The Covid Inversion of Reason
Report from Great Britain – By Wat Tyler
Good on 83 year old Maureen from Barnsley. From a BBC Vox Pop interview she has become a social media star for pushing against the current narrative, deriding lockdown and decrying being „fastened at home“. Fastened at home is a good description. As is fastened in our masks or face shields. Fastened in a restaurant at our table in our social bubble. Why have many of us allowed ourselves to become bound physically and mentally into a paradigm, a moral and political orthodoxy, when dealing with a virus? A virus that has a fatality rate of approximately 0.2% – certainly not the 3.4% that was initially feared in March. A virus that has an average fatality age older than life expectancy.
One of the cartoonists’ favourite characters is the man wearing a Sandwich Board professing „the end is nigh“. He normally stands alone outside the Tube station being ignored by the stream of passers-by quoting biblical prophecies of doom. All of a sudden this figure has appeared on every street corner, in our supermarkets, outside our front door, on our televisions and our smart phones – peering out from our neighbours’ windows.„Stay Safe“. This figment of our imagination has been lurking in the background for decades and inevitably has grown into our own socially constructed monster of doom. The infantilisation of our society where, like children, we are afraid of what might be lurking under the bed, has been years in the making. The final ingredient was a virus of existential threat not only endangering us but more importantly all of those whom we love. This is no longer just a panic about your future, this is about your soul, your morality. Don’t kill your Gran!
In the 80s we started to panic that our children were being targeted by groups of pedophiles who were at every playground. Missing children were headline news in the tabloids. The arrival of 24 hour news necessitated long talkfests about these shocking stories of child abuse. Naturally parents felt unease about their children’s safety walking to school or playing in the park. And so for many our lives became just that little more restricted and protective. We learned not to talk to strangers as children. The threat was out there somewhere. It’s no wonder the generation having children at the turn of the millennium had this oversensitivity instilled in them and passed it on. And no wonder that the current generation of university age students want a „safe space“ to live in where even words or statues can cause them deep harm.
In the 90s as our social hero Oprah emerged to help us self-help ourselves, pop psychology was continuing on its rise. This continuation of soul searching and venting our problems continues right up to this day – „I feel down/angry/annoyed/pissed off“ has now transformed into „It has impacted on my mental health“. The difference between being in control of our emotions and being affected by the threat or problem is a product of this solipsism and safe space agenda. We become reactive as opposed to proactive – at the mercy of events in a dangerous world.
While climate change is a very serious issue that needs viable solutions, the environmental catastrophists have gained much more notable press in the last 20 years. The emergence of „I want you to panic“-Greta and -Extinction Rebellion is a natural culmination of the safe space culture and the environmental catastrophists. Dr Ehrlich would have been pleased to see his continuation of Malthusianism so reverently on display by Extinction Rebellion (XR). Apparently the Earth will just be a burning ball of cinder floating in black hell in a century. Children have been told their futures are in danger. It is our moral duty to save the planet. XR has turned into a doomsday cult. Our old friend the Sandwich Board man is mainstream now. One of the leaders of the British XR movement Rupert Read stood on a table in a classroom of children and told them the world they know would come to an end! Strangely he wasn’t wearing a Sandwich Board at the time.
The one ingredient that was missing in 2019 was a silent enemy that could prove we were not safe, prove we had committed hubris with the environment and show us for the sinners that we are. Covid19 duly obliged.
Susan Sontag famously wrote about the stigmatisation of the sufferers of illnesses in the last century. In a perverse inversion of her analysis Covid 19 has become a moral issue for those who may pass on the virus to others, hence the Health Secretary’s inane comment to the Commons about not „kill[ing] your Gran“. It is now immoral not to take precautions, to live a normal pre-covid life and even to question the current orthodoxy. It has become too dangerous. On Twitter and Facebook it is common to find comments accusing anti lockdown protesters (note – not the Black Life Matters and XR protesters) as being akin to murderers – „these covidiots are putting lives at risk, it’s the same as murder“. This moral inversion of Sontag’s original observation of blaming the victim to blaming the „perpetrator“ is enforced by the recent Malthusian tendencies laid out above. We have moved from killing the planet to killing our neighbours and mask wearing has become the current symbol of such unbalanced religious fervor.
Mask wearing has become a moral issue, as has social distancing. There have been no definitive studies to date to countenance the wearing of masks to protect the wearer or others close to the wearer – especially with cloth masks. This has become extremely contentious, however the mere act of refusing to wear a mask has become the symbol of a lack of solidarity with the result of endangering others, especially it seems currently in New York. Mask wearing has also become a fetish, with discussions about personal safety and masks becoming a subject of fashion. It was most revealing recently with a discussion on BBC television. Three well known commentators were interviewed about their masks that they are now mandated to wear. Having become accustomed to wearing these face coverings one of the two women of Asian background (both of whom were not wearing anything that would describe or identify them as muslim) said something that at once made perfect sense and at the same time filled me with depressive contemplation. „I like… the sense of protection it gives me, and it’s a very funny thing for a muslim woman I think… when veil wearing muslim women have been berated for so long for wearing head coverings and covering their faces“ to which the other woman quips: „See… this is our revenge on Boris Johnson for making those comments“, referring to an old Johnson Telegraph article (in which he defended the choice to wear a Burka) with an aside that women wearing Burkas look like post boxes. Which begs the question – besides the obvious physical barrier what do face masks and religious face coverings have in common?
Face coverings are quite simply dehumanizing and anything worn on the face will become symbolic. In the case of religious face coverings, almost exclusively worn by women, it erases their individuality through non-expressivity. It is a sign of social separation and mistrust in both the wearer and interlocutor, it also alienates those in the vicinity. It shows an inherent mistrust of others in society. How do you communicate with someone wearing a mask? How many muscles in the face have been developed specifically through evolution to convey distinct emotional voluntary and involuntary signals? It drastically reduces human empathy and contact. One wonders what impact on childrens’ psychology this will have. It is a rather dystopian view of the world to be convinced you are not only killing the environment but also your comrades.
We are forced to wear masks – we are told – not to protect ourselves but to protect others. It is an inherent symbol that – similar to a religious face covering – one cannot trust either oneself or others. Surely it is in itself extremely divisive in this age of seeking to create safe spaces. The silent killer is amongst us and anyone can be the facilitator – „how would you feel if you gave the virus to someone who then died“ is now the perverse moral blackmail being used.
When an unseen threat is widely thought to be endemic in society it can pull the strings that bind us apart. The symbol of the mask or panicked avoidance of other individuals compounds this sense of mistrust. The inevitable consequence is that people who have a medical condition and are not forced to wear a mask and others who simply choose not to, become tacitly accused of a lack of solidarity (or encounter a much worse reaction). Demonising people as „the other“ has had catastrophic results throughout history, as we all know.
Thus have we been terrified and bullied by Governments and the press into seeing our fellow citizens as a threat. We have also been coerced into seeing ourselves as a threat to others. In reality since time began this has always been true with viruses, bacteria and general life and we have never been in control of these things. It is also depressingly familiar. When virulent disease often did become a moral issue it inevitably ended up in scapegoating (see Sontag). The response to the plague in the middle ages and witch hanging or burning is a rather prescient case in point. The hysteria surrounding HIV in the 80s is just a continuation of such moral turpitude. The absence of a face mask, a walk in the park, seeing your grand children „against the rules“ is putting „lives at risk“. It is no wonder that the inevitable puritan streak has burst through to the surface with alcohol and in some places cigarette bans. The religious orthodoxy must be maintained. Casual sex? Forget it, you’re endangering lives!
Dealing with Nature
We are obviously not so distant from the past or from the natural world with all of its biological threats. Our alienation in modern society from dirt, blood and excrement that most poor in the world have to deal with has made us blind to the exigencies of normal life. It has also made our immune systems weaker (would you drink the tap water in Cambodia for example?). We shouldn’t go back to an unsanitary world, however we should take pause to think of how detached we have become from our intrinsic biological existence. In modern western society our avoidance of the reality of death and obsession on health has also made us partially blind to the present limits to mortality. This is also responsible for the current imbalance between safety and risk management which is essential to the enjoyment of life.
The hubris by which we have thought that we can control a natural phenomenon outside of our full understanding is shocking. Up until this man-made crisis – through a panicked reaction – health authorities never agreed locking down societies and closing borders in reaction to a virus was advisable, locking down a society is of course a radical and unsupported approach. Yet this rulebook flew out of the window in March. Ever since then we have been coerced into thinking we can control a virus when it has become endemic. Another total inversion of rational thinking. Basing public policy on such an absurd premise has caused not only financial existential threat to many in our societies but also – aided and abetted by mask wearing – alienated groups in society.
This is the failure of our society as a whole. Not only have we seen the moral inversion of mask wearing. We have also become almost religiously convinced that we can control a natural phenomenon – a virus. Rather than being proportionate with risk assessment and accepting that we are mortal we have invited the Sandwich Board man into our collective psyche. On average around 1400 people die in the UK every day, many from respiratory complications. We cannot save them all and we certainly will not improve social relationships by false moral equivalences. We need to end the social separation and be rational as to how we deal with risk. This means taking off the mask both physically and morally. It also requires us to have our freedoms restored, allow those at risk to make their own risk assessments and live out in the sometimes scary world again. Humanity from the enlightenment on has benefitted from optimism in human creative ingenuity. Tell the Sandwich Board man and his moral equivalence to get stuffed.