the third way
The faultlines of our society
Metaphors and memes abound in the world created by the coronavirus. They’re our way of responding to the defining moments of lockdown. But they’re telling, too — highlighting the faultlines of our society
In Sakura, a town just outside Tokyo, Japanese officials have had to cut down 100,000 tulips. In Yono Park, also close to Tokyo, they’ve had to sever the buds of about 3,000 rosebushes. As The Guardian newspaper so eloquently puts it, they’re "sacrificing tens of thousands of flowers". And they’re doing this because, if they don’t, extremely stupid humans will come and look at the flowers, in defiance of social distancing guidelines.
According to the report, local tourism official Sakiho Kusano told news agency Reuters: "Many visitors came at the weekend when the flowers were in full bloom. It became a mass gathering, so we had no choice but to make the decision to cut the flowers."
Another official is quoted as saying: "It’s very painful, but we decided to take action after looking at the situation in other cities." It would, the official said, take about a week to remove all the buds.
I don’t know why I find this image so poignant. It’s not the destruction of these particular flowers, especially as many of them were donated to local kindergartens. They’ll grow back. And, anyway, what’s 100,000 tulips? The Netherlands grows a couple of billion of them every year, mostly for export.
It’s also not the fact that all these romantic Japanese people can’t experience the beauty of nature, and write poems and stuff about it.
Perhaps, though, the only way to articulate the image is with a poem. Don’t worry, not one I’ve written — we’ve all gone through enough tribulation in recent weeks — but a poem by Korean-born, Canada-forged poet Emily Jungmin Yoon. I won’t quote the whole poem, which is called What Carries Us, so please do seek it out.
"One time I was so tired of flying I wondered / if I will spend all my life packing then unpacking. / A complaint of privilege. We are such spending / creatures. And when I say we are beasts, / is that a metaphor?"
I’ll write the rest of the poem as prose, because I don’t want to test your patience further: "Metaphor … is also transportation, between absence and presence, ‘articulating action.’ Its ‘very process,’ in times of extremity, is ‘akin to prophecy.’ I like the idea of transportation as articulation, that the end of metaphor is a kind of arrival, like getting off the train at an unknown stop."
Official institutions having to raze fields of flowers because, if they don’t, people will risk death to enjoy them, cries out to be read as a metaphor.
And it’s an obvious one … or is it?
Most of us would see it as a metaphor for the essential selfishness of people, hellbent on doing what brings them satisfaction and ignoring the greater good.
Astonishingly, there are others who would see this as a metaphor showing us that authoritarian governments will go to any lengths to take away civil liberties.
These proud heroes would rather make their own choices, and damn the consequences. "And when I say we are beasts, is that a metaphor?"
Where is this flower metaphor taking us, and what will the world look like when the metaphor train arrives at the post-pandemic station?
It seems evident that much will have changed about our existence once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed. For one, the privilege of moaning about how tiresome travel is will be eroded, though possibly not as much as we might think. The travel industry itself (so take this with a dollop of oversalted airline food) estimates that air travel will return to pre-Covid levels by mid-2021. Indeed, some surveys show that there’ll be a spike in travel, because of cabin fever. Which will lead to another kind of cabin fever, possibly.
The bit of Yoon’s poem which resonates is the part about metaphor as prophecy. Or rather, in my interpretation of it, the idea that how we choose to understand the current metaphors of our Covid-19 existence reveals what sort of a society we are going to be when the lockdown ends.
Actually, it’s probably time to abandon my laboured use of metaphor as a metaphor, and speak plainly. When we look at how people respond to defining moments of this lockdown, we can understand the faultlines of our society, and see them starkly defined.
The current example is the metaphor of the mask. You’ll know what I’m talking about. At the conclusion of his televised presidential address last week, Cyril Ramaphosa attempts to put on a face mask, and apparently fumbles it. While fitting the ear loops, the mask covers his eyes, sparking a rash of memes.
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves at this point, via Wikipedia, of the meaning of the word meme. "A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures."
Almost coterminously with the end of Ramaphosa’s address, social media was awash with two broad types of responses. The first sees Ramaphosa as a kindly soul, tired from his exertions on our behalf, who is like the lovable but bumbling father trying to use emojis for the first time.
My own elderly relative springs to mind as an example of this, with his stubborn insistence that LOL stands for "Lots of Love". This unfortunate misapprehension results in WhatsApp messages such as "Aunt Jemima* has just died in a horrible car accident, Laugh out Loud". (*Not her real name. Not even a real example.)
The second gleefully latches on to the president’s apparent fumble as evidence of incompetence, but worse. There’s a racist undertone, of course — well, a racist overtone, really — as well as the usual narrative of government as ineffectual and amateurish.
One of our less guarded "libertrolls" (that’s my new portmanteau of libertarian and troll) even hooked a disparaging mimicry of Ramaphosa’s pronunciation of certain words on to the gibes, which is one of the crudest of racist tropes.
Scholars of the SA condition will be familiar with both these points of view, trained as we are in the dark arts of navigating our stark societal divides. But the metaphor of the mask actually showed us a third, more hopeful way.
The day after Ramaphosa’s mask moment, people pointed to an instructional video on YouTube by Prof Marc Mendelson, head of the University of Cape Town’s Division of Infectious Diseases & HIV Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital. In it, he demonstrates how to properly put on a mask without touching your face. It turns out that the way the professional does it is identical to the way Ramaphosa did it on live television.
If our journey through this metaphor is an articulation rather than a repetition, and the end is a kind of arrival, I’d like to think we’ve reached a place where we listen to neither the yay-sayers nor the nay-sayers that bedevil our idea of ourselves as a people.
The fact that an objective scientific take has vindicated Ramaphosa means, I hope, that people might realise that a snap judgment based on your particular subjectivity is a surrender to history, rather than a gesture to a better future.
Our idea of who we are doesn’t have to be for or against — it can be what it is, and what we are.