AS we head for the end of the year, we are re-running our ten most-read blogs of 2020, in reverse order. Today’s article, in fourth place, was first published on October 23, 2020.
THERE is a scene in the television series The Handmaid’s Tale in which hundreds of women stand silently, their faces covered by red masks. These symbols of oppression and obedience can now be seen on every high street in Britain.
Humans are sociable animals. We are not meant to be locked away in solitary confinement and denied the sight of each other’s faces. To be forcibly separated from our loved ones damages our mental health. Masks dehumanise us and feed fear. Yet lockdowns, social isolation and masks are the weapons of choice for politicians in their lunatic ‘war’ on a virus, despite being detrimental to our health, economy and society.
My TCW colleague Will Jones recently explained that making masks mandatory is a political choice, and not a scientific one. Masks are not only useless for combating Covid-19, they can also be harmful to healthy users.
Masks act as filters, not barriers. Surgical masks are useful when visiting a hospital or a vulnerable person as long as they’re worn and disposed of appropriately. But fabric and cheap paper masks worn in other circumstances are hazardous, aiding the transmission of the virus. Masks also weaken children’s immune systems, setting them up for health issues in later life. To see a child in a mask is to witness a form of child abuse.
A mask worn in a shop functions only as a social signifier of virtue and obedience.
The numbers dying from Covid-19 – almost non-existent for the under 50s – don’t support the case for lockdowns either. Yet despite evidence that such restrictions are unnecessary and ineffective, and of their destructive impact on the economy and their cost to society, the vast majority of the public have been persuaded to sacrifice their own wellbeing and expose themselves to other, perhaps greater, health risks to ‘save our NHS’.
An imbalance in thinking persists around Covid-19 discourse. Though it’s possible to believe that this is a dangerous virus for the elderly and vulnerable and, at the same time, question the harmful effects of lockdowns and masks, to do the latter is to be accused of wanting people to die.
How are we to explain why ever more people support lockdown, even though it may well kill more people than it saves, and devastate the economy they depend on. (Ipsos MORI finds an increase in the number in the UK who claim to be following the coronavirus rules, up by 11 percentage points to 73 per cent, compared with 62per cent last month.) How curious is their non-questioning compliance with mask wearing and social isolation, and their willingness to give up everything which gives life meaning and joy. How curious their unconcern that the establishment, whether social media giants or big government, is hovering on the edges of tyranny, and will not tolerate any dissent from their narrative on Covid-19. Why are so many unthinkingly following orders dictated by a political class seemingly drunk on power? The answers to these questions lie in the work of two of the greatest social psychologists of the 20th century, Stanley Milgram and Leon Festinger, with the most grotesque mass social control experiment witnessed in modern times.
As a Jew, Milgram was deeply affected by the Holocaust and sought to understand why ordinary people submitted to an authority that instructed them to inflict harm on others. In 1961 he began a series of experiments at Yale University in which a volunteer, called a ‘teacher’, was commanded by an ‘experimenter’ to administer painful electric shocks on a ‘learner’. More than half obeyed the instructions. One ‘teacher’ said he ignored the learner’s (pretend) screams of pain ‘in the interest of science’.
Some of the ‘teachers’ protested and tried to lessen the pain of the learner by administering low voltages as best they could, but they did not stop or refuse to comply. Milgram found that their desire not to inflict harm was subjugated by their desire to please the experimenter, and by the satisfaction gained from obeying instructions in a difficult situation. The teachers felt a sense of duty only to the experimenters in charge of them, relinquishing their personal sense of responsibly to this authority. Milgram concluded that ordinary people will justify their roles in a heinous process by saying they are ‘just following orders’.
Personal responsibility can be further eroded by layers of bureaucracy, obscuring the consequences of their actions. Even when faced with the damaging effects of their actions few people can resist authority, especially when threatened with punishment or other social sanctions, such as the removal of approval, if they do not obey commands. Fear and a twisted sense of morality and duty is a heady combination, to the point where obedience becomes all that matters. Humans are easy to manipulate, becoming more pliable if manipulation is systematic. They are also prone to taking part in their own destruction.
Festinger has shown how this is achieved. With other psychologists, he studied a cult called ‘The Seekers’, and in the 1950s wrote a book on their findings called When Prophecy Fails. The book explains the strange phenomenon of how doomsday beliefs become further entrenched after non-confirmation. The cult believed that space aliens would rescue them from a prophesied flood but only if they adhered to certain foolish requirements, such ridding themselves of their possessions. When flood and aliens failed to arrive, members of the cult blamed each other rather than their leaders. Some thought an alien did materialise but left because it felt unwelcome. The parallels between this and current behaviour are stark. Similar distorted thinking can be seen on social media where lockdowns are blamed on ‘the selfish’ who aren’t observing ‘The Rules’.
People react to discrediting evidence not by acknowledging reality but by entrenching their beliefs even further. This counter-productive thinking is further exacerbated by ‘cognitive dissonance’, another Festinger theory. When confronted with evidence disproving their beliefs, people will opt for the least painful choice, holding on to their beliefs, no matter how catastrophic these are, rather than admitting they have been wrong. Our political class – the Government – is currently providing a textbook example of this behaviour.
The more the evidence disproves their ‘cure’ for or ‘control’ of Covid-19, the further MPs reinforce their rules, resorting to armed police to do so. They refuse to have their legitimacy and purpose challenged, puffing themselves up as crusaders who won’t ‘surrender’ to the virus, rather than face up to the truth of their wrong-headed actions.
Politicians have turned Covid-19 into a moral crusade, quasi-religious in nature, creating a doomsday cult. Masks generate fear and help keep the cultish behaviour going. Lockdowns demoralise us, reducing our capacity to resist dangerous authoritarian rule. Defeating the virus is the impossible aim that keeps the cult leaders in business.
Wearing a mask and cheering on lockdowns makes people feel as if they are doing their duty, even if their actions are causing untold damage to themselves and others. All too easily they relinquish their sense of responsibility by saying that they are following government orders. They may not be entirely immune to the gross suffering caused by this but, as cult members are prone to do, they ignore it for the ‘greater good’.
History is littered with the calamitous antics of doomsday cults. Yet we must be the only civilisation in history which thinks we can cheat death on a mass scale, destroying ourselves in the process.
Our political class won’t help us. They are leading this delusion, described by one psychiatrist elsewhere on these pages today as a mass ‘delusional psychosis’. We need, as he also says, to break free from cultish thinking, stop following orders and save ourselves.