by Kathrine Jebsen Moore
If you are anything like me, you’ve struggled to make sense of the times we’re living in. I’m still astounded that not too long ago, a new virus came along, and with it, bans on travelling further than five miles from home, sitting down for a picnic, and visiting other people’s homes. From the very start, it felt like an overreaction, but many seemed, bizarrely, to enjoy the enforced isolation, finding camaraderie with others who would clap for the NHS and display their allegiance to the cause by obeying the rules.
Still, nearly two years later and well after the threat of the virus itself is much better understood, there are still rules which make little sense, such as masks for Scottish schoolchildren, while restaurant goers and clubbers live life mask-free. There are people who are pointing out these inconsistencies, but on the whole people go along with the rules. Most of us are now living more freely, at least here in the U.K. (though I have some pity for the Welsh with their Covid passes, and I fear life in Scotland will become more constrained too). But we can’t take it for granted. Daily we are presented with ‘what if’ scenarios – should cases and deaths climb too high, we might be placed under house arrest again. But rather than being a universal punishment, the new measures are more targeted: this time, they’re going for the unvaccinated. If you thought Donald Trump and Brexit were emotive, divisive issues that tore families apart and made people shun their friends, then the issues surrounding vaccines are taking polarisation to a new level – and no wonder, when we’re being conditioned to view the unvaccinated as the enemy within. Personal experience and anecdotes from friends tell me this is already happening.
Take public messaging around the issue. Here is short excerpt from a speech by Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen, made last week as she announced the return of the Covid passes: “Then there is a small group which doesn’t follow the rules during a pandemic. Therefore, I say very loudly and very clearly: there is no reason not be vaccinated. One bears a big responsibility not just for oneself, but also the people one comes into contact with. You have a big responsibility for Danish society now.”
She’s not alone in blaming the rise in cases and deaths on the unjabbed, and the rhetoric has been even harsher from elected leaders in countries like Israel and Australia. In Austria, they’ve gone the whole hog, locking the unvaccinated down (before deciding only days later that everyone should be locked down after all), and making vaccines mandatory for all next year – a first in Europe. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is mulling an increase in the scope of the vaccine passports, and she might include going to the theatre, pubs, and restaurants to the pleasures only the double-jabbed can enjoy. In Wales, this has already happened. Even public figures on the so-called liberal right of politics, like David Frum and Quillette editor Claire Lehmann, have come out strongly against those they label ‘anti-vaxxers’.
Frum admits that the stigma against the unvaccinated as “ignorant and anti-social” is “very powerful”, but doesn’t seem to regret that. Far from it. Lehmann has taken a strong pro-vaccine view, which is of course perfectly fine, but has coupled that with joining in the calls to introduce vaccine passports. On Twitter, she called Israel a “smart country” after news emerged it had excluded unvaccinated people from public spaces.
Leaving the flaws in the science aside for now (of which there are many), separating people according to medical status should ring alarm bells. Asking people to prove they’ve had a medical procedure before they are allowed to fully participate in society should be the very last resort in a health crisis and not in this one, where the survival rate if you become infected with the virus exceeds 99%. After nearly two years, it seems we’re dealing with a virus that has an infection fatality rate comparable to seasonal flu, thanks in part to the Covid vaccines which the vast majority of people have more or less happily taken after nudging and month-long campaigns. But it seems the asking is over. Not satisfied with the near-universal take-up of vaccines, governments around the world are now heavy-handedly demanding that people, regardless of individual circumstance, inject the elixir of the government’s choosing into their bodies to ‘fight’ the virus. Natural immunity, almost certainly superior to the protection provided by any of the vaccines, is no longer relevant, as recovered patients are urged to get vaccinated. Nor is the principle of bodily autonomy protected anymore – so sacred among pro-abortion campaigners until the day before yesterday.
‘It’s not about health’ has become the standard response from those sneeringly referred to as ‘smiley‘ by the lockdown fanatics, and the cynic in me thinks they might have a point. So many decisions have been made that have disregarded our health, suggesting that the restrictions and other measures are about much more than just managing the pandemic. Is it to the benefit of our health that care workers and NHS doctors and nurses have to be vaccinated in order to work? The obvious answer, were the vaccines successful at stopping the spread of Covid, is yes, but we now know that’s not the case. The vaccinated may be less likely to catch and transmit the virus, but only marginally.
In the past, many societies were constructed around an idea of the clean versus the unclean. But we thought we had made progress, didn’t we? These were supposed to be the sort of things relegated to the history books. Societies where you have to produce your papers, where one class of person is superior to another, and where the unclean should be kept separate from the rest of society, didn’t spring to life overnight. They developed gradually, sometimes unremarkably. People are rightly chastised for comparing Covid passes to yellow stars. The discrimination suffered by those denied entry into shopping centres in France is nothing compared to the horrors of the Holocaust. But they’re not exactly a good sign, either. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all these well-intended decisions can lead to societies where a new underclass is denied the services and lifestyles we all used to be able to enjoy just a couple of years ago. That should go against every moral fibre of our Western, liberal, Christian values – but these values have been pushed aside. Christianity isn’t what it used to be. At Durham Cathedral, you have to show your NHS Covid Pass to be granted entry.
The compassionate left (whatever’s left of it) should see this as a social justice issue. Mandating vaccines will have a disproportionately negative impact on ethnic minorities, who are traditionally more vaccine hesitant. Leaving them out of society because they fail to comply with government mandates should leave a sour taste in the mouths of the left. But Black Lives Matter has been fairly quiet on that issue.
We – by which I mean the liberals among us – have plenty of persuasive arguments. Instinctively, we hold the rights and concerns of the individual in high regard. A society which respects the individual, and his free will, will overall be a better society for all. A society in which mandates and strict rules are allowed to be the defining features, crushes both the individual and the cohesion of society, which begs the question: why are so many of those who hold themselves up to be compassionate liberals and push back against the excesses of identity politics going along with these restrictions, combined with many others with less deeply held principles? We try to argue, as best as we can, but our warnings fall on deaf ears, instead of being met with counter arguments. Lockdown sceptics like Toby Young are called Covid deniers, or worse. Indeed, even suggesting that schools should reopen in the late spring of 2020, when it had become clear that children were at miniscule risk from the virus, earnt me the slur “right-wing cunt”. What’s causing this meltdown?
The clinical psychologist Mathias Desmet from Ghent University in Belgium has an interesting explanation. In a conversation with Markus Aubrey, he argues that society was ripe for what took hold in the spring of 2020: a phenomenon called ‘Mass Formation’, a precursor to full-blown totalitarianism, which explains why people who would otherwise not agree with draconian measures and the vilification of other people happily do so during a crisis of this kind.
According to Desmet, various conditions have to be present for the phenomenon – which can be compared to a kind of mass psychosis – to take hold.
For instance, there must be widespread social isolation and disconnectedness. This, he explains, is exemplified by the number of people who find their jobs meaningless. Around 50% of workers in so-called ‘bullshit jobs‘ don’t see any purpose in their roles, for example. When the grand narratives such as religion fall away, we are left looking for meaning elsewhere. For many, the ‘health and safetyism’ of the Covid state filled that gap.
The lack of meaning feeds into social isolation, which is widespread and has increased in the past few years. When people lack close friendships and social bonds, the result is a what Desmet calls free-floating anxiety, aggression and discontent. With a high level of general anxiety – anxiety that is not attached to a single object – the population is ready to attach its aggression and angst onto something. When the virus came along, the narrative that was constructed about it served as a perfect receptacle for negative emotions. By channelling these emotions into something concrete, people started to feel the connection and meaning they’ve been lacking. In joining the ‘fight against the virus’, a new kind of social bond and sense making emerged.
Desmet explains: people suddenly feel connected again, in a heroic struggle, and that’s the reason why people buy into the narrative and why they are willing to participate in a strategy even if it’s utterly absurd. The reason why they follow it has nothing to do with the fact it’s correct or scientific, but because it leads to a new social bond. People are social beings, and being socially isolated is painful, and through the process of ‘Mass Formation’ they switch from the very negative state of social isolation to the opposite state of maximal connectedness that exists in a crowd.
Desmet draws on the work of Gustave Le Bon, the father of crowd psychology. When an individual becomes part of a crowd, he undergoes a profound psychological transformation and ceases to operate as an individual. Le Bon argues: “He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will,” he writes in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
This new connectedness leads to a kind of mental intoxication which is the real reason people stick to the narrative, and why apparently sensible people are willing to go along with it, even if it’s utterly wrong and even if they lose everything that’s important to them personally, Desmet says. These dynamics help to explain witch-hunts, McCarthyism and even modern-day cancel culture, where the mob relishes the hunt for the wicked, regardless of the victim’s degree of wickedness, or indeed ignoring if there is any at all.
Of course, not everyone falls into line and joins these movements. But a large portion of the population prefers not to go out of their comfort zone, and nods along with the crowd, even if they have an inner voice telling them something is not quite right. In a totalitarian state, 30% percent are hypnotised, 40% don’t speak up, while the remaining 30% are dissidents. It’s up to this minority of outspoken individuals to keep speaking out, Desmet says.
In the case of the pandemic, saying we want the ‘old normal’ back may not be a recipe for success, he claims. Many people don’t want to get back to the old ways, where they felt lost and anxious. Instead, we need to explain to them that the problem isn’t the virus, but the discontent they felt before the virus arrived.
Who knows what’s coming next. Already, panic is being whipped up again by a new variant, and the left-wing broadcast media are demanding the Government go harder and faster, just in time for Christmas, suggesting we’re not past the worst of ‘Mass Formation’ yet. I never thought we would even be discussing mandatory vaccinations and Berufsverbot at the start of our ‘three weeks to flatten the curve’, but here we are. Arguing from first principles, and holding on to such basic, foundational values as the dignity and value of the individual, and pointing out the flaws in our opponents’ logic, while also digging into the numbers, may eventually win some over, and persuade a few more people to speak out. Should all that fail, the good news, Desmet says, is that these totalitarian movements eventually implode.
In the meantime, we may just have to put up with the name-calling, division and fall-outs while waiting for the madness to subside. As the Scottish poet, journalist and songwriter Charles Mackay wrote in 1841 in the preface to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Kathrine Jebsen Moore is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh. She has contributed to Quillette, where she covered the culture wars in the knitting community, and has also written for the Spectator, Spiked and New Discourses, as well as the Daily Sceptic.