ARE WE AS SAVAGE as our forebears? Would we still gather in our thousands to witness the public execution of a notorious felon? I’d like to think not, but something tells me that if the opportunity presented itself, far too many of us would be unable to resist the temptation to go and gawk at horror.
The word for this impulse is atavism. Deep down inside us dwell all manner of dark and violent impulses. In times of social stress and/or crisis, these “atavistic” urges have a nasty habit of rising to the surface like an insufficiently weighted corpse – and unleashing mayhem.
Our forebears understood this deep-seated human need to see horror answered with horror; pain with pain. In the crude mathematics of vengeance, it was necessary to balance the outrageousness of the crime with an appropriately severe degree of public retribution.
In this regard, the ancient authors of the Old Testament who demanded an eye for an eye understood their audience a lot better than the impossibly gentle Jesus. To love one’s enemies is the counsel of perfection. Human-beings just aren’t that good at being “kind” – especially to those who don’t deserve it.
Atavism was on my mind this past week, as the public’s fury with the persons responsible for returning Auckland to Covid-19 Alert Level 3 and the rest of New Zealand to Level 2 rose to a level where even Queen Jacinda the Kind felt obliged to echo it.
The gospel of Jesus just wasn’t cutting it anymore: New Zealanders had had enough of their Prime Minister’s kindness; what they wanted to know now was whether she also knew how to be cruel.
Jacinda’s fury is the opposite of a raging fire. It’s a cold front straight from the Antarctic. When she enunciates the word “frustrated” it has the sound of an icicle being snapped into little pieces. Her controlled rage is thrilling, but it’s not enough. The Team of Five Million wants more.
A year ago, when the Global Pandemic was just getting its eye in, we huddled together around the bright fire of Jacinda’s leadership like Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers. In times of crisis, there are few atavistic urges more compelling than the terrified tribe’s desire to surrender its will to a strong and trusted chief. Jacinda’s call for “kindness” answered to perfection the nation’s hunger for unity and reassurance. Social divisions dissolved; ideological quarrels ceased; we were all in this together: of course we could be kind!
And how we rewarded her! There was a point on Election Night 2020 (right about the time Rangitata fell to Labour) when I just threw back my head and laughed. The deep roar of that massive red wave sweeping the country was compounded of pride in the tribe, fears overcome, and that huge surge of relief that comes from dodging a bullet. “We” had done it! Kindness Rules!
Or, does it?
Human-beings are good in a crisis – even a long one. Just think of our parents and grandparents, bearing-up under six years of total war. What we’re less good at, however, is going in and out of crises. What Judith Collins, with uncharacteristic verbal felicity, calls “yo-yoing”.
Our rational faculties tell us that with Covid-19 still raging across the planet, and the poor Americans burying more than half-a-million victims; the virus’s occasional leakage into our own communities has to be expected and accepted. Every time we go back into Lockdown, however, our capacity for kindness diminishes.
And when we discover that through either stupidity, sheer selfishness, or both, a member, or members, of the Team of Five Million have upended the lives of their fellow citizens and cost the country hundreds-of-millions of dollars by not following the rules of the game, well, our kindness evaporates altogether.
In those circumstances, the atavistic impulses rising from our psychic depths will be especially dark and dangerous. Having established that somebody has broken faith with the tribe, the tribe will seek retribution – public retribution. It will need to be satisfied that the guilty party’s transgression has received the appropriate punishment.
If we still had stocks, then these malefactors would be in them.
Should the transgressions of these fools lead to unnecessary deaths, however, just watch the public mood turn even darker.
The atavistic cry, then, will be: String the bastards up!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 March 2021.