IT HAS become a commonplace, in the serious press and on social networks, to characterise demonstrators such as those who turned out to the rally organised by Save Our Rights in London last Saturday against the UK government’s repressive anti-Covid strategy as ‘cranks’, ‘oddballs’, ‘half-wits’ and much worse besides. Some have suggested that ‘the misinformation being pumped out by such conspiracy theorists is a growing danger both to public health and to the trust in institutions and expertise that underpin western democracies’. Others have suggested that the growth in the number of people testing positive for Covid is due to people refusing to follow government rules on wearing face masks and social distancing because ‘they think it is a way of controlling them somehow. It is very dangerous’. In a lengthy Sunday Times piece, physicist David Robert Grimes claims there is a ‘narcissistical, egotistical element among the most adamant believers’ who ‘pride themselves on being too special to be duped’.
It must be said that those who have been at the forefront of the recent demonstrations in London and elsewhere, a few of which I have attended, have never made a secret of their eccentric views or made it particularly hard to debunk them. Piers Corbyn has a number of non-mainstream views with regards to 5G, vaccines, track-and-trace technology and what he calls the ‘plandemic’. As he is fond of asserting, not entirely accurately, ‘yesterday’s conspiracy theory is today’s truth’.
Equally David Icke, who barely needs any introduction, has been something of an icon for many of the assembled freedom-lovers at the recent protests. Listening to him speak, there is no doubting his charisma or his anti-authoritarian passion, although there are dozens of reasonable questions that may be asked about his suppositions concerning the royal family and other heads of state.
Most of us would, not unreasonably, decline to engage with the most Narnian of the anti-mask brigade – we all have our limits and sometimes, once a man has chosen his God, it’s very difficult talking him out of it. But many ordinary protesters are coming to these outlandish theories out of a visceral, instinctive passion for protecting freedom, and from a position of curiosity and a determination to understand what is going on in this topsy-turvy coronavirus world.
There’s good reason for them to do so. The more absurd, or counter-factual, the government’s decision-making appears, the harder it is to understand why certain choices are being made. Ministers may not want to bewilder us with complexity, choosing instead to resort to simplistic messages such as the ‘rule of six’. When you are unable to answer a question like ‘why not seven or five?’ in a coherent or convincing way, however, it does tend to make the whole edifice seem wobbly.
Moreover the ‘throw it at the wall and see if it sticks’ approach to government ‘planning’ of the response to Covid – coupled with sudden changes of mind – does not inspire confidence. The trouble with confidence is that has to be earned over the long-term. Hence the powers-that-be may feel that the time to earn confidence has long passed, and that only command-style rule can work.
Added to this is the fact that some of the more egregious incursions on freedom appear to be decisions coming from just one man, Matt Hancock. Those incursions will be by way of statutory instruments, sometimes introduced hours before they come into law, with no opportunity for discussion – more than 240 have been introduced in the last six months. If I were living in Belarus, I don’t think I’d need a degree in political science to imagine that this might plausibly have something to do with finding a way of ‘controlling’ us.
Under these conditions it is easy to see how intelligent, questioning people might think there is something fishy going on, something perhaps approaching a plot against freedom, particularly when the decision-making process is so opaque. When it at least approximates transparency, like Whitty and Vallance’s now infamous graph which was ‘not a prediction’, it poses more questions than it answers. With those same doctors unwilling to entertain those questions, it is not irrational to imagine that they may not be entirely motivated by doing good, only by scaring us into compliance. If they are not just incompetent, are they malevolent, one might reasonably ask – and people do.
A fair amount of commentary mentions the alleged gullibility and uneducated nature of those who are asking questions about government policy and suspect there’s something else going on. Being anti-mask has been associated with having a low IQ. A University of California study released in July indicated that ‘the higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviours will follow’. As a result, ‘policy-makers will need to consider individuals’ general cognitive abilities when promoting compliance behaviours such as wearing a mask or engaging in physical distancing’. In other words, to get people to obey, you need to take into account the fact that those not convinced by the need to do so are a bit thicker than average.
This caricaturing of lockdown protesters as wackos has begun to remind me of the caricaturing of Brexit supporters, those ‘under-educated voters’ manipulated into voting for a slogan about the NHS on the side of a bus by a cabal of rich far-right free-marketeers with business interests in destroying the EU. Some of these may also have been neo-Nazis or Russians, depending on your taste. Hang on? Manipulation? Interests? I smell a conspiracy!
People who attack people who believe in unusual theories regarding 5G, vaccines, paedophile rings, Bill Gates and ‘plandemics’ without engaging with their beliefs are snobs. They don’t think the beliefs are worth engaging with because they don’t think the people who hold them are worth engaging with.
Meanwhile, as the chattering classes splutter their contempt for ordinary people’s attempts to rationalise what is going on, they are not willing to put their own safety, livelihoods and liberties on the line to organise protests against government restrictions as the plucky volunteers at Save Our Rights have been. Let’s be clear. I disagree with lots of freedom-loving, anti-authoritarian people on things that are nothing directly to do with freedom, and I would not like to see David Icke as Prime Minister. But you don’t always get to choose your brothers in arms. When ordinary workers or their commanding officers went to war against the Nazis in 1939, they may have believed all sorts of things about the Hun, or women, or the colonies, which might have felt slightly distasteful at the time and enough to get you cancelled for eternity now. But I’m glad we had people then who were actively willing to lay down their lives in the fight for freedom, and I’m glad we do today as well.