Apr 2, 2021
Feeling the fuzzies
Our first lockdown was like a great war effort. It was the closest we’ve come to the home-front experience of the World Wars, when people set aside every selfish thought in favor of the collective wellbeing. We ground our lives to a halt in a powerful rebuke against an emerging threat. Heroes emerged, along with new rituals to honor them as we banged pots for frontline workers and decorated our neighborhoods with messages of thanks. Meanwhile, the rest of us did our part: we stayed home. And it all felt good.
Months later, rising COVID cases have plunged us into another lockdown, which in short order has become a practiced routine. After a lax summer and fall season, we slip back into the usual stay-at-home restrictions. We triple our vigilance: we keep our distance, follow the masking rules, and sanitize compulsively. “Be safe,” we wish each other in lieu of the customary farewells. Even the fearless pitch in, because staying safe means preventing yourself from becoming a threat to others.
All of the prescribed safety practices have become part of a new social ritual. Participation demonstrates one’s commitment to the collective wellbeing, which the pandemic has taught us is not an individual game but a group effort. Masking, sanitizing, distancing, and isolating are not only safety measures in the traditional sense but they have also become the new signs of caring. And they are fast becoming a prerequisite for societal participation. No mask, no service says many signs in store windows, big and small.
As Canadians, long-renowned for politeness, compliance under these terms is practically built into the national DNA. Save for some pockets of protests in our larger cities, we have demonstrated a willingness to give up a little bit of our personal freedom for the greater good, and we embrace whatever is asked of us if it can save a life.
But is that really such a good thing? Could it be that our impassioned acceptance of drastic new norms makes us a little too willing to compromise on everything if we can be convinced it’s the righteous thing to do? And has our conscience been hijacked so that we consent to new norms that actually dismantle the progress we’ve made towards a free and open society?
I argue that the COVID crisis has turned a once liberal society into a cult of compliance and that we have sold off an open marketplace of ideas in a bid to secure our safety. In its place we have built a new social operating system that coerces consent and could one day render us incapable of seeing the true effects of policies that masquerade as public good..
Creating tunnel vision
While we were placing “Stay at Home” badges on top of our Instagram selfies, congratulating ourselves for staying inside, The World Food Program — an agency of the UN — was reporting that 130 million more people in developing nations would face starvation by the end of the year as a direct result of the global economy which we ground to a halt. That means tens of millions of additional deaths in developing countries because of lockdown.
At home we knew that suicide numbers must have skyrocketed and that countless unstable home lives turned dramatically worse, while food bank lines extended longer than we had ever seen them.
But rather than these realities sobering us out of our moral stupor, they instead inspired us to double-down on the categorical importance of lockdown, even as we were learning that most people are not at serious risk of severe illness. No cost was too high to prevent one more COVID case.
Months later, with better perspective on the costs of lockdown, we find ourselves in yet another one. Although we entered it with reduced appetite for the same kind of stringency we saw last spring, we have dutifully complied with everything that the case numbers have demanded. We’ve thrown out every skeptic thought, because the unquantified concerns of mental health, childhood developmental delay, economic collapse, and mass death by starvation the world over do not hold an audience more powerfully than the running tally of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
The constant beat of daily broadcast COVID briefings and the bombardment of public health messaging play no small part in constructing our perception of the coronavirus threat. Reshaping our lives to avoid a virus seems logical and inevitable when the only metric we’re allowed to hear is the COVID numbers. How naturally all other facets of life seem to fall away when we are properly obsessed over a single problem to the exclusion of all others.
This curation of concern single-handedly drives our collective reaction to the emergent coronavirus. Our laser focus on all things COVID creates a kind of team spirit in the wellness effort, encouraging our embrace of the pain-loving self sacrifice of lockdown — and blinding us to both its costs and its alternatives.
Affirming the course
By now we should have heard from our public health policy-makers that instead of blanket lockdown, we might opt for a model that is business-as-usual with the exception of a full marshaling of resources aimed at those who self-identify as vulnerable and full support for only their isolation. We don’t question the absence of this suggestion because we have been so locked onto the altruistic idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good that any kind of debate would seem selfishly motivated.
Instead we indulge in the joy of pitching-in and doing good, while remaining guiltlessly ignorant of the fact that history might look back upon lockdown as a devastating mistake. Meanwhile, we collect our CERB cheques and boast about the moral virtues of remaining indefinitely couch-bound. Thus we are placated by a public health policy that we should be debating at the very least.
The great opiate of public health stewardship makes us feel so assured of our righteousness that questioning health regulations is morally suspect. We look unkindly at the oppositional thinker, the lockdown skeptic who threatens to upend the whole care-making experience of the COVID era. Whereas normally we would give skeptical voices vital consideration, especially before embracing the drastic new normal we’ve been handed, we instead condemn them out of hand because we are pre-conditioned to despise their very premise.
Much analysis is given to the pandemic response on the government level, but it is our pandemic response on the social level which will prove the most significant to history, because that is where the true forces of lasting change carve out their legacies.
The on-the-ground tensions between the majority of us who embrace policy and those who don’t is the effect of a social phenomenon which has demonstrated an enormous capacity to reshape our world. What we are gripped by is a peculiar kind of collective blindness disguised as goodwill and righteousness that turns us against all forms of debate on public policy so long as it is positioned correctly.
Dehumanizing the rebel
Toronto’s first lockdown protest in April drew the ire of a vocal majority who denounced participants as selfish, small-minded, ignorant, and reckless. These were anti-science bigots whose ideas literally endangered lives. They thumbed their noses at the new rituals which were meanwhile bringing the city together. The protests grew in number and in frequency into the summer months. Demonstrators were spared no ill will by the court of public opinion. Many commentators openly wished they see their comeuppance in the form of a hospital bed, and such tidings were met with all round applause.
There is no moral standing, as we see it, from which to question the edicts of the health experts. Our enthusiastic focus on the wellness effort has morphed into a complete intolerance for debate on the issue. We are so emboldened by our collective struggle that we feel morally justified in throwing all opposition into the fire.
Thus we’ve become locked into a radical, all-in moral defense of new and unprecedented rules. Such a rabid mode of categorical compliance establishes a dangerous low in our capacity for critically, rather than emotionally, perceiving the issues we face. We now despise rebellious thinking, even if those deviant ideas might be our life raft out of dangerous waters.
While the Coronavirus is often said to have brought out the best in us — with our pot-banging and our well-wishing — all of this team-building has produced, almost by necessity, a dark response to doubting voices.
SARS-COV-2 has changed our reaction to voices that oppose the crowd. Whereas in the past, outlier thinking, skepticism of mainstream messaging and policy makers, nonconformity in the face of social pressure were all tolerated if not welcomed, now we deem these things dangerous, not stimulating.
The pain of the pandemic, which has shown us what can happen when people adopt the wrong kinds of opinions, has made us hypersensitive to regressive views on other global issues like climate change, vaccination, social justice, even politics, in which the actions of the individual can affect the group. We have seen the consequence of too much freedom of thought in the form of lockdowns and packed ICUs, and we bristle to think what future crises might unfold if the wrong opinions gain traction again.
So we put extra effort into vilifying harmful views. If we have to contend with freedom of speech and freedom of thought, then we get around that obstacle by making unsafe views so socially toxic that they’re more dangerous for the speaker than they are for society. Be caught courting an unsanctioned idea and get branded an enemy of the public good. Suddenly yesterday’s eccentric thinker is today’s ignorant, selfish, uneducated bigot.
The ideological cooling effect of such a social mechanism is an effective tool for steering opinion and, as the pandemic has demonstrated, behavior too.
Universal masking and protocol compliance has been so effectively adopted precisely because it has become socially untenable to do otherwise. To be caught without a mask, that brilliant piece of cloth that shows you care, is to forfeit your status as a well-meaning member of society.
And so we have it that much of the moral fetishization of COVID protocols — the excessive displays of complying well beyond the public guidelines — has become a way of signifying ideological affinity. So repellent is the image of the COVID skeptic that COVID compliance has become as much about self-image as it is about public safety — if not more.
We find ourselves trapped within a new social formula in which conformity is social currency. The more one over-performs the prescribed duties and rituals of the good citizen, the more approval is bestowed, and the more distance the performer creates between themselves and the looming image of the social monster.
In this paradigm, independent thinking — synthesizing available data into more nuanced or perhaps contradictory conclusions — is taboo. The social rewards of conformity far outweigh the immoral stink of rebellious thought. It simply becomes no longer worth the shame, stigma, self-doubt, and the bother of holding and sharing a competing idea.
There is no end in sight to this new model now that we have set it into motion. It has been embraced during pandemic and the gears are already turning to point this machinery towards other global efforts. It is our new social operating system — and it has already proven its capacity to reshape society without limitation. Consider how absurd the notion would have been just over a year ago that it would be reprehensible to be caught barefaced in a grocery store. What absurdities today will we reconstruct as the moral obligations of tomorrow?
We now have a framework for coercing total compliance to new and changing rules and rituals, which need no backing by logic or sense. How many truly contradictory public protocols do we now follow for the sake of optics alone? We jump into the street to give space to fellow pedestrians even though there is no realistic concern for transmission in this way. Proof and reason become redundancies — at most, formalities. If the Coronavirus ever ceases to be a concern, how many people will truly abandon masking when it has become so ingrained as a symbol of prudence and altruism? Compliance becomes its own end when its made synonymous with moral good.
And thus a moral blinding has stricken society. COVID-19 has gathered us so tightly around the bonfire of cooperation, either by conversion or coercion, that we have found no better place to be, and we have lost our tolerance for anyone refusing to join. We’ve completely annexed our capacity to judge what is being asked of us dispassionately, leaving open an unguarded pathway to our consent through both our heartstrings and our self-image.
The foundation is laid for future incursions into our daily normal, which have no hope of encountering resistance. The next radical social change need only be positioned as the next good thing, and even in the mind of the conflicted individual, doubt will be set aside in favor of appearance. Woe to anyone with the misfortune of disagreeing, because an intense, scapegoating hatred for those who do not comply will justify any manner of policy, punishment, and correction against them. And social spoils will await the loudest and most zealous followers and enforcers of whatever new normal the future cooks up.
We have burned our safety net against tyranny. Rather than doing the hard thing, respecting an individual’s right to self-direction even at a marginal expense of safety, we wage war on thought, between right-think and wrong-think, good action versus bad action so that we may burn every deviant in our path.
Sealing our fate
Through a system of self-adulating social rituals, single-minded public messaging, and stigmatization of the uncooperative, we have lost our capacity to see the shades of gray between extremes and to recognize the fundamental merits of debate and the freedom to dissent. We now prefer that every last skeptic be shamed into compliance, as if the benefit of that is worth the cost of forcing a free society into a hive mind.
We have so easily forgotten that it is in the dialectic of competing views — some for this side, others for that side — that we prevent any one extreme from over-dominating. And it is precisely by the moral exclusion of oppositional views that a population finds itself one day in a world it doesn’t recognize.
So while the world stampedes in lockstep towards new extremes of safety protocols, we are in danger of a well-intentioned agenda breaking away from itself and running ahead of its own mandate if there is no one left to one day challenge it.
And yet the average person shakes their head to learn of the latest citizen to defy protocol.
In just a few short months, the old liberal mindset that would have called for a balance between safety and liberty, that would have rejected the idea that science offers only one way through a crisis, that would have accepted the foundational need for some dissent, has eroded into a culture of compliance. To obey is to care. That is the equation that has reprogrammed our social order. And if it might benefit us today, it could more easily hurt us tomorrow, the next time something to which we wouldn’t normally consent finds that tested appeal to our hearts.