‘To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.’
Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
What happens to a society when it prioritizes safety over freedom? We’re finding out.
Victoria Balutel “The fear”
Safety First is a slogan all schoolchildren learn. Kids are natural risk takers. We have to learn to be careful, it’s partly what our parents are for. I was not especially daring as a kid. I took ages to climb a tree compared to my sister who was up there in thirty seconds flat. But at least I was allowed to climb a tree; to discover the limits and strengths of my own body, to understand that to be afraid does not mean to die, to get down on my own albeit with bruised and quivering knees. When I think about what I was allowed to do, tearing around on my bike without a helmet, the scrapes I got into, the lack of safety features on pretty much anything, the “do what you want but be back by teatime”, my childhood must seem like the Twelve Labours of Hercules to most first world kids today.
The novel coronavirus is not a patch of wet leaves on a subway staircase. It is a worthy adversary. For me this is personal. I contracted Covid-19 last winter and was in bed for a month. It has taken the health of some of my dearest friends. We need to take action to protect ourselves and others. These actions can include many different features: social distancing, masks, vaccinations, being careful in crowded closed spaces, airing rooms, getting more sunlight, exercising, eating less carbohydrates, boosting our immune systems, exploring prophylaxis and therapeutics, keeping up with the latest science, and public messaging campaigns. All well and good.
But it has reached the point where our fears are driving policies that seem less and less about public health and more and more about social control. There is a question that each of us needs to ask ourselves, and we need to do it soon. Probably today. Where do you draw the line? Where is the point at which you would say, “enough”?
I do not believe in absolute liberty (except perhaps in a soteriological sense). There are times and circumstances when it is necessary to override liberty for the greater good. But such interventions must be used sparingly, like a very strong spice, or else it will ruin the dish. In our desire to create robust protections from the the virus, are we in danger of ruining the dish, of exposing ourselves to risks that in the long-term pose an even greater threat–that of unwittingly aiding and abetting the rise of authoritarianism?
We had already become so risk averse as a society, even before the latest pandemic, that we had become incapable of managing fear. Tolerating fear is an important survival mechanism. It allows us to keep our executive functions running while others panic. It allows us to discover what we’re capable of in challenging times. And it allows us mount a considered and reasonable response to threat. When a society tries to remove all risks, to codify and regulate every aspect of social intercourse, to strap our kids up like Michelin men so they don’t suffer a scratch, then we – as individuals and as societies – become chronically anxious and feebleminded, defining ourselves by our vulnerabilities instead of our abilities.
Frank Furedi, How Fear Works
‘…the defining feature of the current Western 21st century version of personhood is its vulnerability. Although society still upholds the ideal of self-determination and autonomy, the values associated with them are increasingly over-ridden by a message that stresses the quality of human weakness. And if vulnerability is, indeed, the defining feature of the human condition, it follows that being fearful is the normal state.’
It is helpful to consider the different ways in which the nervous system responds in the face of threat to better understand our own reactions to events around us. The job of our nervous systems is to keep us alive, to help us to avoid danger, or if faced with danger, to survive it. Our primary sympathetic response to danger is motivational, meaning that everything in our experience is telling us move; to fight off the threat before us or to flee from it. When the threat is overwhelming and we have no ability either to defend or escape, another more ancient fear response comes into place – freeze. We’ve all seen this on nature programs, when the gazelle goes limp after being attacked by a lion. A mouse does the same thing when attacked by a cat. We call it ‘playing dead’. It is actually a survival mechanism and humans do it too. Have you ever felt frozen in fear? I have. It is the strangest thing, like an out of body experience. You want to get away, but you can’t. Your body is rendered immobile. This is your nervous system trying to protect you from a threat that it has perceived as life-threatening. All the blood rushes to your vital organs to protect them, away from your legs. All your energy goes inside. You literally shut down.
Just as we experience two primary expressions of the motivational fear state — fight or flight –there are also two principle expressions of the freeze or demotivational fear state; withdrawal and fawn. During the course of the pandemic we have seen evidence of a mass freeze response event that has been triggered by sympathetic overload as our nervous systems struggle to manage the levels of stress from the constant signaling of danger coming from our surroundings. The withdrawal response manifests in depression, hopelessness, lack of motivation and lethargy. The fawn response to threat manifests in submission, appeasement and defeatism. It is what motivates people to try to make bargains with tyrants, or even to mimic them. It is the stuff of every dystopian novel ever written. It is also the stuff of our own not so distant past.
There are certain realities that we most likely need to at least begin to face. One is that the Covid-19 vaccines have not been the panacea we’d hoped they would be. Incredibly useful and important yes, protecting the medically vulnerable from serious illness and death, yes, but we know they are losing their efficacy. We also now know that vaccinated people can just as easily infect others as unvaccinated people, something that we didn’t expect. Another is that the emerging variants, even perhaps the Lamda or Mu, are likely to become vaccine resistant sooner or later or at least resistant to the vaccines currently available. Experts are increasingly talking about the unlikelihood of reaching herd immunity even in places with high vaccine uptake. It is also unlikely that we will be successful in eliminating the virus. We might need to learn to live alongside it, they say, like we have with the flu. For those who want them there will likely be shots available on a seasonal basis. Lastly, we can no longer afford (if indeed we ever could) to ignore serious investment in the study of repurposed and new prophylaxis and therapeutics alongside vaccination drives, that can both prevent and treat the illness at various stages of severity.
Facing such realities, if they turn out to the be case, will be an important part of our personal and collective development, and will require acceptance, courage and innovation. If we can adapt to this world without losing our heads and with a willingness to take more personal responsibility, we might have a chance to pass through this time with our agency and dignity more or less intact. We might even end up with a world worth handing over to the next generation. The alternative is to retreat even further into our tribes, our bubbles, our careless anomie.
What can be difficult to notice is that our habituation to fear is already creating a new world that is taking shape before our very eyes. It is a world that is aging us before our time, shrinking us down into hunchbacked mouth-breathers jumping at shadows. It is making us mean and bitter and cynical. And it is turning us slowly but surely mad, because deep down we know we have made a lousy bargain in giving up all that makes the life worth living for a level of security that doesn’t even do the job of making us feel safe. It is a world of ‘no’s’ and ‘don’ts and it is ruled by nannies in jackboots.
Every authoritarian government justifies its policies based on providing protection from the fears of the people it dominates. Fear encourages individual and group submission to authority which then encourages that authority to expand its scope of control in a feedback loop that can shift a society relatively quickly from one that is relatively liberal to a police state. In this cycle freedom loses its value and even can begin to be treated as a burden. As Frank Furedi observes, ‘Relieving people of the burden of freedom in order to help them feel safe is a recurring theme in the history of authoritarianism. We only have to look at the increasing levels of control enacted by governments during the pandemic. Censorship justified in the name of curbing misinformation, increased surveillance and monitoring in the name of protecting our health. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedom to make our own health decisions. Where do we draw the line?
Perhaps you agree with Youtube and Facebook censoring content. Maybe you don’t care, you don’t watch Youtube anyway, or perhaps you trust them to make the ‘right’ decisions. Perhaps you don’t know how far the censorship has gone, and you only post photos of your pets on Facebook anyway. “Take that QAnon nutters,” you might think. But how do you feel about the police being able to change or delete your social media posts or alter your browsing history, or monitor all of your online activity? Less happy about this? Well, this law has just been passed in Australia. It’s called the Surveillance Legislation Amendment Bill of 2021. Still, you say, it’s not directed at me. It’s for other people. But who gets to decide who those ‘other people’ are? What if environmental activists or human rights activists are targeted with no recourse to appeal since the legal institutions that would have formerly provided democratic protections have all been bypassed?
I hear people say things like, “Now is not the time for freedom, it is the time for sacrifice.” This is a noble sentiment. Sacrifice is indeed required. But the phrasing implies that freedom will be there waiting for us when we’re ready to pick it up again. It is unlikely to be the case if history is anything to go by. Those of us who are concerned about the current erosion of civil liberties are not unconcerned about the pandemic. It is quite possible to be concerned with both. Try it and see! What evidence do we have that once these freedoms are taken away they they will be returned to us? What process do we have in mind for winning these freedoms back? Or do we think that governments and their agencies are simply going to hand back the freedoms they took as simply as replacing a faulty product on Amazon?
If you think that the people demonstrating against the Covid-19 restrictions passed by governments are misguided, then at least be honest and admit that you don’t care what the answers to any of these questions are. I hear people talking about human rights and democracy as if they were some luxury product, like an expensive French perfume, rather than the very foundation of any decent and worthwhile society. I’ve heard people complain about those who demonstrate for “their freedoms” as if such values were something irrelevant to them; freedoms for which their ancestors suffered and died to wrest out of the hands of those who would withhold them. Maybe they have become institutionalized, maybe freedom has become too much of a burden to bear. How annoying that we have to keep so vigilant, generation after generation. Why won’t it just stick like superglue instead of sliding all over the place. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let the whole thing slide? When I hear the resignation in people’s voices, I think, “It hasn’t become personal for you yet.” But by the time it comes knocking at any of our doors, it is already far too late.
The truth is there is no safety. It is a myth. There is always something to contest with, some level of threat. We may feel like gods but we are mortal, after all. It is how we manage danger that determines who we are, the values that we bring to bear in the struggle. What we become, what we refrain from becoming. It is our values that keep us tuned to something larger and more precious than our own personal concerns. The myth of safety has caused us to forget that death is part of life. It is the death of the spirit that we should fear more. But there is nothing more important right now than to keep that spirit alive.