Listening to other people’s stories is a powerful way to unite people, and instead of belittling anxieties as illogical, addressing fears with understanding can help us design responses which enable all people to experience security in uncertain times, writes Dr Mary Breheny
Opinion: At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about the importance of unity and the team of five million, with teddy bears arrayed in friendly or macabre scenarios. This story of unity could not hold, however, and its unravelling has become more telling over the past two weeks as the protest around Parliament grinds on.
Our research on experiences of the first lockdown helps to understand this progression. It shows that even in the early days when lockdown was a novelty, people had very different experiences and fears. Examining those early experiences reveals some important lessons regarding how people make sense of disruption, and how this sense-making leads them down increasingly divergent paths.
Last year nearly 1000 people aged over 55 told us about their first lockdown experiences as part of the Health Work and Retirement study. They spoke about how they filled their time, what blessings they counted, and what concerns they had. These stories are personal accounts, but they also used recognisable genres to convey their message.
The idea of stories having a particular genre helps to understand these differences. Genre refers to the ways we have of telling a story. It is more than just what happens in the story; it is signalled in the imagery used, such as empty streets and subdued queues.
Genre shapes the sorts of characters used, whether friendly or intimidating strangers, comforting or manipulative politicians, caring or dismissive essential workers. Genre signals to the reader what they should expect as the story unfolds. Thinking about the genre of the story helps to understand how the same events can be experienced so differently, and why different people are expecting the story to end so differently.
In times of uncertainty and crisis, storytelling becomes a way to make events predictable, to make our own role in the story meaningful. To illustrate this, we compare two genres used in the stories of lockdown that older people told at the beginning of the pandemic: idyllic and dystopian.
The most common genre used was that of lockdown as idyllic. In these stories, lockdown life meant enjoying time at home, catching up on gardening, and spending time baking. People felt closer to nature as they walked and biked on roads without cars.
Life seemed more like communities of the past, less time-pressured and more home-based. People were described as different during lockdown too, more compassionate and connected to one another. Even strangers were reported to be friendlier, smiling and waving when out walking and biking.
Lockdown provided a relief from the usual pressures of life. It showed what society should be like in the future, with greater care for the environment and for each other.
The idyllic narrative regularly named Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield as key characters. In the idyllic stories, these characters provided comfort and confidence in the workings of government in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When age was mentioned in the idyllic stories, older people felt protected by their age. They appreciated the security of superannuation and winter-warmth payments. Younger people checked on them and shopped for them, and lockdown itself was viewed as a collective response undertaken to protect the wellbeing of older people.
Even back at the beginning of the pandemic, a small number of people told stories characterised by fear and distrust with recognisable dystopian themes.
Dystopian stories are not just about having a miserable time. To be considered dystopian, stories had to suggest that government or media deliberately spread fear to illegitimately coerce citizens. This is a key theme in dystopian literature, that authority figures are dishonest, and their pronouncements obscure the real workings of power.
The dystopian stories told by our participants focused on public health messaging as inciting fear and manipulating people to increase their sense of vulnerability. Media stories about the special vulnerability of older people were viewed as exaggerating risk and using scare tactics to “corral the olds”. People used dystopian themes to describe feeling patronised by the rhetoric of politicians who did not seem to have their best interests at heart.
These stories were often told by people who were struggling with complicated situations. Some described managing chronic health conditions or disabilities with few resources and limited support networks. In these situations, lockdowns undermined access to essential goods and health services.
People were encouraged to identify their own and other’s vulnerabilities, increasing their sense of fear. Without adequate support to manage the practical difficulties the pandemic created, they viewed information about risk as manipulative rather than accurate.
Without a foundation of belonging and trust in the community, directives to stay home were interpreted as manipulative fear-mongering. Calls to trust only the government and health experts were viewed as strategic attempts to seize power.
Claiming to be the only reliable source of information was interpreted as growing evidence of government control. Emphasising unquestioning compliance with government mandates may have worked to fuel dystopian fears. This points to the delicate balance between Covid-19 containment measures and disruptions that incite fear.
Stories using a dystopian genre were in the minority – about 7 percent of all stories analysed. Although it would be easy to discount these experiences as rare and therefore not worthy of close attention, they are important too.
This has become increasingly obvious during the last two weeks as the protest plays out around Parliament.
So: Idyllic or dystopian?
To be clear, I am not suggesting the lockdowns were dystopian. But I am suggesting that government restrictions have the potential to be interpreted differently, depending on the storylines people are using. How people interpret these changes depends on their assessment of whose interests are being served.
Genre analysis is powerful here. Pandemics are exceptional circumstances and, to make sense of them, people turn to a range of resources including literary genres. Literature provides storylines people can use to make sense of fears and imaginings about an unknown future. Crises may require swift changes designed to safeguard citizens, but these sweeping changes are also common plot points in dystopian fiction.
Dystopian fiction has features familiar in the protest rhetoric: government and media messaging spread fear to illegitimately coerce citizens, and changes are wrought to undermine individualism. Dystopian heroes fight back against these regimes at significant personal cost. In addition, dystopian storylines create enemies who are subsequently vilified and dehumanised.
This point is crucial as we respond to the protest. Those engaged in the protest might have fears and insecurities that we do not completely comprehend. But in responding to them, we should not be tempted to resort to vilifying and dehumanising the protesters, any more than we should accept the threats towards politicians and the media.
Hearing stories is a powerful way to unite people. This is especially true if we take the opportunity to understand how people come to tell different stories – stories that might differ from our experiences.
Instead of belittling anxieties as illogical, attending to these fears with understanding can help us design responses which enable all people to experience security in uncertain times.