Independent thinking during a pandemic
Sometime in the mid-90s, I watched Nigel Benn fight Gerald McClellan on ITV. In the build-up, betting-guru John McCririck said something that has stuck with me ever since. After reading out the Fleet Street predictions, which unanimously backed McClellan, McCririck boldly states, “…whenever the hacks agree on anything, they’re invariably wrong. So I go along with the crowd and take Benn to win for Britain!”
Why this lodged in my long-term memory, I don’t know. Maybe it was the confidence of McCririck to swim against the tide and come up smelling of roses. I admire the inclination and notice it in myself sometimes. When it occurs, I put it down to one of three things; an aversion to groupthink, a capacity for independent thinking, or a contrarian impulse. Mostly, the consequences are trivial and relate to the art, music and films I prefer, the places I visit or the food I eat. A degree of obscurity adds to the appeal. Even the missus is an acquired taste.
“Whenever the hacks agree on anything, they’re invariably wrong.”– John McCririck (ITV Sport)
During the pandemic, it’s been a recurring feeling. Politicians, newsreaders and big tech have been in lockstep, controlling the narrative, deciding what’s true, and censoring opposing viewpoints. With the hacks agreeing again, my instincts sent me the other way.
In his essay “How to think for yourself” Paul Graham tells us that independent-mindedness has three components; “fastidiousness about truth, resistance to being told what to think, and curiosity.” Conventional-minded people, on the other hand, do not see themselves as conventionally minded. For them, it feels like they make up their own minds about everything. It’s pure coincidence that their conclusions match their friends and favourite newsreaders.
Our biases prevent us from placing ourselves accurately on this spectrum. But it’s probably fair to say, those at the independent end find the response to this pandemic more of a challenge.
The inconsistent and illogical messaging left people like me more suspicious and less trusting of authority than usual. The examples kept coming. The lab leak hypothesis went from a conspiracy theory worthy of censorship to the most credible origin story. The advice on masks flipped too. Under Trump, border closures were xenophobic, under anyone else, they’re a perfectly legit public health measure. And the term “ China virus” is racist, but “Indian variant” not so much. Asymptomatic spread lacked a scientific consensus but was still used to justify lockdowns and quarantines. Large gatherings are dangerous unless you’re protesting for BLM. And testing is free and easy unless you want to get on a plane. Because nobody is safe until everybody is safe. They even made it illegal to sit on a park bench.
Having our thoughts conflict with our actions for extended periods is not healthy. Headshrinkers call it cognitive dissonance and say conforming to policies and laws that defy logic causes stress.
My frustration turned to caution when I realised the vaccines we are being encouraged to take are not actually approved. Instead, they are “authorised for emergency use” and categorised as “experimental”. A subtlety that relieves the drug companies of any liability for harm caused. And left me thinking if they’ve got no skin in the game, why should I?
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”Ronald Reagan (US President)
Subsequent reports of adverse events and fatalities only reinforce my reluctance. But the UK government rhetoric was relentless, and their henchmen at the NHS were on my case with multiple letters, texts and phone calls. The hard sell was disconcerting and reminded me of a quote from Ronald Reagan, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”
After first stating normality would return once they had vaccinated the vulnerable, the UK government linked our civil liberties to the jabbing of all adults. As a member of a low-risk group and without any long term safety data to reassure me, this felt authoritarian and unethical. And a sign that the virus was not the only thing we imported from China.
If this episode has taught me anything, it’s the value of freedom and friendship. Talk of vaccine passports is an attack on both. We know the vaccinated are still vectors of transmission. So the idea seems like a pointless breach of medical confidentiality and more like a subterfuge for surveillance or a coercion tactic.
On so-called freedom day, the UK government did their bit for social cohesion by announcing only the double jabbed will be permitted to crowded venues. Negative tests will no longer suffice. In my day, they told us not to take experimental drugs at nightclubs. Now they want to make it a condition of entry.
When it comes to defending freedom, musicians often lead the way. Eric Clapton, Richard Ashcroft and Ian Brown have vowed never to play to medically segregated audiences. But they’re a dying breed, which Van Morrison highlights in his 2021 song, Where have all the rebels gone?
Free countries usually give their citizens the right to bodily autonomy and the freedom to accept or decline medical interventions without being discriminated against or socially ostracised.
The long term effects of the virus and the vaccines are still unknown, so caution seems wise. Maintaining a healthy weight, supplementing your diet with vitamins, and giving your immune system the chance to acquire antibodies naturally should not be contentious. If the risk factors are age, weight and underlying conditions, hesitancy among the young and healthy is justified. Besides, all experiments need a control group.
The media (social or otherwise) like to polarise their audience. It’s good for business. Hungry for ratings, they stoke division with segments suggesting we should “unfriend the unvaccinated”. But the situation is more nuanced. If our goal is herd immunity, we can reach it through a combination of recovery from infection, vaccination, and anti-viral drugs. Dividing society and deeming one side morally superior has been done before, and it was counterproductive. Remember Brexit and the “basket of deplorables”.
Media moralising has been a feature of this pandemic. But as Nietzsche pointed out – following rules because you lack the courage to break them is not moral it’s obedience.
”He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”John Stuart Mill (Philosopher)
My resistance to the do-as-you-are-told sentiment that has swept the media and my social circles is not because I want to be antagonistic. I just reckon, on this occasion and in my case, opposing the socially acceptable narrative will lead to a more favourable outcome. And if I’m wrong, at least I’ve balanced the discussion, which in the eyes of John Stuart Mill is no bad thing because “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
Since jumping ship, the tone here in Mexico is different. The president and his health secretary prioritise vaccination on need while remaining sceptical of Big Pharma’s profit motive and their push for continuous booster shots. The people are taking no chances – masks are all the rage.
“Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”– Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film, A Clockwork Orange. In it, the priest explains to Alex, “Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” None of us knows how this will play out. Taking responsibility for your health should not be a revolutionary act, any more than taking a vaccine makes you a good person. Like the boxers in that title fight, we can avoid the jab or take the punishment. Assessing risks, making choices, and accepting the consequences is part of being human. Place your bets.