by Sinéad Murphy
In another instalment of the Covid assault on the vulnerable, my little autistic boy has been sent home from school, to compound his already profound remove from social life by going into ‘isolation’ once again.
To have asked for details as to why this decision was made would have been to dignify it with the appearance of reason, but, given that the corridors of school chat are not resounding with news of the serious illness of a teacher or a child, it is sure to have been in response to another positive result from the lateral flow test, the Covid gift that keeps on giving – it is reported that, on June 24th, 5% of English schoolchildren were not in class because of it.
Joseph, who has an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ that legally obliges the city’s council to provide for his needs until he reaches the age of 25, has hardly been at school since the end of March 2020, on account of combinations and permutations of distancing, masking, and quarantining.
And now he is at home again. If Covid does not strike again, by the time he is allowed to return to school Joseph will have nine days left before the summer holidays begin. That is what a council’s legal obligation to provide for a vulnerable child looks like in the 2020s.
We are fortunate. I am at home and available to be with Joseph without notice. What is it like for those who must continue to earn a wage, who have other children with additional needs, whose autistic child’s behaviour is more difficult to manage, who are in poor health themselves…? So many possibilities to make a trying situation into one that is unendurable.
Rather than protect the most vulnerable in society, our Government appears bent on inflicting upon them a curious kind of torture – even of eliminating them if they can; the Covid roll-out of DNRs to old people and those with disabilities, including to healthy young people with autism, is a scandal for which this Government and its institutions will surely be brought to account if the future is to deliver any justice at all.
When I went to pick up Joseph from school, I was received at a side gate by two members of staff, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Coordinator, and the Deputy Head who also happens to be the Head of Science. Overseeing the exclusion of a disabled child on the grounds that a classmate or young teacher had received a positive result in a notoriously inaccurate test for the presence of a virus whose lethality for children and young teachers is statistically zero, were the two staff members in whom the school entrusts the promotion of respect for and aptitude in science, and the welfare of its disabled children – in a state of madness like ours, such ironies proliferate.
There they were, the advocates for science and disability, ready to escort the children out of the classroom by the shortest possible route; seven-year-olds who had carelessly gambolled in the front door that morning were now deemed such biological hazards that they could not be suffered to pass through the school corridors as they departed.
There they were, the school’s specially appointed guardians of reason and humanity, standing outside in the northern sunshine with masks covering their faces.
As I approached, the SENDCo disappeared down steps. I stood in silence with the Head of Science. Then, from below, came Joseph’s voice – Going…? Going…? Going…? Anxious with confusion and unable to ask a question for clarification, he was straining to induce someone to finish the phrase in a manner that would make everything okay – Going to the lunch hall. Going to the yard. Going to line up… But nobody did. And my little boy, who only asks that the landmarks of his daily life remain sufficiently in their place for him to be able to orient himself with reference to them, had his world turned upside-down all over again. By professional people with special training in judging how best to promote science and protect disability.
In an essay from the 1970s, published in a collection entitled Reason in the Age of Science, the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer offered an explanation for just this brand of degradation of professional judgement.
Its origins, according to Gadamer, lie in the shift that has taken place in science away from imitating and improving what is furnished by nature and available to experience, towards the invention of abstract ideals, formulated in mathematical terms and justified in isolated experiments.
Science has ceased to enhance nature, aiming instead at reconstructing nature in the image of its dreams.
For example, rather than seeking to buttress the human immune system by administering medicines such as the Nobel prize-winning Vitamin D, science now dreams of re-engineering the human immune system by reprogramming human cells to manufacture the protein component of a viral infection, and leaps to realise that dream without waiting to observe even the results of its laboratory experiments.
Or, rather than devising ways to inculcate in young children the habits of good hygiene and exercise in fresh air, science now dreams of identifying in them the smallest fragment of potential respiratory infection and of isolating that fragment from all possible human hosts, without considering that such measures are shown to have little or no effect on the spread of respiratory disease and to have negative consequences for the welfare of children in every other way.
Science has come unmoored from its original motivation and justification, that is, the enhancement of natural processes. And as it runs amok in a field of dangerously unnatural dreams, it becomes necessarily counterproductive, not only not enhancing of natural processes but so disruptive of them as to belie explicitly stated objectives: the re-engineered immune system can become prone to antibody-dependent enhancement and auto-immune attack; the quarantined children’s increased susceptibility to conditions such as obesity and depression can make them more prone to infections and illnesses of all kinds.
Science that is motivated by scientists’ imaginings and justified by scientists’ modellings is inevitably, in the end, the enemy of science, undermining the central tenets of empirical experience and controlled experiment.
What Gadamer also noticed in the 1970s, however, was that counterproductive science had begun to dream not only of mastery over nature but of mastery over culture too, as its ideas were brought to bear in the economic, social and personal realms.
For example, rather than seeking to protect the price discovery mechanisms of market economies by devising strategies to break up monopolies and exclude cartels, economic scientists dream of determining prices based on modelled forecasts, suppressing interest rates and injecting liquidity so as to bring market forces almost wholly under government and corporate control, without being dissuaded from this by the resultant pooling of wealth among an ever decreasing few and the requirement for massive public expenditure to maintain everyone else in a state of more or less subsistence.
Or, rather than educating children in the negotiation of complex social situations by organising community events and funding local youth clubs and grassroots sports, social scientists dream of channelling all interaction among children through platforms on which ways of interacting can be selected from drop-down lists and harms of all kinds are visible and eradicable, undeterred by the fact that children’s social lives are thereby derealised in a manner that causes anxiety and depression.
The shift in science away from the enhancement of what is natural and observable in pursuit of the wildest imaginings of scientists has gradually come to dominate all aspects of human life; the dreams of experts in every field are now what carry the day.
It is not easy to make these dreams come true – unnatural, inhuman as they are. They require convoluted strategies and complex technologies. We non-experts apply these strategies and use these technologies in our daily lives – we download the apps that allow us to monitor our children’s expenditure and apply for interest-only mortgages to purchase our forever home.
But, for all that we may eagerly reach for these strategies and technologies, the truth is that they are aimed, not at making our lives come good, but at making scientists’ dreams come true. When we apply them and use them, we submit ourselves to ideas thought up by experts in laboratories; we endure what they imagined.
This insight is crucial, for it indicates that the strategies and technologies that we so often welcome as liberating in fact demand a primary renunciation of freedom on our part, as we devote ourselves to projects that are devised not by us but by research specialists, and that emerge not from life but from labs.
A society in which science advances in accordance with abstract ideals that do not reflect any natural order and by virtue of strategic and technological inventions for the realisation of those ideals, and that then extends its ideals and strategies and technologies to gain mastery, not only over nature but over culture too – such a society is what is called a ‘technocracy.’
In a technocracy, one looks to experts to make all of the practical, political and economic decisions that one needs to make. But, as Gadamer warned, experts do not make these decisions well, because they are removed from the contexts in which the decisions derive their meaning.
The fatal flaw of the technocracy is that its experts dream up in their vacuum solutions that the rest of us must apply in open air. These solutions are ideal, not real. Applying them tends to the wholesale degradation of human life.
And, as Gadamer pointed out, a large part of this degradation is the loss of individuals’ identity. Negotiation of a life modelled on scientific ideals and mediated by strategies and technologies designed to realise those ideals, requires not individual judgement but mass compliance, not creativity but adaptivity. Discernment in the conduct of all aspects of life gives way before the supreme value of keeping the society-machine functioning.
“The society of experts”, Gadamer wrote, “is simultaneously a society of functionaries as well.”
And his conclusion is chillingly prescient: “This leads to the degeneration of practice into technique and to a general decline into social irrationality.”
We need look no further than this, to explain the degradation of Joseph’s school’s designated representatives of reason and humanity. The transfer of all judgement to experts in the field, the subjugation of all principles to abstract scientific ideals, and the mediation of all relations by complex strategic and technological solutions whose ends we must serve, make such erstwhile professionals into mere functionaries adapted to the smooth operation of society; a society that is now reconstructed in accordance with the dreams of Health-as-Zero-Covid and Safety-as-Zero-Risk and that is crisscrossed by technological and strategic solutions to the problem of turning those ideals into reality – test-and-trace apps, distancing protocols, and so on – solutions which we can at best adapt to, but which serve no project that we would ever have entered into on our own account.
Joseph and I left the Head of Science and the Disabilities Coordinator behind us, denuded of their professional judgement. Their masks may have been fitting after all. Functionaries do not need faces.
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.