• Dr Hugh Willbourn

#17 Remedies for 2021

The Problem

The misadventure of 2020 has been so huge it is difficult to grasp and impossible to summarise. When we look back on the premature deaths of millions of poor, young people in a pyrrhic attempt to postpone the death of thousands of rich, old people, we may ask, "What could we have done?"

We must be not distracted by absurd regulations about Christmas so that we fail to see the wood for the trees. Arguments about tiers, mutant strains, duration of lockdown and degrees of danger, safety and uselessness of vaccines all miss the point. Mass testing has created the illusion that Sars-Cov-2 is still a problem when the real pandemic is over.

The virus has done what viruses do. There has been no value in any of the Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) in relation to Covid-19. They have been ineffective, gratuitously invasive and, for schoolchildren in particular, downright abusive.

In 2021 if some people wish to self-isolate they should be free to do so. We should let clinicians get on with caring for all their patients and the rest of us should get on with our lives. It is tragic that this most sensible option is currently the most unlikely.

As I posted back in May the UK Government, and others, are in the grip of Festinger Syndrome. Here is a chilling footnote: the predictions of Dorothy Martin failed repeatedly. She lost many of her followers and her activities received embarrassing publicity, albeit under the pseudonym Marion Keech, in Festinger’s book of 1956. Yet Martin never gave up her beliefs. She renamed herself “Sister Thedra” and carried on receiving messages from divine extra-terrestrial beings until her death in 1992.

Our tragedy is compounded by the fact that huge numbers of misinformed, disempowered and brownbeaten citizens are enthralled by the delusional orthodoxy. Falling prey to social proof, motivated reasoning and confirmation bias they have become enthusiastic cultists. In the words of Aldous Huxley:

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned…”

Huxley believed this could be achieved by new technologies of suggestion, by the dissemination of drugs, by mass spectacles and by eugenics. With Prozac, Ritalin and the Internet we have it all, bar the eugenics.

The Net is our mass spectacle, our Roman Circus. Regardless how significant, insightful or revelatory a post or peer-reviewed paper may be, gladiatorial midwits are poised to comment with trivial, political, identitarian or ad hominem points of disagreement. Thoughtful discussion is overwhelmed by infantile accusations and those who displease the Emperors of Facebook and Google are thrown to the Factcheckers, wielding their cherry-picking tridents.

Our Governments are no better than these trolls. They denigrate dissenters and refuse to consult thousands of experienced, competent, willing scientists who are outside the Führerbunker. It turns out that ‘science’, like ‘community’ and ‘education’ before it, is one of those words whose use by politicians is in inverse proportion to its reality.

A Little Remedy

What can we do that will make a real, positive, helpful difference? The last thing in the world that we need is a “Great Reset.” The World Economic Forum is a cabal of intellectual yet idiots whose grandiose plans never fail to protect their own interests whilst falling for all sorts of fashionable and simplistic fallacies. It is clear that trans-national and global authorities are incapable of wielding power intelligently. The errors, incompetence and vacillation of the WHO perfectly illustrate the problem.

In the long-term we need to rebalance our educational system, to persuade practical, humble, moral citizens to descend into the pit of politics and re-deploy hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats in the NHS, in education and in the civil service to do useful, noble, productive work. But these are huge and distant tasks. We need to find a more proximate solution.

Reason, discussion and science are not enough to rescue people from delusion. The problem is one of emotional attachment. Some lockdown believers are innocents who have been bamboozled by the relentless media misrepresentation. Others proclaim the perils of the virus ever more loudly in order to drown out the still small voice of their own conscience and avoid the pain and shame of admitting their errors. They are avoiding the 'cognitive dissonance' that Festinger identified.

Both groups suffer from distorted beliefs about themselves and the world. However they both resemble the daily work load of a psychotherapist, and so we must turn to therapy to find our solutions. The works of strategic, and brief therapists, and hypnotherapists are replete with inspiring examples. I have sketched out a few ideas below. The enthusiastic reader can find many more here and here.

Several of my correspondents have told me they simply no longer talk about the situation, but I think, whenever we can summon the energy and the patience, some good can be done. If you find yourself talking to a lockdown believer, but have found that facts and thoughtful debate have no effect, here are a few suggestions. I have put them in a useful order, but in fact any doing any one of these steps is better than none at all.

1 Avoid disputing any claims about facts or science. Side step the issues, by claiming, for example, that you do not know enough to give an authoritative opinion.

2 Find something – anything – on which to agree with your interlocutor. Start with something uncontroversial: the weather, the wish for better times, the fact that you both like Chicken Tikka Masala.

3 Find some anti-sceptical notion on which you both agree, such as the craziness of G5 conspiracy theories or the absurdity of believing Bill Gates is conspiring to make even more money.

4 Find some very, very small point on which you both demur from lockdown orthodoxy; for example closing pubs at 10pm instead of 11pm, or the unfairness of tier allocation, then ask your interlocutor about something that will make them feel happy and uplifted.

5 In each interaction find a new point on which you both dissent from the orthodoxy, then change the subject as though it is unimportant by telling a true story from your own life – any story that comes to mind

6 Segue into a true story which includes you acting from the best of intentions and making a mistake or believing you were right and later discovering you were wrong

7 Ask your interlocutor about their own strangest, silliest or funniest lockdown experience

8 Listen attentively throughout

9 Intermittently find more points of uncontroversial agreement

10 Tell more random stories from your own personal experience and avoid discussing current affairs

11 If in doubt avoid arguing and default to bland indirect suggestions such as, “I don’t really know,” “none of us can know everything” and “It is important that we all make up our own minds freely.”

12 Finish your conversation with a rhetorical question such as, “I wonder how it will all work out?” “I wonder what we will find out about the virus next year?” and “I wonder what will happen next?” Leave the question hanging and leave before either of you can answer it.

These very small steps and indirect suggestions have a good chance of working where direct disagreement does not. Do not expect to see results immediately. The most powerful persuasion allows the individual to change their opinions for themselves and that usually takes a little time.

I wish you a Merry Christmas with all your loved ones and Fortitude for the New Year.

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