Covid Cynicism

5 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Sinéad Murphy

In his article on January 3rd David McGrogan sought to persuade us lockdown sceptics that a more emotionalised response to the lockdown zealots is likely to produce a better effect than calm and reasonable arguments based on facts.

I was struck by David’s piece. I believe he is correct. Both sides of the lockdown debate make appeal to scientific facts and statistical analyses. But those who argue in favour of lockdowns have done so and continue to do so with a righteous energy and moral fervour, which those of us who argue against them have tended to steer clear of, on the assumption that such energy and fervour would weaken our arguments rather than make them stronger. This assumption comes naturally to our Enlightenment habits of thinking and acting, which have been formed on the premise that reason and feeling are separate faculties and hardly compatible. The assumption is false and has disabled our position from the outset.

A little while ago, I happened into discussion with a new neighbour, on the matter of Covid and lockdown. When I indicated my support for a Great Barrington-like policy of assistance for the vulnerable who wished to have it, allied with normal life for everyone else, my new neighbour demurred, saying: “That’s very able-ist of you.” Just the kind of name-calling moralism that we sceptics of lockdown have come to expect. And what did I do in return? I drilled further down into calm reason, countering that I was quite content to be an ‘able-ist’ and did not at all require that the whole world alter its course so that the particular needs of particular groups be neutralised by being always already catered to. But my reply was a poor one and seemed to produce no effect. What I ought to have done – what David McGrogan urges us rightly to practise doing – was to play my neighbour at his own ad hominem game: accuse him in return of being an ‘able-ist’ and naming to him with the same outrage that he effortlessly conjured up, some of the infinite number of kinds of people whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by Covid policies – my ‘vulnerable’ if you like: the old, those who live alone, those with cancer, children with special needs, single parents… my list is longer than his by far.

In this context, the New Year’s Day post on Lockdown Sceptics by Freddie Attenborough merits special mention, for its clever and moving turning of the tables against the Covid orthodoxy. Its very title – “The Fallen” – a highly effective appropriation of the language of pathos which those who mourn the Covid dead have this year been allowed to claim as an instrument for their use, and their use alone.

This kind of emotional response does not mean that we must depart from our facts, which we have mustered so carefully and which we justifiably treasure; but we ought to feel freer to infuse them with the moral feeling that we have incorrectly judged it best to put aside for the good of our mission.

And this is all the more vital for the stay it might put upon what I regard as the most significant factor in the success this year of the attack on our ways of life: the cynicism that prevails among the educated classes, those whose voices dominate our mainstream press, and whose readiness to be functionaries in the system of our incarceration is one of the most dispiriting things of all.

Cynicism is the refusal, or the inability, to believe. We lockdown sceptics, for this reason, though we may be labelled as cynics by our moralistic opponents, are in fact not cynical. We believe in freedom, dignity, reason, truth, joy, and many other human possibilities. We believe. Neither are the lockdown zealots cynical. They too believe, in the primacy of health and safety, in the threat posed by the virus, in the need to sacrifice individual rights for the common good, and other events and values. The argument on both sides is populated by believers, many of whom may have surprised themselves and us. Before the Covid events of this year, we may never have felt ourselves to have the convictions on which we have recently relied upon and acted. But we clearly did have those convictions; it is just that we lived with them in more or less peace and were not required to make urgent appeal to them on a daily basis.

But the crimes of this year, though they have been conceived by believers – we need not concern ourselves here about what it is they believe in – have been implemented and tolerated by the cynics, those who don’t really believe in anything, those for whom there are no facts of the case, those who treat all strongly-held convictions the same and who are therefore ready functionaries, prepared to travel the route of least resistance, to carry out whatever meaningless duty has fallen to them. To suppress requires conviction; to resist requires conviction; to submit requires only the unbelief of the practised cynic.

And Guy’s response to David’s article was a prime example of cynicism. He writes that he is surprised only at David’s surprise at the effectiveness of emotionalised zealotry. The cynic cannot be surprised. He expects everything. Because he expects nothing. Everything is equivalent. Everything worth the same as everything else. Nothing is ‘new or special’. No age, more emotional, more rational, more or less anything, than any other.

Humans at all times and places, Guy writes, have lived according to myths animated by emotion; quoting Sorel, he observes that men have always had to have a source of conviction which dominates their whole consciousness.

And Guy, and Sorel, are right, in a certain sense. Throughout history, human beings have relied upon foundational narratives, principles and concepts, on which they have built their way of life. But, as Sorel describes it well, these foundational narratives, principles and concepts have dominated entirely. There has been no outside, no doubt, no reason not to rely upon them implicitly, and they have therefore provided good, solid foundations on which to erect whatever complex and fulsome way of life arises from them. They have been reaffirmed continuously by being built upon; their rejection made unimaginable by its implying the collapse of life in ways that would impact practically and minutely and wholly.

But the cynic enjoys a position other than the implicit belief of those who live and have lived fulsome ways of life, a position that feels somehow superior. The cynic does not believe in the narratives, the principles and the concepts, not because he sees that they are wrong but because he sees that they are… narratives, principles and concepts, contingencies that have been and might be otherwise. Nothing new, nothing special.

There is no reply to one who assumes this outside position. The cynic wins the day every time.

But cynicism is pernicious nonetheless. It is our cynicism about the narratives, principles and concepts that have been foundational to our way of life that has allowed our way of life to be cancelled. For, yes, seen in a cynical light, what are ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’, and ‘humanity’, but concepts derived from an Enlightenment narrative, a myth that might just as well be otherwise. Once we are cynical about them, they lose their hold upon us.

Yet we toy with them amusedly at our peril. For they were the foundation stones of our ways of living. Everything crumbles once they are up for discussion. You don’t have to tackle them head on. Just treat them with an amused cynicism. Just look at them from the outside. Just suggest there might be equally acceptable other possibilities. It only requires that our certainty in them is shaken a little for everything that relies on them to come crashing down.

In an essay of great prescience, from 1996, the Italian philosopher Paulo Virno names cynicism as one of the defining emotions of our time, which effects a reversal of ‘knowledge’ and ‘life’, rendering lived experience and the certainties upon which it is founded and which it reconfirms as subordinate to that terrible ‘knowledge’ that sees outside of everything, that puts everything in perspective, that is not persuaded by anything, that does not believe. To the cynic, everything is an illusion, a myth.

This makes the cynic eminently susceptible to the other three emotions that Virno names as central to our condition, and which well anticipate factors that have dominated the state of play during this last year: opportunism – there is nothing to stand in the way of the one who believes in nothing, nothing to prevent her from taking whatever opportunity comes along, even if it means writing ‘Covid’ for no reason on a death certificate, or simulating the education of children on an online app; fear – even the most hardened cynic is vulnerable to the utter nihilism implied by their lack of belief, to that abyss of meaninglessness across which they spin their amusing webs; and belonging – the cynic, quite surprisingly perhaps, may be moved to tears by the most minor events, salving their fear in an easily-purchased feeling of salvation, produced by kneeling with everyone else or posting with everyone else or doing whatever other thing will play the role of lifebuoy, just for a day.

We are, most of us, infected with cynicism. I teach at a university. I provide online content in place of present-in-person dialogue. It is a sham. I know it is a sham. Worse than meaningless. Actively dismantling of possibilities for real education. But I do it. And that is cynical. Not only that, I teach students who come to university to learn how to be cynical, to be given the resources, which philosophy at its worst does give you, to say ‘but’ to every piece of conviction one meets, to slay the believer with the weapons of ‘critical’ thought. I used always to begin my courses by eliciting from students the word ‘surely,’ as in, But surely we should be free to say whatever we want. Once I had that, I could begin to give students the tools to undermine this surely, some of the many philosophical arguments that can be brought to bear on any piece of conviction and be used to show it up as naïve and unsustainable. As the years have passed, it has become more and more difficult to elicit a surely, and I have become more and more horrified at my efforts. Philosophy, in these cynical times, had much better instill some surelys than uproot them, a more difficult task and not well supported by the institution.

But if there is one thing this year has shown, it is that even we cynics are not all of us cynical all the way down. And that is a great thing, and ought to be fostered before it dies away. Contrary to Guy’s amused descriptions, I judge that many of those who take to the streets in protest against Government restrictions do so out of desperation and not for the chance to stand beside the brazier, that most of those who go out unmasked do so in dread of the censure all around and not in excitement at the chance to be a hero, and that many of those who speak and write against the madness do so out of miserable outrage and not for the joy of feeling truly alive. It is time to allow ourselves to vent this desperation, this dread, this outrage, time to infuse our facts and our reasons with the strength of feeling that they deserve.

We are not, all of us, acting a part – not in this matter at least. The true zealots are not. And the true sceptics are not. The army of those who are, among whom I shamefully number in my day job, are the true attacking force; their cynicism must be called out and condemned, not excused and perpetuated by more cynicism.

Dr Sinéad Murphy is a Philosophy Lecturer at Newcastle University.