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by Mandy Rhodes
23 August 2021
Confused Times: The pandemic should've brought us together, instead we've become more polarised

Patrick Harvie and Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House after reaching a power-sharing deal Picture: Alamy

Confused Times: The pandemic should've brought us together, instead we've become more polarised

Tick Tock. Time passes. Relentless. Stopping for no one, oblivious to the incidents which happen within its passing. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, the one reliable aspect of an unreliable time has been time itself.

But even that one constant has played tricks with our minds. In the last 18 months, time has taken on a whole new dimension. 

A time without the normal bookmarks to our everyday lives. The family get-togethers, the anniversaries, work parties, promotion, redundancy, travel, death, the life events that become the barometers of change, giving reference points, the ‘remember whens’, that help us navigate our passing lives. 

They’ve gone.

Weeks, months, a year, two, have morphed into a hazy period, a time where memories of specific events – even those that have become life-affirming – are sharp but the edges of how it all fits together, completely blurred. 

Instead, it is the pandemic itself that has become the measure of time. In March, we marked the lockdown anniversary, by which time we could reel off a whole new tranche of words and phrases that had entered our everyday lexicon, like ‘pivot’, ‘furlough’, ‘herd immunity’, the ‘R’ number. Even ‘COVID’, itself. A whole new vocabulary which previously would have required a dictionary to disassemble.

COVID has ripped through our communities, unforgiving of the inequalities that were already there, hitting the poorest the hardest, and wiping out the old and the weak.

It has forced on us an almost unbearable panoply of emotion, of grief, loss, and even anger that a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in the so-called developed world. 

It has exposed our vulnerability. And it has brought out the best and the worst of humankind, with some heroic souls fighting to keep people alive while others fought over toilet paper.

It has borne witness to the genius of science alongside the ignorance of the flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and disbelievers who could deny the intellect that went into developing a vaccine, but believe in their own idiocy that they could be injected with a microchip that would allow some unknown enemy to course through their veins spying on them.

This pandemic hasn’t just been a global health crisis, it has changed our world and the way we live in it.

We ordinary people have gone through an extraordinary time, bound, inextricably, by being part of a common endeavour, cogs in a machine that helped move us from despair to hope to uncertainty.

And yet, in what should be an experience that binds us closer, paradoxically, it has also been a time riven by polarised debate around issues so fundamental as to who we are.

And it’s been so bitter that even during a pandemic, when I reflect on the last 12 months, it is the ratcheting up of the vitriol that has surrounded the debate – and I use that term loosely – on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act and the wider issues around the conflation of sex and gender in policy making, that has left such an indelible stain. 

Perhaps the isolation has also helped bring an ugly intensity of emotion to a discourse that should and needs to be had in good faith and with the freedom for everyone to say their piece without fear of retribution.

But so far, there is little sign of that. In fact, things feel like they are about to get much worse.

Political leadership is badly needed to cut through some of the hyperbole and to find consensus, but it appears absent.

In response to an article written by respected journalist Ruth Wishart, in which she argued that public policy had been captured by a particular gender ideology, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, tweeted: “Transphobia has hijacked journalism and so much more.”

It was Trumpian. An ill-considered, catch-all, attack on the media. One that we might expect from a populist leader like the one who recently departed the White House and who Harvie, rightly, regularly lambasted. But here?

There’s a common thread running through Patrick Harvie’s response to any critics of his orthodoxy which is characteristic of this whole debate.

In the last session of the parliament he elevated petulance to an art form, distorting facts and feeding them through the prism of his own prejudices. We saw it in the chamber when he attacked the likes of feminist Johann Lamont, for arguing the case for victims of rape to be able to choose the sex of their forensic examiner.

We heard it from the insider account of a former Green MSP, Andy Wightman, who left the party because of the leadership’s intolerance of debate.

And we view it on social media, where he eschews rationality in favour of simply shouting ‘transphobe’ at women – thoughtful women – who express concern about any perceived rollback on their rights. 

We all know women’s sex-based rights were hard-won and remain fragile. You only need to look at Afghanistan to see how quickly and tragically things can go into reverse.

And it doesn’t go unnoticed that critics of so-called gender-critical feminists will point to regressive regimes like Hungary where rights are undoubtedly being revoked for the LGBT community, to then justify labelling women who raise issues with aspects of the GRA reform, as bigots, but who then do not apply the same international comparison and critical thought to recognise how the fears over women’s rights here are also very real.

The Greens’ co-leader’s perspective on GRA seems blinkered, coupled to an intransigence that prevents substantive debate such that it cows others with a different perspective.

It is a myopic approach which is symptomatic of this whole debate.

And it matters because with the Greens in government with the SNP, Harvie could be a minister.

Who knows, he could even be made the minister responsible for steering the GRA reform bill through parliament.

Surely for a first minister that has already told us that she communicates at a level where she assumes a “certain ability to attach context and common sense,” Harvie’s recent divisive contributions should give Nicola Sturgeon pause for thought about how she exercises this different way of politics that, she says, has been a lesson for her from the pandemic?

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