The Coddling of the Political Mind

by Dr James Moreton Wakeley

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Lockdown should end now. Its failure and cruelty as a policy is self-evident. The first lockdown was decreed amidst the panic and uncertainty of media hyperbole that drove the Government to ignore established guidance on pandemic management and to follow the instinctively totalitarian example of China. Continuing justifications have been found in the apocalyptic and opaque modelling of SAGE. Yet this name has proved to be as ironic as it is Orwellian. Almost a year on, SAGE has been shown to be wrong time and time again and strong empirical evidence now exists showing that lockdowns are not critical to combatting Covid. Cases were already falling before all three UK lockdowns were announced. Lockdown-averse Sweden has recorded excess deaths no greater than the EU average. The worst death rates in the USA are found in the states that have locked down the most rigorously, whilst those states that remained free have not fared dramatically worse than the average.

Perhaps more importantly, the costs of lockdown are unnervingly apparent. The UK is now more indebted than ever before in its history. Children’s mental health is precipitously deteriorating whilst their education continues to atrophy. Last year, a Bristol University study suggested that the medical and societal impact of lockdown will kill five times more people in the UK than Covid’s current butcher’s bill: an estimate that may prove conservative in the extreme in the years to come. Even if one were to accept that lockdowns have some effect on constraining the virus, a mere moment of reflection should surely lead to the conclusion that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Yet the nation remains under house arrest, the economy stalled, and the lives and hopes of the next generation continue to be offered upon the sacrificial altar. All to save us from a disease with a survival rate in excess of 99%.

Why, then, is the UK Government proving so reluctant to reconsider what is so clearly a failed and destructive policy? To start answering this question, one first has to realise that Covid is as much, if not more, a political problem than it is a medical crisis.

The country first went into lockdown to “protect the NHS”. A Conservative Government’s fear that the media would be awash with images of struggling wards and medics condemning their political masters encouraged the Government to reinterpret radically the relationship between the NHS and the country it was founded to serve. To stave-off a tactical political defeat, the Government exhorted the public to form a strategic ‘human shield’ around the health service that was designed to look after them. The sanctification of the NHS – famously the closest thing the English have to a religion – has continued to lead to the narrowest form of political tunnel vision as ensuring that it is not ‘overwhelmed’ by Covid patients has marginalised all other national concerns, as well as all other kinds of patient.

Once Government became committed to lockdown – alongside eventual vaccination – it, together with lockdown’s associated raft of non-pharmaceutical interventions like mask-wearing, became the ‘something’ that had to be ‘done’ when the much-predicted winter second wave materialised. The same logic has continued into the New Year, with evidence that schools, gyms, pubs, and restaurants account for tiny amounts of transmission – not least when compared to hospitals and care homes – being entirely disregarded. Now that the vaccination programme is rolling out apace, the Government has a narrative cohesive and superficially convincing enough to constrain dissent: let’s have one last long lockdown to allow the vaccine to defeat the disease.

This deus ex machina ending on which the Government has pinned its hopes is going hand-in-hand with sinister and often highly disingenuous attacks on those who question its approach. These attacks are spearheaded by ambitious MPs and Government allies in a media class that is cut from the same cloth as the politicians it has done so little to question over the past year. Lockdown has to be shown to be the only solution lest its advocates attract blame and retribution for the costs so painfully felt by a population subjected to unprecedented nightly lectures by its advocates.

Worship of the NHS, a media-driven urge always to ‘do something,’ and the groupthink of a political class willing to outsource their rational faculties to “The Science” – simultaneously claiming authority for their decisions whilst abrogating them of real responsibility – is only, however, part of the explanation. The fascinating, terrifying, and enlightening 2018 book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, identifies three ‘Great Untruths’ and associated cognitive distortions that the authors argue have not only damaged the integrity and purpose of higher academic institutions, but that have also intellectually debilitated an entire generation (‘iGen’ – those born after 1995).

The Great Untruths are the “Untruth of Fragility” (‘what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’); the “Untruth of Emotional Reasoning” (‘always trust your feelings’), and the “Untruth of Us vs Them” (‘life is a battle between good people and evil people’). These Great Untruths are the seedbed of a raft of regressive and even self-destructive thought-processes: catastrophising; overgeneralising; negative filtering; discounting positives, and simplistic, dichotomous thinking to name but a few. They also lead to a retreat into what Lukianoff and Haidt term “safetyism” – with ‘harm’ reinterpreted to include mere speech – and to a need for Big Brother to step-in to make things better. The Untruths therefore become something akin to the handmaiden of an authoritarian suppression of thought and speech. The absolutism of safetyism leads to witch-hunts and to the persecution of those who disagree, ostensibly on the basis that its opponents are advocates of harm.

The Coddling of the American Mind was originally conceived by university academics for university academics. It diagnoses a generational shift in character with complex causes – from changes in parenting-practice, to the proliferation of screens and social media, to the exaggerated party-political polarisation of American politics – that is evident most plainly in institutions of higher education. This shift is increasingly sensed beyond the ivory towers, as well as in the wider English-speaking world, as ‘iGen’ graduates enter the workplace.

The rot, however, in an age when new ideas – both good and bad – can go viral in a West evermore sundered from the anchor of its cultural inheritance, may in fact be far deeper. The British political and media classes’ approach to the debate around lockdown and Covid suggests that the damaging cognitive distortions that Lukianoff and Haidt identified may be far more mainstream than they originally feared.

Let’s look at the untruths and some of the distortions in turn. The Untruth of Fragility underpins the Government’s approach to Covid. The disease is of course sadly fatal to many elderly and clinically-vulnerable people, but the overwhelming majority of healthy young and middle-aged people who catch Covid show either symptoms similar to a common cold or no symptoms at all. That the former should ‘shield’ until vaccinated is common sense, but that the latter should be legally prevented from living a normal life is unnatural and a clear overreaction.

We should simply cope with mild symptoms and crack on. Our bodies are highly evolved, anti-fragile systems trained to develop immunity to new pathogens. As well as impeding the evolution of Covid herd-immunity, effectively imprisoning the majority of the population looks set to damage more broader immune responses to other viruses as we are not coming into contact with the normal run of germs that our bodies need to update their natural defences. Like many people, I cannot remember the last time I had a cold. High levels of hygiene are of course important to staying healthy and to stopping the spread of bacteria and viruses, but – like the Aristotelian axiom of any virtue being taken to an extreme becoming a vice – obsessive germaphobia is self-harming.

The Untruth of Fragility also sits behind the very notion that ‘we’ need to “protect the NHS”. To commit the blasphemy of criticising an institution that is such an envy of the world that it has never been copied elsewhere, lockdown is arguably stopping the NHS – and Government – from learning the lessons that Covid could usefully have taught. Crises test complex systems and encourage them to adapt to improve. Artificially shifting the crisis elsewhere insulates bad practice. This was arguably seen in the NHS’s apparent inability to plan for winter with Covid. Similarly, too little attention has been directed towards the fact that the UK’s supply of ICU beds is lower than many comparable states.

Worryingly, governmental adherence to the Untruth of Fragility appears only to be growing. Hopes that vaccinating those most at risk from critical symptoms would lead to a loosening of lockdown look to be disappointed as the Government and its advisers find ever more excuses for caution. The goalposts have moved: the Prime Minister now seems more concerned about case numbers than alleged pressure on the NHS or fatalities. Virus variants risk becoming a gift that keeps on giving to the lockdown lobby. The seeming desire of ministers to destroy risk entirely is not only unbalanced and delusional, but it also fails to recognise the clear medical fact that younger demographics can deal with Covid, and that the NHS should be expected to cope with the tiny fraction of those demographics who unfortunately suffer serious symptoms.

Reaching such a conclusion, however, risks violating the second Great Untruth: the “Untruth of Emotional Reasoning”. How can I talk about Covid so academically, a critic may say, when we are shown heart-rending footage of hospitals almost every night on television, and hear stories of death every day? And surely, they may continue, does not lockdown, by keeping people apart to stop the spread of the disease, not simply feel like a good idea?

We are certainly emotionally-induced by what we see to panic about Covid, to catastrophise, to focus on the negatives, to assume that lack of capacity at some NHS hospitals speaks to a more general crisis. The sheer repetition of death statistics and warnings makes it worse: the more often something is said, the truer it becomes. Yet around 1,700 people die in the UK every day, every year. Death is always ugly, and winter always brings respiratory-disease pressures to the NHS. Just because you never used to see it on your telescreen does not mean that it was not real. The fact that modern society now habitually segregates its elderly in care homes has probably contributed to the power of obsessively-morbid media coverage as death is now something that happens beyond the home, not a process that families grow-up observing around them.

It is all too-easy for politicians to play to this Covid gallery of doom, but they are elected in part to look beyond the drowning man in front of them to the sinking ship on the horizon. Emotionally we respond to the Covid patient on the six o’clock news, but rationally we are led to consider the huge costs we cannot yet see so easily: the costs of lockdown. As to lockdown feeling like the right thing to do, standing back and looking at the evidence reveals that panic-induced feeling is no substitute for empirical observation. Covid is overwhelmingly transmitted to vulnerable demographics in places that simply cannot be locked-down – hospitals, sustained contact in households, and care homes – and viruses do not respond to pettifogging Government guidance on exercise regimes, distances driven to parks, substantial meals, or group sizes.

Clinging to lockdown and attendant doubtful non-pharmaceutical interventions like face masks is starting to become something akin to superstition. Despite the debate around the efficacy of face masks, for example, being a matter of continued dispute, voices exhorting the wearing of multiple masks are becoming ever louder: like the priest telling you to say just one more Hail Mary to achieve forgiveness of sins. We now know more about hard-surface transmission of Covid than last year – namely that such surfaces are not major vectors of transmission – yet still surfaces are obsessively scrubbed-down, probably because it just feels like a sensible thing to do as well as owing to the fact that all research that does not feed fear seems to be getting all too little a hearing these days.

But of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? By outing myself as a critic of lockdowns, I reveal myself to be one of ‘them.’ The deniers. The bad people. Not someone merely with a different perspective motivated by a humane desire to highlight the madness under which we are currently living, but probably someone culpable, in some weird supernatural way, for Covid deaths himself. Thus do we find ourselves at the “Untruth of Us vs Them”.

Group solidarity is naturally an intrinsic part of politics, and the way in which the Government and its loyalists have closed ranks in defence of lockdown is simply how oligarchies behave. Rather than objectively analysing a range of data or broadening their perspective beyond Covid, the Government, once committed to a policy, has dug in to maintain the power of their narrative. It is never in any politician’s DNA to admit that they have been wrong, whatever the costs. Yet there is something more vicious, even sinister, in the extent to which debate and discussion has been narrowed into oblivion by elements of the state and its bizarrely eager acolytes in the media.

Academics from some of the world’s leading universities, like Oxford’s Professor Sunetra Gupta, have been sidelined and vilified. Despite the fact that Professor Gupta and others like her do not have a history of politicking like some scholars – and so can be presumed to be acting out of pure goodwill – their arguments have not reached the ear of a Government wedded to a narrow coterie of scientific advisers that anyway seems to think that The Science is a monopoly that only they control. Interesting, expert dissenting voices are not only ignored, but presumed to be acting out of malice: they’re not on board with a ‘lockdown to save lives,’ so they clearly want people to die instead, because they’re just bad people. Even more abuse has been heaped on those few journalists – notably Peter Hitchens – who seek to question the governmental orthodoxy and to bring to light evidence and perspectives that are so desperately needed to stem the nation’s self-harm.

Another example can be found in the recent hounding of holidaying ‘influencers.’ Spearheaded by the Home Secretary, and enthusiastically adopted by members of the media, Britons were invited to denounce and demean the vanishingly small number of high-profile social media celebrities who had escaped the desultory conditions of a winter lockdown in the UK for the sun and sand of Dubai. The fact that these influencers tended to be beautiful young women with an almost magical ability to turn their looks and lifestyle into cash made this campaign of vilification more patently the witch-hunt that it was. How these influencers were responsible for Covid deaths was a question that went unasked but, given that they were so clearly a ‘them’ in opposition to a lockdown ‘us,’ the coddled mind demanded that they be persecuted.

These are but some examples of the bizarre forces at play in Covid Britain. We are almost a year on from the first lockdown, but, despite strong evidence that the policy does not work and causes considerable harm, the British Government remains wedded to a path it embarked upon in haste, following the example of a repressive, totalitarian state. Even as the vaccination campaign advances, the doctrine of safetyism seems only to grow in strength: from ‘protecting the NHS,’ the Government increasingly appears to be drifting towards an extreme ‘Zero-Covid’ approach, heedless of Canute’s example that even a king cannot stop the tide. The refusal of the state to brook correction and change course is more than an example of the tendency of people in power to groupthink. It is the product of cognitive distortions and damaging patterns of thought that are hardly limited to the rarefied world of academia, but that seem to have taken root in Government and wider society.

A cynic may say that it has always been thus, but the policy of lockdowns and the willingness of all too few to question this novel, inherently repressive policy surely points to worrying new developments. Perhaps the most important insight that Lukianoff and Haidt identify is the connection between their Untruths and what could be termed a totalitarian mindset, namely that a sense of fragility, adherence to safetyism, and an emotional desire to be protected from imagined ‘evil’ people leads to the suppression of free speech and to the growth in authoritarianism. Essentially, they rationalise the old adage that public safety is the constant cry of the tyrant, but suggest that this call can also easily come from the lips of the subject.

The ramifications of the Great Untruths may be hard to sense for those who live beyond the often insular world of academe that The Coddling of the American Mind set out to investigate. As we see these Untruths infect wider society, however, we are starting to see where safetyism leads: to reduced freedom of speech and to a bigger state that sacrifices its country on the altar of its orthodoxies. If the pandemic teaches us one thing, it is that the disease we should be most concerned about is the suffocating, illiberal condition gripping the mind of our body politic.

It may prove terminal, unless we take it upon ourselves to self-treat.

Dr James Moreton Wakeley is a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford.

December 2022
Free Speech Union

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