Negative Integration: How Covid-19 Complaints Bring Communities Together
The rise of COVID-19 and virtual communication brought with it a new form of community organization. At Lakeside, this came in the form of events like the senior drive-in, poinsettia sale, and talent show. An isolated lifestyle has brought about a culture of community contribution that seems to have endured the pandemic. However, this emphasis on togetherness and communication has grown due to people’s frustration with the pandemic, which could present a problem for these communities in the future. People haven’t come together over a love of our communities before the pandemic—no, we found plenty to complain about back then—people have come together over the shared dislike of our current situation, and have chosen to cling onto anything that makes us feel like we have defied our circumstances.
This concept of frustration towards the pandemic, isolation, and other disasters that occured last year has become so ubiquitous that just invoking the year “2020” signifies disaster. At Lakeside, I’ve heard several of my teachers complain that they “wish we could be back in the building.” They don’t say this out of love for the Lakeside building, but rather out of frustration with the limitations of virtual learning. Our language has changed to reveal a dislike of current events, and a fervent wish for any alternative. Many found this alternative in community organization. At the fundraiser for the fine arts department, Lakeside students and parents sold 1100 poinsettia flowers, having organized over the course of three weeks. This event represented a tradition of togetherness that had endured and defied the pandemic, which made it all the more special.
Uniting around a common dislike didn’t originate with this pandemic. We can trace this concept back throughout history, but perhaps the most poignant example may lie in U.S. politics, which contains the key factor of negative partisanship. The parties, rather than having to create a single platform of their own, unite themselves on the fact that they oppose the other side. In 2016, Republicans united under Trump not because they liked him—in fact, he never even got half the vote in the primaries—but because he opposed Clinton. In 2020, Democrats did the same thing with Biden. The parties form unity not based on whom they support, but whom they don’t. In a similar fashion, the culture of togetherness bases itself on its frustration with isolation, because being together in any community feels like a defiance of the virus.
Another example of opposition becoming the foundation of a culture, one that may have more relevance to our situation, comes from mid-to-late 1800s Germany. In this time, the German national identity stood on a fragile balance of political developments, and so Germany set about inventing itself through a strategy called “negative integration.” In this method, political leaders like Otto von Bismark attempted to form a more solid national identity through anti-Catholic laws, while writers like the Brothers Grimm formed a foundation of antisemitic cultural discourse, where the German identity could form as a product of shared hatred of Catholicism and Judaism. In some ways, it worked. The German nation became one of the most powerful in Europe. However, these discriminatory methods had grave consequences as the German nation grew more extreme.
These examples, however, have a fundamental difference from the current culture of togetherness: negative partisanship and integration targeted people. In our case, we haven’t targeted a group of people, but a virus. So will this negative integration of ours still end in disaster? It already has. This directionless anger caused by not having a material enemy leads to irrational decision-making. For all the positive effects of organization that we find in the Lakeside community, we can also find those who have organized en masse to protest mask-wearing in their own show of disdain for the changes brought by the virus. What brought unity in the small scale has led to disunion in the large one. Everyone agrees that they don’t like the virus—they just can’t agree on how they should express that.
The rhetoric that we should “Fight COVID-19” or that “we’re all in this together” ended up strengthening communities that already existed, but failed to bring about a new national identity along the lines of the German or partisan ones. Still, we shouldn’t have wanted one of those in the first place. Social identities based on opposition tend towards inflexibility. The uncompromising nature of negative partisanship has ended in disaster after disaster in Washington, and the deeper entrenchment into our camps and communities caused by this directionless frustration will lead to more of the same. Our true enemy is negative integration itself.
Image courtesy of the World Health Organization