My fears about the 'new normal'

17 May 2020

4:11 PM

17 May 2020

4:11 PM

Perhaps there’s light at the end of the long lockdown tunnel. The roadmap at least allows hope that life might get back to normal. For me, normal means freedom to live life as we choose, from cramming into packed planes to go on holiday to crowding into pubs for birthday parties. However, even saying that can lead to gasps of incredulity. Normal? No way! Too risky.

It has become fashionable to now aspire to the ‘new normal’. That ‘new normal’ very often accepts, with a resigned fatalism, that a range of everyday, ‘normal’ freedoms will need to be curtailed. More worryingly, if you argue that freedom is one key reason for ending the lockdown sooner rather than later, you are increasingly dismissed as indulgent, selfish, irresponsible, unrealistic. Most crudely, the response is: ‘What’s the point of freedom if you’re dead?’ The more generous say: ‘Your freedom could kill my granny.’ Freedom has been downgraded from a foundation-stone of democratic society to a life-threatening, dispensable luxury.

This is not reducible to whether you are in the increasingly polarised pro- or anti-lockdown tribes. There were good-faith reasons to resort to extraordinary measures when confronting an unknown global pandemic. Most of us consented to the lockdown, even if reluctantly. However, that consent – freely given as an act of social solidarity – was not intended as a green light to giving up hard-won liberties, or a perpetual suspension of free society.

I have no truck with the faintly conspiratorial argument that international governments are gleeful about a public-health emergency to enact authoritarian measures. But I’m still shocked by the ease with which the most radical commentators – often those who pose as champions of rights – were some of the most ardent in offering up freedom on the altar of public health, demanding ever more stringent measures. Take for example Paul Mason, who in March described ‘Johnson’s failure to enact a lockdown’ as ‘bordering on criminal negligence’. Compulsion and ‘crowd control’ were advocated rather than judgement. He tweeted that ‘it’s no use railing at people going out when you’re not prepared to stop them’.

The present lifting of restrictions – despite being mild to the point of mealy-mouthed – is opposed with similar howls of caution; each minor freedom we are granted is treated as a dangerous act of rashness. This approach indicates a deeper estrangement from freedom than merely a pragmatic shrug of acceptance of short-term measures.

In this context, I fear that the ‘new normal’ will involve a new attitude to freedom. Already, culturally, you can feel a shift. I find myself grateful to be given access to public parks, to be allowed to take more exercise (when normally I would take none). Going to the shop for a non-essential birthday present last week, I was as furtive as a would-be criminal. And in all the discussions on post-Covid life, basic freedoms are treated as something that we need permission for: a piecemeal, rules-based, government allowance, handed down and punitively policed if we dare over-step the mark, whether it is by a clandestine meeting with mates or a sly assignation with a lover.

When taken-for-granted freedoms are viewed with such careless indifference – dispensable, second order, demonised as unbridled licence, a danger to the nation’s health – we might recall Thomas Jefferson’s warning: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ If the widespread attempts to block Brexit gave us a glimpse into how fragile our commitment to democracy had become – reduced to a technocratic in-name-only veneer – reactions to Covid are a stark reminder that freedom cannot be assumed as a social norm that’s deeply embedded into our institutions and our psyche. It seems more like a flimsy strap-line, an added extra. It certainly does not feel right now like an entrenched virtue that we all espouse.

Perhaps caught on the back foot, many associated with making more liberal or even libertarian thinking, resort to defensive, utilitarian arguments as a short-cut from making a positive case for freedom per se. Take for example the ‘your deaths versus my deaths’ approach. People worried about the erosion of freedoms list out how more people will die or suffer if lockdown carries on, citing cancer and heart disease.

Beyond deaths, people refer to deteriorating mental health, domestic violence, child abuse. There is, of course, some truth in these concerns. However, they feel too transactional as a main defence of freedom and often get stymied when refuted by people raising the continued threat to the elderly/vulnerable, the persistently grim figures of people dying now and the fear of another spike in infections. By the time the argument is over, freedom has become side-lined, squeezed out of the picture by a tit-for-tat over body counts.

Secondly, freedom advocates stress the economic argument: we need to be free to produce and consume again, or things are going to get a whole lot worse. It’s argued that the predicted ensuing poverty may lead to more deaths – from suicide to stress-induced heart attacks – and regardless, will certainly result in devastating immiseration. Again, I am sympathetic to the validity of these claims. However, once more the importance of freedom can be relegated to an afterthought.

And doesn’t a focus on impending economic Armageddon sail too close to our old friend Project Fear?

We know the Project Fear arguments deployed in relation to Brexit – worst-case scenarios, threats of widescale job losses and so on – didn’t land many punches. Leavers voted on values such as sovereignty and taking back control rather than simply calculating any alleged financial costs. Irrespective of whether the dystopian pictures painted by economists opposed to leaving the EU were far-fetched compared to Covid’s undisputed negative impact of closing down the whole productive economy for months-on-end, people’s responses to the pandemic are also driven by values. My nervousness is that for many the value du jour is safety rather than freedom.

The state’s role in keeping its citizens safe has historically created familiar tensions in weighing freedom versus security. Most recently, civil liberties activists internationally raised concerns that policies introduced to keep people safe from the threat of jihadi terrorism have resulted in widescale illiberal incursions into the rule of law, privacy and free expression. But in dealing with Covid, there’s an added element. When those who resist lifting lockdown cite what-if doomsday scenarios, they posit freedom itself as the enemy of safety: liberty itself is presented as threatening lives.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom is indeed scary and full of risks. That’s what women were told historically. They were being closeted away from society, only allowed into the public sphere if they wore modest attire and were chaperoned, to keep them safe from the threat of preying men outside their family. Those women who dared to demand equality and the freedom to go about life unaccompanied, wearing whatever they chose, knew they were arguing for the autonomy to take risks, even of under threat of something as heinous as rape. But the price of being free was worth it historically and still is. We cheer when Iranian women use their free agency to tear off their hijabs, in spite of theocratic demands that they are covered for their own safety. And they are a reminder that safety is not the inevitable winner in a contest with freedom.

Is it really such a stark choice as: dead or safe? Alive or free? In fact, we owe our own freedoms to others who put their safety and lives on the line. Every freedom fighter – whether Hong Kong democracy activists, Kurdish fighters who defeated Isis, or those we remembered on the VE Day anniversary – all took on totalitarian states and risked their lives and safety in the fight for free societies.

Of course, many of us are not as courageous as those heroic figures; and I am not suggesting people are physically foolhardy in the face of a deadly virus, or that it is cowardly to espouse safety as a value. It can be unhelpful and misleading when anti-lockdowners accuse the more risk-averse of being overly gripped by fear. In truth, safety-first advocates often view their caution as an act of altruism; their sacrifice of freedom a means of protecting other vulnerable people. However, I would argue that despite the best of intentions, this can have some unintended negative consequences for our cultural commitment to freedom.

We have seen this trend, and its consequences, in recent decades, in the way that adults have over-protected children. Well before this pandemic, society reorganised itself around the project of protecting the young from an ever-spiralling list of risks: from stranger danger to road accidents, from bullying to sunburn, from online harms to contact sports. As a consequence, long before lockdown physically forbade it, adult anxiety about today’s children meant they had been deprived of the freedom to play outdoors unsupervised, to walk unaccompanied to school, to attend sports practices without a rigmarole. No activity involving children is free from an overly bureaucratic exercise in risk-assessment form-filling. Fear for children’s safety has become such a contemporary preoccupation that it has created a generation of ‘cotton wool’ kids.

And this coddling is now widely accepted as having detrimentally stunted development, as the young are denied the experiences that they need to learn to be independent, to develop resilience, to grow up. As I explore in my book, I Find That Offensive!, socialised through a diet of catastrophising health and safety scares into viewing the challenges of everyday life as a series of potential threats, those young people grow up to become the students who now fashionably demand university authorities provide ‘safe spaces’ to protect them from dangerous ideas. It is no coincidence that these safe-space policies have become the basis for egregious and damaging assaults on liberty, cited as the reason for no-platforming speakers and a climate that is hostile to free expression. Rules-based codes of conduct in speech and interpersonal relationships to protect students from harm are now a routine part of university life.

It has become popular to lampoon this dynamic as having created Generation Snowflake. And yet now we are witnessing adults of all ages, many of whom would be dismissive of snowflakery, demanding that the whole of society is turned into a vast ‘safe space’. Of course, the challenges of a vicious virus require practical measures such as social distancing, even quarantine; it may seem unfair to compare this to trigger warnings and censorious student echo chambers. But once the cultural narrative assumes that all risks can be eliminated by retreating into a bubble, making safety the goal at the expense of freedom, we start to redefine psychologically what it means to be free human beings. There is a danger of internalising new atomising versions of selfhood, at odds with any ideal of individual autonomy or resilience.

The irony of privileging safety as a value is that while it appears as a reassuring safe-haven, it neither makes us safer nor quells our deepest fears. As anyone with knowledge of HR health and safety procedures will know, safety-first culture usually involves endless performative procedures. The most unsafe activity in the world is following the micromanaged rule book to the letter, putting your own judgement to one side, and allowing bureaucracy to get in the way of using one’s nous and common sense.

Psychologically, an over-preoccupation with safety can fuel a self-conscious fixation on one’s own vulnerability. Note how as safe space ideology has exponentially grown on Western campuses, so has an explosion of mental-health problems amongst the young. Students don’t feel safer, however ubiquitous safe space ideology becomes; they now self-report a huge rise in their own anxiety, stress and trauma. Similarly, at the end of the 1990s, CCTV cameras were explicitly part of a policy to reduce fear of crime, but their widespread installation added to a sense of anxiety and panic, confirming people’s worst fears that criminal behaviour was rife, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

Why? Because reorganising life around safety as an end goal feeds on subjective, free-floating feelings of insecurity and can rob us of the confidence to live free lives. And that is my greatest dread: that we lose the habit of living freedom. Like the apocryphal released prisoner who misses the routine and security of jail so much that he contrives to be re-arrested, is there a danger that we become institutionalised into withdrawing from the undoubted demands that freedom makes of us?

The government has made physical exercise almost mandatory during this lockdown. But freedom, too, is a muscle that needs to be exercised, or it will atrophy. But exercising freedom is no easy ride, and can be as painful metaphysically as the most strenuous workout. To exercise our freedom as autonomous citizens we have to make difficult decisions, use our judgement, live with the uncertainty of knowing there are no preordained outcomes. It’s a risky business: we will invariably make mistakes that we’ll be held responsible for; we will sometimes take the wrong road and have to live with the consequences, with no-one to blame but ourselves. Relieved of many of these dilemmas during this extraordinary period of having our liberty curtailed, it is perhaps understandable that many of us rather dread entering the fray of freedom.

Of course, as the lockdown slowly lifts, lots of us are relieved and eager to resume life and liberty; but equally, others seem reluctant to be trusted with negotiating how we should live now, instead demanding a tighter, more explicit set of rules to follow. Are we allowed to visit our grandparents, or not? Can we sit in the park, or is that forbidden? There is no doubt, having such free but tricky choices removed can make life easier. No-one wants to jeopardise others by doing the wrong thing. We aren’t epidemiologists or modellers. Let the experts tell us what to do. However, as the media-pack clamour for more clarity on do’s and don’ts, as the politicians and police issue ever more detailed guidelines on what is permitted, the business of living life becomes reducible to following an instruction manual. That freedom muscle is getting ever more out of practice.

So if we are to have a ‘new normal’, can it aim to embed within it freedom’s historic role as a virtue worth dying for, and make its clarion call the joyous rewards of a free society that makes life worth living. Being able to love who we want; read, write and think what we want; associate with who we want; vote for what we want – all this and so much more allows us to be agents of our own destiny, to write our own life story rather than being bit part characters in someone else’s story.

If the Covid narrative insists on a new normal, let’s ensure the script contains Goethe’s quote that ‘freedom and life are earned by those alone who conquer them each day anew’. Despite the grim tragedy of recent months, we need to make freedom central to the Covid storyline to ensure that there’s at least some chance of a happy ending to this tragedy.

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