Sunday, September 19, 2021
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The PM’s Covid claims left us in a terrified trance. Now he must snap us out of it

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‘MAN’S deadliest weapon is language. He is susceptible to being hypnotised by slogans as he is to infectious diseases. And where there is an epidemic, the group-mind takes over.’  

The philosopher Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) unerringly hits the mark with his epidemiological metaphor, shrewdly observing mankind’s sliding into precipitous conflict on a slippery slope of infectious words. But his discernment acquires still greater heft and prescience today, when the infection metaphor has become a reality. 

Much ink has been spilt on the Covid messaging slogans deployed by the Government since March 2020. ‘Flatten the Curve’, the short-lived Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’, ‘The Rule of 6’‘Hands. Face. Space’, and above all, Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’ have been used ad nauseam to ram home the Government’s diktats.   

That these straplines have had a lasting impact on large swathes of the population – stripping away the virtue-signallers and sceptics – is indisputable. In light of their omnipresence – workplace, shops, bus stops, billboards, radio, television, YouTube, you name it – how could it be otherwise?      

Given this unprecedented advertising campaign, virtually any combination of words might have worked. Nevertheless, the aphoristic cunning – if we’re being generous, genius – of the chosen mantras must be conceded.  

Allied to the residual, if now fatally compromised, gravitas of the Government’s imprimatur, and melded with sundry other psychological techniques, few would demur that they have induced a trancelike state of apprehension.

Only this, surely, can explain how so many otherwise level-headed people around us have succumbed. Eh voilà, insidiously ‘the group-mind takes over’, reinforcing the sense of herd anxiety and self-righteousness and, increasingly, demanding the persecution of dissenters. 

Depending on one’s perspective, these word experiments are the fruits of strong government acting pragmatically in extremis, the ends justifying the means; or, alternatively, an unethical overreach with predictably disastrous collateral consequences for mental health, inter alia.  

Whichever side one takes, if one accepts the hypnosis paradigm, a new problem, seeded at the outset, now presents itself.  

A fundamental if scarcely surprising tenet of hypnotherapy is that before beginning treatment one must have a clear plan for how the client will be released from hypnosis. But, as Laura Dodsworth, author of A State of Fear, has pointed out, in their haste to fear-monger, nobody within government had the foresight – or integrity – to devise a psychological exit strategy.  

Last month, the Times reported that the Government was to signal a post-‘Freedom Day’ change of direction with ‘Keep Life Moving. However, not for the first time, the messaging was, to say the least, mixed.  

Whilst a catchy enough refrain, the official video made to launch it bends over backwards to privilege the continued need for vigilance – masks, hand-washing, testing, etc – and has in any case enjoyed pitifully little traction. No such ambiguity was evident when fear was being ratcheted up, as I recall. 

Keir Starmer’s response at PMQs was mocking, suggesting ‘Get a Grip’ instead, although it was telling – and depressingly predictable – that the lockdown-friendly Starmer didn’t offer a serious alternative. Like the PM, he is terrified of being held responsible by the media for further Covid deaths arising post-relaxation. Such is the calibre of leader among our elected representatives. 

So, 18 months on, where is the Government antidote to a population ‘hypnotised by slogans’? If the ‘Keep Life Moving’ debacle is anything to go by, no detailed escape plan exists. And this only fuels suspicions of a wider, longer-term agenda. 

Perhaps, again being kind to them, they’re saving their best fear de-escalation techniques for when – or if – we are finally allowed to return to a meaningful normality. But if the unrelenting use of masks outdoors is any index, by the time they get around to it many people will be too entrenched – entranced – to respond, if they aren’t already. 

Hypnotherapy ethics dictate further that the person who induces hypnosis must be the same person who releases the patient from it. The Prime Minister, the country’s hypnotist-in-chief, got us into this psychological mess. It is he who must get us out of it, and decisively.  

Lockdown was achieved in large measure to protect the rainbow-obsessed NHS. In the words of the old Rainbow song Since You’ve Been Gone, Mr Johnston, ‘You cast a spell, so break it.’   

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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