The Failed Strategy of Lockdown Sceptics: We Appealed to Reason, not Emotion

Matt Hancock cries on Good Morning Britain on December 8th as first person receives the vaccine

There follows a guest post by Dr David McGrogan, Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School. A painful read for people in our camp, but hard to disagree with. I’ve given it a permanent slot on the right-hand side under “Are Sceptical Voices Being Suppressed?”, but it’s so good I’m publishing it in full below.

It must surely now be evident to all of us ‘sceptics’ that we have failed. Despite our efforts, the message simply has not got through. While there is clearly a sizeable minority of the population who feel as we do, it really is only a minority. This has been brought home to me very strongly while away visiting family over Christmas. While most of my relatives and old friends have been happy to meet up, they are simply uninterested in getting to the bottom of what has happened over the past year. If the virus comes up in conversation at all, it is only in reference to overcrowded hospitals, discussed with sad shakes of the head and much tut-tutting.

We have to face facts: most people simply accept the mainstream narrative, and with the prospect of the magic spell of a vaccine in the offing, there is little incentive for them to change their minds. The thinking of the great majority of our fellow citizens can be summarised as: a few more months of this and then it will be spring, things will be back to normal, and we can forget about all of this.

Why is it that so few of our fellow citizens seem willing to even listen to arguments which we find so convincing? There are undoubtedly lots of reasons, but I think it is at least in part due simply to a failure of strategy on the part of sceptics. That is, we have made arguments that are either factual or which appeal to our love of liberty. Neither of them has had much traction amongst the populace.

First, the problem of making the factual case. I am an academic, somebody who discusses ideas and encourages students to investigate and debate facts for a living. So this has been a very bitter pill for me to swallow indeed. But the reality is that most people are just not actually interested in finding out the truth for themselves. They are much more interested in conforming with what they perceive to be what one could call the ‘moral truth’ – the prevailing moral norm. The prevailing moral norm of 2020 is: lockdowns are the ethically right thing to do because they keep vulnerable people safe. To argue against that moral norm is, by definition, both immoral and abnormal. This is the most salient factor in governing behaviour in our society right now.

Lockdown sceptics have made all kinds of important, well-reasoned, fact-based arguments against the lockdowns and other restrictions that have been imposed upon us. The problem of ‘deaths with’ COVID-19; the many issues with the accuracy of PCR tests; the overinflation of the IFR; the comparisons to other diseases; the excess death charts; the fact that the NHS is always nearly overwhelmed every year. None of it has cut through, because most people just don’t respond to fact-based argument. They respond to what they consider to be the moral truth. More importantly, they really don’t respond to fact-based argument if that would mean owning up to being immoral and abnormal. If in order to change your mind you have to become a pariah, then human psychology 101 provides a quick answer: you won’t change your mind.

Second – and this is an even bitterer pill, perhaps the bitterest of all – we have the failure of our liberty-based arguments. We have made all kinds of appeals to freedom and civil liberties during the past year. But the brute fact is that most people apparently couldn’t give two hoots about freedom when the chips are down. Security and safety are what matter. The moral truth for our compatriots is not that the Government rode roughshod over our liberties this year. The moral truth for them is that the Government justifiably deprived us of our liberties to keep us safe – and we’re grateful for it. We can bemoan this and debate the reasons for it all we like. But it’s the world in which we live.

Our task now, then, is to lick our wounds and think about strategy for the next time this all happens. This pandemic is over biologically and will soon be over politically. I fully expect Hancock, Gove, Johnson and their cronies to ride a wave of optimism into the summer that will give them the only thing they really want, the only thing they really crave – a boost in the opinion polls. But there will be other crises like it. New viruses will emerge or be discovered – it has happened enough times since the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s to demonstrate that is an inevitability. We have to be ready. And we have to be ready not just with facts and statistics or arguments in defence of liberty (although those are of course important). We have to be ready with a moral truth of our own.

What we need to emphasise, in other words, is not reason, or not reason alone, but emotion. We quite clearly live in an emotional age – one in which “don’t kill granny” is a more effective argument than any Ivor Cummins video. So emotion has to be emphasised. What do lockdowns mean emotionally? They mean suicides. They mean depression and anxiety. They mean school closures which harm children’s life chances. They mean rising inequality. They mean cancelled hospital treatments. They mean poverty and economic devastation in the developing world. They mean lack of hugs and family and social warmth. It is not that we haven’t talked about all of these things. But we haven’t talked about them enough. We have to acknowledge that while we have all manner of fantastic knock-down factual arguments and statements of principle against all of this nonsense, people aren’t interested to hear them: nobody wants to be knocked-down, fantastically or otherwise. People want to conform with what they perceive to be a moral truth. So we have to set about generating that. We have to start talking not about numbers or rights, but about the human tragedy that lockdown has created. We need stories about real people, real sadness, real misery, real illness. It’s not charts, graphs, numbers or science that will convince people. It’s establishing a moral truth that matters.

Early on the in pandemic, the television news was almost nothing but emotion. Stories about young people, children, and key workers getting sick and dying. People weren’t interested in ‘the science’. They were interested in how awful the virus was and how scared they were of something happening to them or a loved one. How different things might be now if there had also been regular stories in the news about people who had lost a loved one due to a failure to get medical treatment, people sent into downward spirals of depression due to social deprivation or job loss, children whose development has been damaged by lack of education or socialisation, people with severe mental health problems deprived of face to face treatment, and so on? Maybe this is the sort of thing that is now required, in recognition that this war has been lost, but that others will follow.

Stop Press: A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests the reason those of us who question lockdown restrictions are treated with such contempt is because efforts to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 have become moralised. That is, people don’t assess the efforts of governments and scientists to mitigate the impact of the virus as they would any other policy, weighing up the costs and benefits. Rather, they regard the minimisation of loss of loss from COVID-19 as a moral imperative that outweighs all other considerations. Ethan Yang has written an interesting comment piece on this study for the AIER blog.