Being Inhuman

The global novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has transformed the world as we know it, seemingly overnight. Every passing day bears witness to the best and the worst of humankind as we grapple with not only the health crisis, but also its reverberating impacts on every facet of society. We have seen countless examples of kindness, bravery and sacrifice among those who have done their part to assist their communities in stopping the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, displays of selfishness, greed and hateful behaviour of individuals and groups have punctuated the story of the world’s battle with Covid-19 with reminders of how truly awful people can be to one another. As the sister project to The Art of Being Human, which examines humanity at its finest, The Art of Being Inhuman explores impulses that lead humans to act in ways that are inhuman, anti-social, or even downright evil. The four key impulses under investigation are:

Thomas Fuller called anger ‘one of the sinews of the soul’ – for it has the ability to stiffen us into action (fight rather than flight). Whatever its causes, real or imaginary, anger can result in unjustifiable violence and cruelty directed inwardly or against others. If suppressed, anger may trigger mental or somatic illness. It is not uncommon to feel anger at life-threatening/life-altering medical conditions, even when they do not appear to have a known cause. However, a popular response to Covid-19 has been to lay blame for the creation and spread of the contagion. Public outrage has been directed at a host of targets: China, the World Health Organisation, governments, leaders, individuals who break quarantine, and even essential workers, and resulted in behaviour that puts lives at risk.

Tangible threats to personal safety, the unknown, change, and difference are just some of the triggers for fear. While fear can have a paralysing effect, it can also provoke reactions that cause harm. For the historian James Anthony Froude, “fear is the parent of cruelty” and although cruelty need not be tied to anger, the two are often complementary impulses where responses to fear are concerned. With lives, livelihoods and lifestyles under threat from Covid-19, and no vaccine in sight, there is much to fear. It is little wonder that some people have lashed out at what they imagine to be the causes of fear—even if there is little evidence to substantiate this conclusion, and the individuals might not engage in such inhuman behaviour under ordinary circumstances.

Psychologists distinguish between the perception of pressure that characterises stress, and the body’s response to it. Events perceived as stressful set off hormonal signals that make the body ready for emergency action. Prolonged and excessive stress is not healthy – being implicated in a range of physical and emotional ailments, which can result in the adoption of problematic coping mechanisms. In these difficult times, there are plenty of reasons for individuals to experience stress, not least because of the sheer uncertainty of when a vaccine for Covid-19 will become available, and when it might be possible to resume ‘normal’ living. Unemployment and financial insecurity, mental and emotional strain from being isolated or of being trapped with other people, and the lack of access to stress-reducing activities are just some of the factors complicating efforts to cope with Covid-19. From indulging in excess alcohol consumption and hoarding necessary goods to protesting quarantine restrictions, people have dealt with stress in ways that cause further harm to themselves and others.

Many people in society are not vulnerable by choice, and are suffering. Worse still is the intersection of multiple vulnerabilities, that makes it likely that certain individuals will come to harm. For example, homelessness, poverty, addictions, abusive relationships, and mental health problems may all co-exist in one person. Vulnerability is magnified by Covid-19. The elderly and individuals with pre-existing health conditions are medically more vulnerable to the coronavirus, as are particular ethnic groups, the poor, the homeless and others who lack access to health care. Individuals in abusive domestic situations are in greater danger when quarantine restrictions make it difficult to leave the house. Members of the LGBTIQ+ community may be denied medical care due to discriminatory practices by institutions and practitioners. At the same time, some individuals and groups with significant social privilege have used the circumstances created by Covid-19 to frame themselves as a vulnerable population whose views and ways of life are under siege by forces ranging from globalism to policies introduced by socially progressive leaders. Indeed, the challenges of Covid-19 appear to have opened up another ground for engagement in the ongoing ‘culture wars’, where the risks to all sides are heightened by the contagiousness of the virus and potential for shortages of supplies to galvanise unrest generally.



The Art of Being Inhuman in the Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Friday 16th April 2021 – Saturday 17th April 2021
Vienna, Austria

The Call for Submissions is now open.