Chris loves a good fire. This is probably one of his quintessential ‘bloke’ characteristics as I have noticed that there are quite a few New Zealand males who love fires. There are plenty of women who like fires too, but it seems rare that women have the same visceral love of accumulating wood, preparing and lighting fires that men do. There is much written about that visceral appeal of fire, taking us back to our cave person days. For my part, I am not sure that cave person days sound very appealing and something one would want to relive, however fires will definitely have been one of the brighter aspects of the caves.
The reason I started thinking about fires, was in relation to people clustering around iconic events, both literally and figuratively, like moths to flames (or at least ceiling lights). The event that will remain central to this week in history is the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis; a person killed in a completely inhumane fashion by a police officer who pressed a knee to his neck until George Floyd died. George Floyd was a man with dark coloured skin, a fact which should be incidental to his treatment, but which was central. There are so many complexities around stereotyping of people, and much history around treating people differently on the basis of their appearance. The United States has its own particular set of challenges related to slavery and the resultant civil war. I was interested to read someone on social media asking why George was referred to as ‘African American’, and realised how quickly history is forgotten and how important our understanding of it is to making sense of the present.
The moth cluster factor around George Floyd’s death is very much related to COVID-19. Emotions are running high, in families, communities, states and countries. I wonder if the entire world is current sleep-deprived. We saw what a sleep deprived post-earthquake Christchurch looked like, which makes me think that a sleep deprived world is a difficult place to negotiate. Emotions need little tinder to spark them into a conflagration, as is spreading across the USA and the globe. The media fan the flames, choosing their imagery and text to maximise impact. I debated the role of the media with a friend, who provided the line that the media supply what the public wish to consume. I am sure the media supply what the public will consume; however they have the power to sway actions in many directions.
Media provides images of looting, unrest and fear. Media also provides images of police kneeling in solidarity with protesters and officers of one skin colour hugging people with another. One of the great things about this current world is the availability of information (I love it!); one of the worst things about this current world is the availability of information that confirms the biases of those who choose the media that reinforce their existing world views.
The marches protesting George Floyd’s death may be sparked by COVID-19 raised emotions, and may themselves drive further COVID-19 related deaths. In New Zealand, as in other countries, social distancing is quickly forgotten in the face of a rally. Large events which involve shouting or singing are one of the common spreading grounds for the virus. The microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, now a well known academic commentator on COVID-19 in New Zealand, has suggested that people could show solidarity with the American black community without leaving their homes.
However, does staying home and donating really have the same impact as marching as a solid force? It certainly doesn’t have the same personal emotional impact, and does it look convincing to the Donald Trumps of this world? How far should civil liberties be curtailed at this point, when it is a matter of standing up for human rights? Which human rights should we be standing up for? The rights of those not wishing to die from COVID-19? The rights of those who are oppressed because of their skin colour? Can we protest both at once safely and successfully?
In a conclusion, all rights are important, but all individual rights are conflictive. My right to freedom camp impinges on your right to a feeling of empty space. Your right to march against the oppression of black people, impinges on the rights of my elderly relatives to survive the current pandemic. There are no single answers and the circling moths will continue to be driven more by the flame of emotion, than the cool light of reason.