If ever a year could be described as Manichaean, it would be 2020. A year where it is not an exaggeration to talk of a dualistic battle – we'd call it binary these days – between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, good versus evil.
Placed firmly on the dark side, the virus has been hellish, even for those of us lucky enough not to become directly impacted. Although life as we know it has been ripped apart by lockdowns and restrictions, this is nothing when compared to the grief of tens of thousands of families bereaved by COVID-19. To this grief we can add the devastating impact on families already blighted by disadvantage, deprivation and poverty. Their plight does not bear thinking about.
If there is any good to be salvaged from the wreckage of the pandemic, I cannot think of one, other than the temporary reduction of pollution in major cities. But it was not a good worth having. The price has been too high.
Penetrating the darkness, however, were glimmers of light, some of it dazzling. The darkest of human monstrosities in the Western world was defeated. Yes, Trump's own unique brand of contamination will continue, but at least millions of decent Americans voted out the grotesque shadow who loomed over us for four long years. As Joe Biden put it, the president-elect would be 'an ally of the light, not the darkness'. His language, although biblical, was not misplaced.
Described as the light at the end of the tunnel, human gregariousness promises to return thanks to the dedicated, fast work of scientists across the world, which has produced a vaccine against Covid. Human ingenuity and the natural tendency to collaborate, with the profit-motive removed, has been remarkable.
'In the stifling, anti-intellectual climate of 2020 where solidarity is preferred to dissent, I hear echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic: Choose a side. You are either an anti-racist or an ally of white supremacy. Are you with us or against us?' From an article in The Atlantic
written by Conor Friedersdorf, it serves as a characterisation of the divisive Trump era and his presidential leadership which uncovered – from a darkness usually found beneath a stone – a malevolent racism, and its angry, predictable response.
Similarly, but to a lesser extent, here in the UK the Manichaean politics of Brexit, toxic culture wars and Scottish independence rarely kept their divisive, binary heads down. These islands have suffered traumas, with no proper debate; instead, too much passion, righteousness and zeal replaced analytic rigour. To be frank, there seems no end in sight heading into 2021. If you are not a demonstrable ally to whatever the cause of the day, then you're disloyal, lack solidarity, bigoted and will likely be punished on social media – or worse.
Silence or polite reticence is not protective either. 'Your silence is noted' is the common refrain. People who are 'side-takers' always want a fight. It is exhausting, and impolite.
The common injunction to 'be better' should be replaced with 'be polite'. To avoid the risk of sounding superficially decorous, my friend Chris Creegan reminded me the other day of the philosopher André Compte-Sponville's observation that: 'There is more to life than good manners; and politeness is not morality'. This is true. But as Sponville himself goes on to note: 'Yet it is not nothing. Politeness is a small thing that paves the way for great things… it is not a virtue but a quality'.
I would go further and claim that politeness is in fact a virtue. I'm not talking of a sanctimonious politeness that takes itself too seriously, or that peace on earth will break out if we would only be a little more mannered. Nonetheless, politeness is undoubtedly a trait to be valued. Principles of non-divisive, non-Manichaean politeness include tact, generosity, modesty and sympathy – and listening intently to those with whom we disagree.
We all have to cope with the challenges of living together. And there are clear-cut vices in our public and private domains which are the opposite of politeness. I'm thinking of coarseness, rudeness, insensitivity, and irritability – all traits that make human association tougher than it needs to be. If the vice at the other end of a binary extreme is obsequiousness, then politeness and basic courtesy is the mean between the two. I should confess that I don't always attend to it, and I really must do better.
To end on a happy note, I began 2020 in a state of euphoria at the birth of our beautiful first grandchild, Helena. Separation from her these last months has been painful. Although 2020 will go down in history as a global trauma, Helena's emergence into this painful year means that it hasn't been as great a trauma for our family.
In dark times, sometimes the only relief is to turn inwards to the people you love and love you back: a return to intimacy by shutting out the larger, troubled world. We are going to London for Christmas to be with our daughters and granddaughter. I will be away for some time because a return from London, where the prevalence is high, could risk bringing the virus to Glasgow.
As another lockdown will inevitably follow the Christmas relaxation of rules, I'll settle down in the granny basement in splendid isolation, writing my book, relaxing with my daughter and son-in-law, playing with my beloved Helena. Walks along the Thames embankment pushing a pram is my idea of bliss.
I hope you find your light this Christmas. Wishing you as merry a Christmas as can be mustered, especially to those of you who have been bereaved or have suffered this year. In all the darkness and despair, there is always a spark of light. Always.
Love holds its own, and so does gentleness and compassion