by Sinéad Murphy
Over a week ago, the journalist Owen Jones posted a video on his YouTube channel. Its title: “The Deniers.”
I have not been a reader of Jones’s writings nor a viewer of his videos, but I have been aware of his relatively high profile as an opinion columnist and an interviewer. Nothing could have prepared me for his performance in “The Deniers”.
Jones’s demeanour in this video is that of a bad-tempered child who, from the safety of his mother’s skirts, entertains himself by taunting his chosen targets – he pulls faces, he calls names, and he mocks the objects of his petulance with hand gestures and sarcasm of the most puerile variety.
Jones’s victims are professional people – just like him. Among them: Professor Karol Sikora, former Chief of the Cancer Programme of the World Health Organisation; Professor Sunetra Gupta, Chair of Theoretical Epidemiology at University of Oxford; Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and Editor-in-Chief of the British Medical Journal’s Evidence-Based Medicine provision; and Dr Michael Yeadon, former Head of Allergy and Respiratory Research at Pfizer Global.
These are the people – the ‘Deniers’ – at whom Jones makes his faces and levels his taunts. More than once, he uses his hands to place notional quotation marks around Karol Sikora’s academic title. What is this to suggest? That Karol Sikora is not a professor, or not a real one, or not a good one? Jones all but spits the word “oncologist” in his description of Sikora’s area of scientific practice, with the caveat that there’s “nothing wrong with that” and that “we all have our opinions”. Nothing wrong with world-renowned expertise in the treatment of cancer? The medical opinions of a leading cancer specialist, neither better nor worse than those of anyone else?
The ignorance of Jones’s opinionating, let alone its unmannerliness, is staggering. That any one of his targets would address him in this way is inconceivable – every convention of professional conduct is against it.
So as to rise to something better than mere scorn at this degrading display, I began to consider the question: What is it that has given Owen Jones such assuredness, such an implicit sense of immunity from censure, that he puts himself abroad in this way – so full of his own opinions, so lacking in respect, so unmoderated, so misjudged? If it is the style of a mean-spirited child sticking out his tongue from behind his mother’s skirts, then from what does Jones’s extraordinary sense of security stem? Whence his heady experience of standing on ground that is so protected from counter-argument or criticism that he can throw aside established forms of reasonable and respectful exchange of ideas and indulge himself in childish antics?
When I arrived at an answer to this question, I found that it explained something of far greater moment than the misjudged outburst of a high-profile journalist. In fact, it solved a problem that many of us opposed to Government lockdowns have repeatedly encountered during this year: the problem of negotiating that title – ‘Denier’ – which is flung at us with such vitriol and whose heavy weight of judgement has been infuriatingly difficult to defend against.
Are we “Covid Deniers” or are we not? We have been squirming under versions of this question for months. Because the truth is that we are neither – not because we are something in-between, but because our experiences and analyses of the events of this past year simply do not fall within the ‘Covid’ framework. If we are dragged into that framework, as we so often are by the sheer volume and persistence of its promotion everywhere, we inevitably flounder and appear weak and become easy targets for the likes of Owen Jones.
The French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, describes a radical kind of divide in outlook and opinion, which does not consist in disagreement about something but in the absence of any shared ground on which to establish disagreement. This divide is not merely a difference, then, but what Lyotard calls a “differend”. When there is a differend between people, there are no terms on which any differences between them can be meaningfully identified, discussed, compromised on, resolved. Any attempt to engage in debate works in favour of one of the parties (the one whose terms of debate are used to frame the encounter) and so profoundly against the other party that they are of necessity stripped of the means even of representing their position, let alone of having it prevail.
Bill Readings identified a good example of a differend in Werner Herzog’s film Where The Green Ants Dream (1984), in which an Australian mining company seeks to quarry on land that is of traditional significance to the Aboriginal people. A court case is held to arbitrate between the claims of the mining company and those of the Aborigines. Its remit: to determine who owns the land. The problem, however, is that the Aborigines do not have a concept of land ownership; any court that seeks to determine whether or not they own land has established the terms within which justice is be done in a manner that is necessarily unjust to their assertions of entitlement.
Readings describes the divide between the Aborigines and the mining company as a differend because there is no common framework of relationship to land within which their opposing interests can be compared and arbitrated on. Even if the court decides in favour of the Aborigines, it will do so in the mode of finding against them, imposing on them a relationship of ownership of land that is anathema to their culture and so alien to their ways of living that they would have no means of acting upon it or fulfilling it, leaving them ripe for subsequent exploitation – say, by a mining company, expert in negotiating the terms of property rights with which the Aborigines are utterly unfamiliar.
When a differend is in play between two parties, any presumption of a common ground of reference necessarily confers privilege on one party and censors the other. The party that is privileged is the one whose framework is presumed to be the neutral or common one.
It is no accident that the Herzog film features the dispossession of a native people by a profiteering corporation, for the differend has been a powerful tool in the exploitation of native peoples by imperial interests of all kinds, imposing as a neutral framework the value system of occupying forces and thereby silencing the voices of the colonised even when explicitly championing their rights and freedoms.
It is ironic, certainly, that a journalist like Owen Jones, whose stated commitments no doubt lie with oppressed peoples everywhere, would resort to the tools of empire for the promotion of his views. But so he does. For his confidence in his own opinions, which he performs so gauchely in “The Deniers”, is clearly due to his implicit awareness that the terms of the ‘Covid’ debate necessarily exclude those, like Karol Sikora and Sunetra Gupta, whose experiences and analyses of the events of the last year rest on principles that are so removed from the Government-sponsored narrative that there is, in fact, a differend between them. This differend functions as a kind of mother’s skirts, from behind which Jones is well aware that he can adopt any attitude he likes towards Sikora, Gupta et al., and remain comfortably beyond reach of their challenge.
The ‘Covid’ narrative offers a position of unassailable privilege on account of its having so totally monopolised the social, cultural and political landscape of the last year that, whether you believe it or deny it, you can hardly help to contribute to its carrying the day.
An example. Following his grotesque ‘take-down’ of Karol Sikora, Jones turns his vitriol on Sunetra Gupta, who he introduces as having been remarkable this year for “her sheer wrongness”. In general, during this video, Jones’s language is that of the schoolyard – full of hyperbole and poor in vocabulary.
To prove Gupta’s “sheer wrongness”, Jones reveals that, contrary to her claims, early on in the first lockdown, that the Sars-CoV-2 virus was already on the wane, by the end of the year “one in every 554 Britons had been killed by the pandemic”. So, either Gupta must admit her “sheer wrongness” or she must deny that “one in every 554 Britons had been killed”.
Of course, Sunetra Gupta would wish to do neither. The number of those who died in 2020 with ‘Covid’ mentioned on their death certificate may indeed translate as one in every 554 Britons – if it does, then Gupta would surely admit this. But does this mean that she admits that “one in every 554 Britons have been killed by the pandemic”?
One of Gupta’s repeated insights throughout 2020 has been that no number is so reliable as the overall mortality number. How many Britons died in 2020? And in 2019, in 2015, in 2008? 2020’s overall mortality, when adjusted for age profile, is more or less equivalent to that of 2015, slightly lower than that of 2008, and only the ninth highest of all of the years since the turn of the millennium.
And then, how many of the one in every 554 Britons who died in 2020 with ‘Covid’ mentioned on their death certificate actually died of COVID-19 and not of other causes which may or may not have been accompanied by a positive PCR test result from the previous 28 days?
These two qualifications alone reveal that the options of accepting or denying that “one in every 554 Britons was killed by the pandemic” amount to the kind of false choice that the Aborigines in Herzog’s film were faced with when they were asked to say whether or not they owned the contested land. The use of the word ‘killed’ puts out of reach the possibility, which Gupta and many others would wish to hold onto, that most of those who died with ‘Covid’ during 2020 in actuality died of a range of illnesses, including a range of respiratory illnesses, and at a time that was fitting. They died, yes. But they were not “killed by the pandemic”.
This is just one example of how the ‘Covid’ framework has been rolled out this year, its language repeated ad nauseam, until one is damned if one admits the Government’s narrative and damned if one denies it. Wherein lies the power of the differend: it so skews the context in which the range of possible positions arise – belief/denial; ownership/non-ownership – that one buttresses the dominant position even in the mode of rejecting it.
Perhaps the most stark form of differend lies in what philosophical logicians call ‘The Fallacy of Many Questions’. When, in the court dock for instance, a wily prosecutor asks a witness for the defence, “And do you still have a drink problem, sir?”, the witness had better be on his toes to avoid confirming the prosecutor’s implied allegation. If he answers “yes” – well, the game is over. If he answers “no”, then he implies, at least, that he has had a drink problem. One hopes that a good judge would overrule this question, on grounds of its leading the witness – that is to say, leading him without his knowing it to confirm some version of the drink-problem narrative, the framework of the question having excluded the option that there neither is nor ever was a problem with alcohol consumption.
Owen Jones’s ‘Denier’ allegation commits a similar fallacy: either Sikora, Gupta et al. do not deny ‘Covid’; or they do deny ‘Covid,’ in which case they are cast in the role of refusing to accept that Britons have this year died in their thousands. The option of accepting that there have been deaths but rejecting that they have been extraordinarily due to a ‘Covid pandemic’ is taken out of play.
And the number of deaths is only one theme of the ‘Covid differend’. It has many others – immunity, variants, cases, waves, vaccines – in respect of which both belief and denial are abroad in a manner that supports the ‘Covid’ framework. If one denies that people can have immunity to SARS-CoV-2, one must accept the need for vaccination against it; if one asserts that people can have immunity to SARS-CoV-2, then the World Health Organisation’s newly edited definition of immunity informs you that immunity is acquired through vaccination. So: it is vaccines either way, and basic epidemiological principles of cross-immunity, T-cell immunity, herd immunity, and so on, are consigned to beyond the pale.
This is the power of the differend, which confers on alternative outlooks and opinions a degree of obscurity that no amount of calm and reasoned effort to enter into debate can meaningfully overcome. And Owen Jones knows it – or feels it at least. So much so that he even ventures from behind his mother’s skirts on a couple of occasions, to malign the ‘Deniers’ in ways that have nothing to do with ‘Covid’ at all. He plays a short clip of Sikora, explaining his views on single-payer healthcare in the US; he shows a tweet that Michael Yeadon posted on a matter of sexual violence.
Jones offers no comment on these spurious elements of his portrayal of the ‘Deniers.’ Indeed, he hardly gives us time to discern them, darting back almost immediately to the safety of the ‘Covid differend’. What they are supposed to imply is not clear. Are they anything more than a brazen ‘Boo!’ from an emboldened bully-boy to his eminent victims?
And the brazenness crescendos as Jones nears the end of his unfortunate attack, really letting fly at his final two targets: Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer and Toby Young.
Julia Hartley-Brewer is dismissed as a “shock-jock”, although, during my limited exposure to her interviews, I have never witnessed her so much as approach the unseemly ill-temper of Jones in his video.
Toby Young, for his part, is crowned as he who has been more “consistently and obnoxiously wrong” than anyone during this past year. The “obnoxiously” is beneath our notice, I think – a final salvo in one of the most obnoxious assaults I have ever beheld in a professional setting. But the “consistently” is worth noting, for it is the fate of anyone who falls foul of the ‘Covid differend’ that their experiences and analyses of events of the last year will not only be wrong, but absolutely and consistently wrong and with no hope of every being discovered to be right.
On January 5th of this year, Toby appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, during which he was asked to respond, in retrospect, to claims he had made in the summer of 2020, that there would be no ‘Covid second wave’. Emily Maitlis obliged Toby with a direct quotation from an article in which he made this prediction. On the night, and in the context of overwhelming public acceptance that the UK had indeed experienced a ‘second wave’ of ‘Covid’ deaths during the last few months of 2020, Toby put his hands up and said: “I got that wrong.”
But Emily Maitlis was in that moment activating the ‘Covid differend’, asking Toby – live and in front of thousands of viewers – to either admit or deny the ‘second wave’. To deny it would, in that moment, have been to deny the demise, or the importance of the demise, of the acknowledged many thousand who had died in England during the last months of 2020, and to lend support to the ‘Covid’ narrative by provoking the emotional defiance that is its life blood. To admit it, of course, was to support the ‘Covid’ narrative too – and so Toby did. The ‘differend’ will get you either way.
But those of us whose experiences and analyses of what has happened during the past 12 months do not fall within the ‘Covid’ framework neither admit nor deny that there was a ‘second wave’. As we have learnt from several highly-qualified scientists – Dr Knut Wittkowski, for example – respiratory viruses have not been characterised by ‘waves’. So, if the Sars-CoV-2 virus fell away during the summer of 2020 and then appeared to resurge during the late autumn and winter, that is likely to have been due to factors which have nothing to do with ‘waves’, among which are: the massive increase in testing of asymptomatic people with a test notoriously prone to false-positive results, which made it seem as if ‘infections’ had risen alarmingly; spring-back transmission of the virus, which was artificially suppressed by global lockdowns in a manner never tried in history; excess mortality due to lockdown, including from heart attacks and strokes in the home; and the seasonal rise and fall of respiratory disease and death, never before reported so widely and with such drama.
Toby is likely to have been right the first time round, when he said that there would be no ‘second wave’. Not because there was no upsurge in deaths in the autumn and winter of 2020, but because those deaths can be adequately accounted for within a framework that is not the Covid framework and that does not employ Covid concepts. How to communicate that in an interview conducted live from the other side of the ‘Covid differend’ is hardly possible of course. Which only goes to show what a powerfully exclusive mechanism the differend really is.
We would do well to keep that in mind, I think, during the coming weeks and months of what is called ‘easing’. For, contrary to what one might be tempted to imagine, in the ‘easing’ the ‘differend’ is in play as never before.
On February 22nd, Lockdown Sceptics opened with an image of a heavy brick tunnel, at the end of which were opened iron gates and, beyond, a light summer sky. “Coronavirus Endgame” was the title.
We sceptics may be loath now to continue with our complaints and our criticisms. We do not wish to seem churlish, maybe, as if nothing would satisfy us. We want to show willing, perhaps – meet those who have told the ‘Covid’ tale half-way at least. We are not sulking – we promise. We’re ready to ‘open up’ with everyone else.
It has been a bad year, and we would like to get along with people again, and not always be on the opposite side, awkward, difficult. Is it really so bad if we rejoin our family and friends, share in their joy at the phases of our release, savour the complex taxonomies of our ‘return to normal’?
The temptation is understandable. But we ought not to give in to it. For, the ‘easing’, the ‘opening up’, the ‘return to normal’, are as deeply woven into the ‘Covid’ framework as any of its more unpleasant sounding concepts of ‘distance’, ‘quarantine’, ‘safety’, and the rest.
Come the March 8th, when our children return to school, we may feel relieved that they are back, of course. But to rejoice in any way is to accept the terms of ‘Covid’, to allow ourselves to be dragged into a frame that we have resisted with such effort all this year, to imply that there is something special in a child being allowed to go to school.
And this is not to mention that our children are not simply returning to school, but returning to an environment of testing, distancing and masking whose provision is not to be relied upon from day to day.
The ‘easing’ is as ‘Covid’-coloured as ever the ‘lockdown’ was. It is part of the same narrative, protected by the same differend, and therefore as exclusive of the fundamental principle of lockdown sceptics – that Government rules for the purported containment of the virus, whether they be for ‘locking down’ or ‘opening up’, have been, and continue to be, irrational and unethical. We will not concede to them. We do not speak their language.
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.