Approaching February 2021 where should we look for a comparison? To Rome in the year 180? To the American War in Vietnam? To September 1914 in Flanders, or June 1940 in Paris? To Easter Island around 1600 or Jonestown, Guyana in 1978? In truth there are appalling similarities to all of these times and places, tragically perhaps most closely the last one.
Amid the current hysteria about mutant strains, quarantines and vaccines it is easy to forget that the entire reaction to Sars-CoV-2 is utterly disproportionate. The virus is just one of many threats to our health, and it is far from the most dangerous. The attempt to control it is doing far more damage than does the virus. The longer the lockdowns last, the more destructive and unjustifiable they are. One simple illustration can stand for thousands. The median length of stay in a care home is approximately 15 months (Forder and Fernandez 2011). Almost all residents end their stay by dying. By the end March 2021, lockdowns in the UK will have placed more than half of all care home residents in isolation for four fifths of their remaining time on earth. There is no guarantee they will be freed in April. If Whitty, Valance and Ferguson continue to have their way it is more than likely that all care home residents will be isolated until they pass away. Few families intended to imprison their parents until they die.
The majority of Governments today, including those of the UK and the USA, along with a huge proportion of the global population (in England 79% of adults), and the media have become possessed by fear, scientism, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, Festinger syndrome, the sunk cost fallacy, tunnel vision, social proof, cupidity and opportunism. Some have even developed an overweening scientific machismo and intend to ‘defeat the virus.’
These are extraordinary facts to face.
It is difficult to acknowledge the situation fully without falling into cynicism, anger or depression. It requires a great effort of compassion to remember that those who fanatically support lockdown mania are themselves victims of delusion.
The sceptical twenty per cent find ourselves, like Galileo, asserting observable truths yet treated as heretics by the majority of our peers. Or perhaps we are like kind, thoughtful, gentle German citizens in 1938…
Knowledge or Understanding?
There is a mountain of sound information available from both Left and Right leaning sources and on the excellent lockdown sceptics website and many others. However as Dr David McGrogan noted sceptics have failed to get a sensible, scientifically supported point of view more widely accepted. Replying to McGrogan, Guy de la Bédoyère wrote that he was not surprised at all because
"human beings are primarily driven by the forces of irrationalism and emotion."
In truth many humans are not as rational, coherent, or intelligent as we like to imagine and their emotional sensibility is insufficiently developed. In earlier posts I discussed some causes of this lack of balance and competence, but this is not new news. A long line of spiritual leaders, artists and, in ancient times, philosophers have tried to enlighten us.
Philosophy was originally philo ‘the love of’ sophos ‘wisdom’. Typical contemporary definitions of philosophy are,
“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” Dictionary.com
“the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, existence, knowledge, values, mind and language.” Wikepedia
Wisdom is no longer mentioned. Philosophy has progressed yet decayed, and so too has society. In lieu of wisdom we pursue knowledge, technological advancement, social goods and personal gratification. Consequently we have developed amazing and powerful technologies but we have not developed ourselves sufficiently to use them wisely.
The difficulties we face now were well-described a hundred years ago in Russia by G.I. Gurdjieff:
“In ordinary thinking, people do not distinguish understanding from knowledge. They think that greater understanding depends on greater knowledge. Therefore they accumulate knowledge, or that which they call knowledge, but they do not know how to accumulate understanding and do not bother about it.”
Gurdjieff noted that people who engage in practical work have an advantage.
“In the sphere of practical activity people know very well the difference between mere knowledge and understanding. They realise that to know and to know how to do are two different things, and that knowing how to do is not created by knowledge alone. But outside the sphere of practical activity people do not clearly understand what ‘understanding’ means.”
The catastrophic decisions of Governments all over the world in 2020 vividly illustrate the difference between knowledge and understanding. Most of those in power are career politicians and technocrats who have very little practical experience wherein they have to suffer the consequences of their actions. They consult academics who know a great many theories and models, and an awful lot about their narrow fields, but very little about practical, prudent governance. All are magnificently unaware of their limitations and lamentably seduced into grandiosity by the possibilities of the latest technology.
Our media governors, the autocrats of Silicon Valley, can at least claim some expertise in their field of endeavour but most of them have been catapulted to immense wealth and power far too quickly to learn the humility that leads to understanding.
There exist plenty of practical people with some respectable understanding. Unfortunately few of them are in positions of power.
Personal solutions to a global problem
The problem is global, but the solutions, such as they are, are personal. Good people all over the world are doubtless quietly ignoring the lunacy of their leaders and doing as much as they can to enjoy life and work. We can hope that speakeasies and live-easies and hedge schools are flourishing. However sane people are too sensible to share news of such activity online, hence the discourse of society at large is still in the grip of mania.
We must all be realistic and practical in our own immediate context. There is no formula, no masterplan, no short-cut, no algorithm, no policy or protocol that will guarantee success. Indeed a large part of our problems arise from the endless application of policies and protocols.
Rather than seeking an over-arching rule we must be alive to the ever-changing possibilities of the moment. We need fewer policies and more principles (for more on this distinction see here and scroll down to “Is there hope?” ) Nonetheless some skills will be useful.
In conversation it is helpful to be alert to the basics of rational argument, not so much to persuade others as to spot the flaws in their ‘rationality’ and their use of unjustifiable axioms.
Equally useful are the skills of rhetoric. In the first place you can identify incoming tropes, and in the second wield them yourself.
We must develop our own discernment to negotiate solutions every day. Current regulations oppress rather than protect the good citizen. It is abusive to condemn a cancer patient to a painful and premature death by "protecting" them, or others, from the lesser risk of Covid. I wonder, what would happen if those in urgent need of cancer treatment were to present themselves at A&E with the symptoms of Covid?
As Thomas Jefferson probably didn’t say but a million T-shirts remind us, “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” There will come a time at which we no longer need to extent the courtesy of truthfulness to authorities that hide from the truth. Has that time come? Perhaps we will all set up businesses in order to have business meetings with a serendipitous list of potential suppliers.
Perhaps the most difficult thing is to be kind. The self-righteousness of the possessed can be mightily annoying. Nonetheless we can try to avoid the "us versus them" frame of mind. It can be helpful to think of the possessed as mentally disturbed - although perhaps not so helpful to tell them. The more we are kind, the more we build empathy and the easier it is for the lockdowner to inch away from zealotry.
As this madness has many precedents, in form if not in scope, it is no surprise that many of our illustrious precursors have left behind helpful clues. The works of Milton H. Erickson, G.I. Gurdjieff, Martin Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein and Carl Jung are all rich sources of inspiration. All of them were flawed, all of them are difficult to read in the original, all of them have contemporary followers many of whom misunderstand them, and none of them will reward you unless you make a serious and ongoing effort to understand them by seeking real, practical evidence of their insights in your own life. There is a multitude of other writers who illuminate our predicament from Jalal al-Din Rumi and Friedrich Nietzsche to Jay Haley and Paul Watzlawick. Everything you need to know has already been written. The challenge is to understand it.
If everything feels too serious you could indulge in a little disruption inspired by provocative therapy. When you encounter a diligent lockdown zealot you can enthusiastically extend the reach of their arguments and discuss how to reduce deaths from properly dangerous, costly conditions. For example, obesity increases the risk and dangers of heart disease, cancer and diabetes (as well as Covid). It has been estimated that by 2025 a quarter of the health budget will be spent on diabetes. Obesity thus clearly presents a “material risk of overwhelming the NHS.” Should obese people be forced to wear pedometers and hit daily targets? Or should they be forced into quarantined boot camps?
You could put forward some practical NPIs to address other dangers. How about controlling skin cancer by legislating a maximum safe tan for caucasian people? Alternatively you might wish to insist that all people who take the coronavirus threat seriously wear blindfolds or goggles, or perhaps you could advocate polystyrene pods for new-borns, with panels to be shed progressively as the infant learns to walk? Potential parents could have DNA tests in order to purchase a birth licence, priced according to the risk of their gene pairing. This would remove a “material risk” to the NHS of hereditary diseases and hence be a congruent extension of NPIs.
The more outrageous your proposal, the better. If they become outraged then you could apologise of course in bewilderment, "I am sorry. I was just following the science, but I've obviously got it wrong ...." then maybe offer a different one.
The top tip is to keep taking the mickey until you meet a moment of honest vulnerablity. Then immediately drop the provocation, and share the moment.
Of course there is no need to be consistent. If your interlocutor agrees with any of these ideas you could flip right over to indignant wokery. The authorities and mask-eteers will use any fact that supports their passion and none that don't, so there is no need to be limited by reasonableness when talking to the unreasonable. But don't take it seriously. A healthy response to fanaticism is not fanatical opposition but a light-hearted and gentle refusal to get worked up.
The peak threat of Sars-Cov-2 is long past. Mass testing and mass false positives are causing mass misattribution of cause of death, so mass fear and mass madness will be with us for months, if not years, to come.
Every psychotherapist learns to expect far more from their clients than the clients expect of themselves. In so doing we help them to retrieve their lives and their rightful share of its pleasures. We need to do the same - to expect of others that they too can somehow, eventually, open their eyes even if at this moment we have no idea how they will do so. And we must not punish them for being deluded any more than we would punish someone for being sick.
As for the authorities, we must learn to treat them like an occupying force, with caution and adequate courtesy on the surface and careful disregard underneath.