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This pandemic is changing who you are

by on February 19, 2021

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Our concept of identity and our perception of ourselves is evolving

 
Who we are and who we want to become is changing. This pandemic has forced us to spend a lot of time with ourselves, and this is prompting a wide range of responses and reactions.

In January we wrote an issue about how algorithms are changing our sense of self and the construction of our identities. While algorithms do play an increasing role in how we see ourselves, the pandemic is arguably playing a larger one.

Part of this is reflected in our tools, both intentional and accidental. That may be why the image of a lawyer inadvertently using a cat filter resonated so wildly.

It was a funny and awkward episode, but it reveals a larger cultural moment in which we’re all playing with new identities or communities.

For many, including myself, this is a sanity strategy. A way to fantasize and adapt to an ongoing crisis that limits what we can do, who we can see, and where.

By thinking about how to reinvent ourselves we are finding ways to respond to the massive challenge this pandemic poses.

However there are many ways that this pandemic has liberated our sense of identity, in particular encouraging the development of online relationships and participation in online communities. I find whenever I enter a new community or make new friends I am reinventing myself as I have the opportunity to create a new impression and a new context for friendship.

Yet it is also important to recognize that this is a driving element of our conspiracy culture. On the one hand there is an appealing and enveloping narrative that draws people in, however it is created and operated by a growing community of people who want to share in their secret truths and privileged knowledge. One’s identity becomes enmeshed with the conspiracy and the community, even if that comes at the cost of losing old friends and people alienated by this new conspiracy infused self.

In Israel, the issue is not so much conspiracy, as it is faith. Yet it still raises the issue, of how wedded we are to our identities, especially when that identity brings serious consequences.

It was the height of Israel’s third lockdown, in an ultra-Orthodox district near the heart of Jerusalem. Gatherings were banned. Masks were mandatory. Infection rates were spiking, particularly among ultra-Orthodox groups like this one.

Yet here were hundreds of mourners, most with mouths uncovered, attending an illegal funeral procession for a revered rabbi who had himself died of the coronavirus.

For these deeply devout Jews, attendance was a religious and personal duty. To briefly grip the rabbi’s bier, and symbolically assist his passage from this world, was a sign of profound respect for the dead.

But for secular Israeli society, and even for some within the ultra-Orthodox world, this kind of mass gathering suggested a disrespect for the living.

“What is more important?” wondered Esti Shushan, an ultra-Orthodox women’s rights activist, after seeing pictures of the gathering. “To go to funerals and study Torah? Or to stay alive?”

It’s a difficult question to answer, but it metaphorically represents something we’re all wondering. What are the sacrifices we are each willing to make. How are our choices in navigating this pandemic literally changing who we are and who we want to become?

Those who are not busy being born are busy dying, as Bob Dylan once told me, and this especially true in a pandemic where death and insanity abound.

I talked about this and the need for knowledge translation to reach people of different or conflicting identities:

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