by Dr. Sinéad Murphy
On Monday January 3rd, the Guardian featured an opinion piece by Zoe Williams on the U.K. Government’s recommendation, announced the day before, that all students in Year 7 and above should wear a facemask during the whole of the school day, including in classrooms.
The stated aim of Williams’s piece was to honour the “endless adaptability” of young people as revealed for her in their stoical refusal to “bellyache” and “moan” about mask requirements.
Whatever Williams’ intention with this piece, the effect was to further dehumanize young people and encourage them not to complain in the face of draconian Covid restrictions. In my view, she exhibited a lack of human feeling and the specific brand of callous indifference that defines the Left’s way of thinking about Covid.
Williams opens her article on the subject of bouncing. She recalls her first trip as a professional journalist to interview a talented young skateboarder who was preparing to enter a competition. As she watched his practice session, during which he “smashed” to the ground many times, Williams reports that his mother observed, “He’s 14. They bounce at that age.”
And so Williams establishes her basic position – that young people bounce back, that young people are “resilient”. It is not an original position: in April 2021, when schools reopened for the second time, the headmaster of my boys’ school decorated his written address to parents with bouncing bunnies and excitedly informed us about the “bounce-back curriculum”.
Like so much of Covid messaging – like the line-drawing signs at the doorways of shops and the simple slogans on government podiums – it is all very cute.
But the cuteness belies a blatant disregard for people aged 11 and over whom Williams and her like so casually lump together as ‘teenagers’, to be chuckled at and then dismissed.
Despite opening her article by recalling the first mission of her professional life, Williams admits that she does not recall its subject – not his name, at any rate, nor even whether he won the competition that he was preparing for and that she was reporting on.
There is nothing much in that, perhaps, except that it anticipates what emerges in her article as Williams’s willful blindness to the fact that those between the ages of 11 and 19 are actual individual people, with names…. and faces… and thoughts and feelings and achievements… of their own.
Williams does not regard young people in this way. To her, young people are “teenagers” carelessly massed and explicitly denigrated. Her house, she writes, is “lousy with teenagers”, revealing her opinion that young people are a kind of parasite whose basic needs the rest of us, including their mothers, must resist.
Williams may end her article by lauding the “maturity” of young people but no closing flourish can undo the lack of care evident in her article.
The fact is, Williams experiences young people as barely individuated instances of a general type. What does it matter what their names are? What does it matter what their faces look like? They are little more to her than an abstract concept.
In this, Williams replays a conceit of the Left, which likes to render concrete realities into abstractions, to be designated by big concepts, arranged by big theories and administered by big policies, with little compassion for actual individuals.
I have spent many hours of my life at performances of this brand of Left quasi-sophistication. It is the dominant style in academic discussion of continental European ideas, in which nothing is to be pinned down, pointed to or exemplified, in which even the most fundamental and even the most lowly of realities are not themselves, in which everything is what is called ‘theory’.
I have even sat through conference presentations on Emmanuel Levinas’s writings on ‘the face’ – given by academics who now cover their faces and advocate for covering the faces of others. But ‘the face’ as bandied by these intellectuals is not really your face or my face. It is the abstract face, the face as concept or as unit of discourse, the face as anything but your face and my face.
This spiral into abstraction by the Left is, quite literally, demoralising. Nothing matters when nothing is what it really is. We’re not serious, for all our deep tones and hushed voices and pained expressions. We’re just playing around. Just moving the counters about the board and admiring the configurations that result.
The counter that Williams moves about in her article – the concept of ‘teenagers’ – is a particularly pernicious one, blithely obscuring the reality of young people’s experiences by its entirely theoretical projection of their ridiculous antics and hardly reasonable thinking.
Williams’ account of young people’s responses to Covid restrictions is brim full of their japes and their jokes. They try to eat through their masks, she says. They flick their masks at one another. They “bellyache” constantly about stupid things, “such as having to spend all day in the same classroom”. They “weren’t wild about the bubble phase, when they had to self-isolate after the positive test result of someone they didn’t even like”. And not being allowed on certain buses was “a veritable assault on their human rights…”
How amusing it all is. What a lark. After all, these are ‘teenagers’ don’t you know.
In an insightful turn by Graham Norton, the Father Ted character Fr. Noel Furlong chaperones a group of young people on a weekend away on Craggy Island. With wet and windy weather out of doors and no amenity within miles, Fr. Noel’s charges are confined to the inside of a tiny caravan, sinking together into dingy upholstery and deep despair.
But Fr. Noel is not distracted by the mere reality of young depression. Equipped with the unassailable concept of ‘teenagers’, he continually rails at his deadened gang for their mischievous antics, immune to their apathy and inertia. When one particularly leaden young man gets up to leave the caravan, Fr. Noel gaily comes at him with, “Where’s Tony Lynch off to? – Probably to get some heroin.” To which Tony, in the final stages of degradation, replies that he needs to use the toilet.
The Father Ted version is funny. The Guardian version, equally high on its theory of ‘teenagers’ and smug with its sense of getting down with the kids, is not. But as she ends her article with buoyant claims about the “unruffled resilience” and “psychic elasticity” of young people, is Williams any less irrationally impervious than Fr. Noel is, as he finally overturns the holiday caravan by Riverdanceing the night away in the reluctant company of his despairing proteges?
The mental health of young people in the U.K. is now in a state of crisis. An article published in the Guardian on the day after Williams’s piece reported that the NHS is now unable to cope with the unprecedented rise in admissions of young people for eating disorders. And on December 9th, the BBC quoted an NHS child and adolescent psychiatrist as saying that attempts to end their lives by young people in her jurisdiction are now “the most severe she has ever experienced”.
Does this look like “unruffled resilience” and “psychic elasticity”?
The Guardian, like the Left generally, has long regarded itself as the champion of mental health – as breaking the silence surrounding it, as shining a light on its hiddenness. Why does it now drown out the increasing prevalence and seriousness of mental health problems in young people with blithe descriptions of “bouncing teenagers”?
Any effort to answer this question brings us back to the quagmire that is the Covid narrative…
There are, according to Williams, “loads of plausible explanations” for why “teenagers” don’t mind masks. Of the only two that she mentions, one is their “better cardiovascular health”. It is worth pausing to consider this.
For one thing, recent statistics from the National Child Management Programme reveal that over one quarter of all Year 6 students in the U.K. are overweight or obese, making it very likely that the cardiovascular health of students in Year 7 and above is not as good as Williams assumes.
In which case, and given that Williams admits that the worse cardiovascular health of adults makes the stairs harder to climb when they’re wearing a mask, Williams’s article that masks are no big deal for young people inadvertently reminds us that one of the very big deals about masks for at least a quarter of the young people in secondary school whose cardiovascular health is already weakened by their being overweight or obese is that masks make climbing stairs – and every other physical activity – harder and potentially threatening.
But Williams’s talk of young people’s cardiovascular health does more than unwittingly remind us of one of the dangers of their wearing masks. It also reminds us of a new and sinister trend regarding the susceptibility of children to heart attacks and strokes.
Over Christmas, the British Heart Foundation ran a shocking television advert in which a dramatic voiceover about groundbreaking science is brought to a halt by video of a young girl collapsing to the ground during a football match, apparently dead of a heart attack.
Given the reports from all corners of the world over the past year, of fit and healthy young athletes collapsing on the field of play, given mounting evidence of the heart problems that young people are suffering following their Covid injections, the British Heart Foundation’s choice of subject and the manner of its portrayal was chilling. What is it supposed to mean? That heart attacks in young people are to be expected now? That they are normal? That – yet again – there’s nothing to see here folks?
At the very least, the increased focus on the cardiovascular health of young people redirects our concern for our children towards the most attention-grabbing health problem of them all: dropping dead.
When Zoe Williams’s children return from school, when all our secondary school children return from school, what are the symptoms of poor health that we should be looking for? Are we to be satisfied so long as they are not suffering from chest pains or gasping for breath? Or ought we to be looking for the more subtle signs of those very mental health issues that the Guardian has been trumpeting for years?
Are our children quieter than normal? Are their moods more volatile? Are they eating as usual? Do they have cold sores or mouth ulcers? Do they look pale…? Given official testimony about the alarming rise in despair among young people, ought we to attune ourselves to the indistinct signs of declining mental health and not be content so long as they have avoided collapse in the course of the day?
It is not confirmed, of course, that young people’s growing despair is the result of mask mandates, as there has still been no proper risk assessment of the policy. However, when even the U.K. Government’s cursory evidence document on mask wearing in schools, released on Wednesday January 5th, admits that 80% of students report that wearing a mask makes it “difficult to communicate” and that more than half feel that wearing one “makes learning more difficult”, and that wearing a mask impairs face identification and verbal and non-verbal communication and leads to “lower performance”, “lower confidence scores”, and diminished “meta-cognitive monitoring”, it is not outlandish to assume that making young people wear a mask during the whole of their school day is likely to be a significant contributor to the recent and ongoing deterioration of their mental health.
But all of this is just too serious, just too real, for the likes of Zoe Williams, who assures us that, as far as she has observed, a “teenager” adapts to wearing a mask even faster than a baby adapts to wearing a sock.
The analogy is truly inane, conflating the profound significance of covering your face with the slight imposition of covering your foot. Suffice to say that until we observe that “Her foot fell in disappointment”, that “He could not show his foot for shame”, that “They confronted a footless crowd”, that “It was easy to read the excitement on his foot”, that “She could not foot the day”, that “It’s nice to put a foot to the name”, that “The joy in his foot was there for all to see” – until we say with our feet and read from our feet all the myriad meanings that we have been used to create and to understand with and in our faces – the idea that we might hide our faces as we hide our feet is as ludicrous as it is inhuman.
The first line of Williams’s article is, “Young people have faced so much during the pandemic.” Did she mean to write that young people have footed so much during the pandemic? Or does she know what we all know: that we face the world and the people in it and that even ‘teenagers’ must be allowed to continue to do so.
Dr. Sinéad Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.