Let’s begin with a declaration: this article is not about right or wrong. The civil or the uncivil.
It is about understanding who you may be struggling to understand — those who wear masks and those who refuse; those who support vaccine mandates and those who don’t.
Both groups share a common humanity, regardless of how fiercely they stand at odds against each other.
That’s because they draw upon the same ancient emotional processing when responding to perceived threats to their safety. And these same threats, whether they be internal or external, trigger an automatic response designed to regain personal control.
To the majority of Canadians, masks and vaccine mandates helped to partially overcome that sense of helplessness in a pandemic. But to others, mandates and restrictions signified an even greater loss of control.
What we are now seeing in Ottawa is what happens when 80 per cent of the population goes one way to protect their safety, and 20 per cent goes another — and in the process becomes political fodder for U.S. insurrectionists and evangelicals.
So, I’ve phoned up a friend, who is a retired counselling therapist trained in threat assessment. She is wise and perceptive and can read people the same way a cartographer surveys a map.
Although she quickly reminds me that reading a map is very different than walking on the land itself.
Let’s call her Antonia.
Could she help me to understand what might be going on in the heads and hearts of our troublemakers? What are we missing about human nature, I asked her, as the pandemic strains fault lines in a high-tech, low-trust society?
Why do we seem so hellbent at arriving in Extremistan?
It’s the same experience going on in us, answers Antonia.
“Fear, irritation, anger, confusion, cherished ideas, forgetfulness — just to name a few — show up when our plans don’t work out the way we predicted. We experience loss of control.
“And so we get charged up on high alert, a heightened arousal. It’s a locked way of responding. Humans developed a rapid response to danger very early in their development — and it has even helped us get through tough times. It’s an automatic response with little or no thinking involved. As soon as we feel threatened it activates.”
Antonia stops to explain something else. Long before the virus, a significant percentage of people lived every day in a state of heightened arousal due to threats unique to previous trauma tied to their communities, work and family. (Injurious childhood experiences seem to play an important role in vaccine hesitancy.)
Others feel under threat from climate change, the erosion of civility, the tyranny of technologies. As bumptious as populist movements can be, their rise is fuelled by a desire to restore order as members’ perceptions of disorder grow.
The pandemic shifted that emotional ground by trapping all of us in uncertainty — no matter what our beliefs.
“When people feel trapped, they want to escape and get safe and find someplace comfortable,” says Antonia. “They do that by finding another environment or by regulating their emotional state in the best way they can and know how. That is a learned thing.
“Our thinking is borne of that state. Then the person starts thinking: ‘Should I wear a mask or should I not?’
“When people say yes or no to controls perceived to be outside of their cherished ideas of who they are, they are not thinking rationally or asking who has the most convincing data and argument. The response mostly comes from the daily emotional terrain the person travels.”
Antonia suspects that many of Ottawa’s troublemakers aren’t too comfortable with what lies on the other side of fear of the pandemic. They don’t want to embrace the sadness that comes with realizing how profoundly our world has been changed by the virus.
“What if we had said, ‘This pandemic is a painful situation’?” asks Antonia. “It is suffering. And what if we had stayed there in the suffering — all of us in that sadness?”
The majority of Canadians know that wearing a mask protects both the mask wearer and others from the transmission of disease, whether they like the practice or not.
They also know that vaccines have a record of preventing serious disease, whether they want three of these particular COVID shots or not.
They think of vaccine mandates like seatbelt laws — the potentially life-saving value goes unquestioned. That is what the rational part of their brains — and our social discourse — would remind.
But when people are under threat, they don’t rely on rationale discourses, notes Antonia. Instead, they go to and depend on hard-wired protective responses to reduce their heightened sense of arousal and threat.
“The greater the feeling of entrapment, the greater the sense of loss of control. And when that happens, all information is interpreted through a narrow lens of 'protect thyself,'” says Antonia.
“And so,” she adds, “the threatened believe that their response must be unwavering and absolute. It’s, ‘I’ll be strong, take a stand and protect myself!’”
Most of us learn how to regulate our emotional states through healthy relationships in the comfort of love and kindness. In such places, our rigid thinking loosens its tense grip and becomes curious about the troublemakers. There is room for engagement and discussion, from which shared common sense emerges.
Consider the moment everyone was told that wearing a mask was so important to their own health and the safety of others that the government would require it in certain settings. That simple public health act created many different experiences for people — and we didn’t talk about those experiences.
We didn’t really talk with people about vaccine mandates either.
We were out of ideas as soon as we invited today’s troublemakers into a rationale discourse that they rejected.
But masks can be different things. Yes, a mask can offer protection and serve as a shield. It can reduce social anxiety, facilitate social bonds and be liberating for some. And putting it on can seem like no big deal.
For others, though, a mask can feel like a suffocating trap and an affront to their ability to choose. It can sever social bonds. It can also prevent the reading and interpretation of facial expression necessary to identify emotions.
Masks can hide attractiveness. Attractiveness can be a very valuable tool in initiating and sustaining relationships. Attractiveness often gets us what we want and out of threat.
Gender can disappear and appear depending on who is wearing or not wearing a mask. Full or covered facial appearance can make or unmake a person’s projected sense of power.
For those who felt diminished or even threatened by the requirement to wear a mask, what were their available reactions?
Some shut down. They withdrew.
Others lashed out — often most uncivilly against health-care workers, the very people they would turn to if severely ill. They attacked their future protectors.
“It says how non-thinking this response has been,” says Antonia. “When a person feels trapped, they are stuck and locked into a primitive response.
“Perseverance sets in, and it becomes very difficult to loosen it up,” she says. “And soon both sides are locked into fixed states that see only right or wrong.”
Seen through this lens, the flurry of mask and vaccine mandates implemented with the best of intentions for the greater good created the unintentional effect of triggering basic emotional responses that put about 20 per cent of the population in active fight mode.
The internet, the mirror we all consult and talk to everyday, then massaged and exploited that anger and anxiety with algorithmic precision.
Suddenly, a trapped emotional response became a quest for freedom and a release from suffering. A political movement sparked to life.
Politicians on duelling sides fanned the flames, because their careers depend on polarized thinking and bonding their “base” against some designated enemy.
In the end, a struggling democracy behaves no differently than a threatened marriage with spouses locked behind silos of criticism and stonewalling and contempt. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends.
Antonia now raises an important point. “Were there not leaders who looked at the mandates and thought maybe we should think through the social consequences?” she wonders aloud. “We could have prepared people more effectively.”
Is it too late?
Can we see the angry people who have assaulted health-care workers at hospitals and the “freedom” seekers now besieging Ottawa, and override the triggered responses in our own autonomic nervous systems? Can we accord them respect as fellow citizens, even if they don’t return the favour?
To broaden our imagination about what compels uncivil actions does not make them ethical or moral.
Is it too late? We must hope it isn’t, because of what that would bode for our lives and our democracy.
As more anger fuels the system, rationale discourse disappears, says Antonia. Absolutes are demanded. “Soon the physical sensation of high threat arousal morphs into the excitement one feels by gaining power and control over an opponent.”
And now these citizens are dangerously locked in. Their actions of hostility have begun to feed and strengthen the repetitive loop of high alert, rather than reduce it.
Their demonstrations are also having powerful non-linear consequences, because the police don’t treat protesting truckers the same way they treat Black, Indigenous or environmental protesters.
The law is not applied evenly or at all. Politicians cravenly exploit the divisions and even encourage lawless behaviour. Or they retreat behind walls.
So the real troublemakers are not truckers, but our negative emotional responses to threat, and our obsessive thoughts.
“It is not about the virus. The virus is merely a vehicle for these emotions.”
Antonia ends with a story.
Years ago, she had a job supporting people with HIV. They were very sick and living in urban centres but wanted to come home to die in their rural communities.
But the people in their rural communities were scared and saw only right and wrong.
The virus horrified them. The health precautions upset them. Any public discussion of homosexuality and drug behaviours threatened them. And when the virus infected “straight” people, they couldn’t believe it. Fear and anger lit them up like bonfires.
Antonia went to the communities to meet the people who felt threatened. She talked with them. She knew that she needed to find some shared experience, or the people she supported would die far from their roots.
“How sad is this,” she began, “to be so ill and far from the warmth of home?”
And the anger dissipated, and the people openly talked of their fears and the dying men and women came home, and the mothers, fathers and children who were infected stayed in their communities. The focus changed.
Antonia wonders where we might be today had we addressed those who questioned masks and vaccines with openness. With generosity. And with shared sadness.