How did we get from bushfire generosity to this?

Mark Stephens reflects on toilet paper hoarding in the wake of coronavirus panic, and ponders what it might look like to seek the "common good".

We humans are an easily panicked lot. During the bushfire crisis, we saw the very best in people. But just one month later people are pulling knives over toilet paper, writes Dr Mark Stephens. 

I never thought toilet paper would become an index of our anxieties.

My Facebook feed is filled with pictures of empty shelves and complaints that everybody’s dang gone and bought the last box of my favourite cereal. One friend tells of passing a lady with a trolley full of toilet paper, who looked at him and confessed: “I don’t know what I am doing …”

The end appears nigh. Loo roll factories are now running 24/7. The truly desperate are reconsidering whether they really need that copy of War and Peace after all.

“And behold, the sun turned black like sackcloth, and all cans of baked beans were removed from their place …” Or something like that.

We humans are an easily panicked lot. Sometimes a threat brings out the best in us. We saw that many times over in our response to the bushfires. But sometimes, a crisis reveals another side to human beings.

The language we so often resort to here is the language of apocalypse. In our parlance, we use the word “apocalypse” to mean “massive disaster,” replete with images of fire, earthquake, hail, and sinkholes.

But in the ancient Greek language from which we borrow the term, the word “apocalypse” meant to unveil or reveal something previously hidden. It’s where the curtain is drawn back, the door flung open, the submerged story brought to the surface. Sure, sometimes what is revealed is the future. But sometimes it’s the present which is unveiled. Even the secret places of our heart.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that when it comes to our decision making, it’s intuition first, and reasoning second. We hear a rustle in the grass, and before we’ve even thought about it, we assume it’s a snake. Or a tiger. Or a demigorgon. It’s just safer that way.

Which is why we end up at Coles at 11pm on a Thursday night, on a wild-eyed mission for a pack of Quilton. Heck, I’ll even settle for 1 ply.

At the moment, our loo paper panic and face-mask hoarding seem mildly funny. There’s no threat that our Sorbent will go the way of the dodo. But our practice at panic also unveils an uncomfortable truth; that if we feel the pressure enough, and remove the guard rails of conventionality, our instincts can betray us. Right at that moment when we bulk-ordered face-masks in anticipation of a virus we might never get, it never crossed our mind that we might cause a supply problem for the hospital. When we packed our trolley full of enough dunny rolls to last a winter full of gastro, it never occurred to us that the guy on Newstart doesn’t have enough money to stockpile anything.

Under the pump, sensing a threat, we are tempted to neglect our neighbour. As the British writer Francis Spufford puts it: “Wherever the line is drawn between good and evil, between acceptable and unacceptable … we’re always going to be voting on both sides of it, despite ourselves.”

Might a better way to think be to move beyond hoarding to hospitality? … Instead of building a bigger barn, how might we build a bigger table?

The phrase “common good” is easily spoken yet little reflected upon. The common good is constituted by millions upon millions of little actions, because no person is an island, and no action is devoid of consequences. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we should always ask – how would the world be if everyone acted this way?

Might a better way to think be to move beyond hoarding to hospitality? Or at least hoarding for the sake of hospitality? Instead of building a bigger barn, how might we build a bigger table? In times of crisis, even in times of peace, it’s instinctual to think of yourself. But we only get to the common good if we at some point talk back to our instincts, think beyond ourselves, towards how this all impacts upon our neighbour.

Dr Mark Stephens is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. 

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.