But apparently not.

That’s why we have books like Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race: white people are unable to understand racism because of the colour of their skin. And why men are frequently told they are not allowed an opinion on abortion because of their sex. And why the voices of cisgendered individuals are often marginalised, even within the LGBTQ+ community, because of their gender identity. In a society that everywhere tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we are everywhere judging and being judged by our covers. The rich individualities we hold inside are being ignored.

The circus of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing over the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford by Brett Kavanaugh shows just how divided we’ve all become. Instead of the solemnity and seriousness with which such an allegation should have been treated, it became the focal point for all the  various polarised tensions that exist today, an explosion of anger and judgment and partisanship, of emotion and categorisation. The truth of what happened to those people all those years ago seemed less important than what they represented and how they could be used to score points against the other side.

And there is the truth of today’s world. Political discourse these days is about demonizing the other side and reducing the wondrously individual entity that is the human being to a mere cipher for everything you hate. ‘Us and them’ is alive and well in a day and age intelligent and aware enough to know that such a division is not only dangerous, it is untrue.

So how about we stop treating people as men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, trans- and cisgenders, evil this and evil that, and start treating one another as people again? All sides, left and right, male, female, woke and still asleep – you’re all equally to blame. Try explaining your point of view to one another, instead of simply shouting, and try listening to what the other person has to say, instead of hearing only what you expect to hear.

It was 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their characters. Those words are as resonant today as they were all those years ago. I will continue to teach my kids to take people as they find them. I just hope that others will show them the same courtesy in return.