Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

I have developed another reason to be suspicious of the promised “freedom” supposedly being unrolled in stages upon Britain’s lockdown. This arose from inadvertently catching a part of Boris Johnson’s announcement of next week’s partial changes, which I usually try to avoid. It was something about being able to hug people as long as they’re the people you’ve been hugging already for months… your children, for example.

The concerning aspect was how he presented the whole shebang not as a removal of compulsory restraints that are no longer necessary (because of vaccines, herd immunity, seasonality etc), but as the stage at which the necessary pedagogy of the all-wise state over our ignorance should be replaced by a responsible adulthood, now that we have been taught the Good Way.

And so even the hugging was presented as sensible hugging, the implication being that one will not actually do more of it than is really essential, in order to stay safe. And we’ll make sure we’re looking away from people’s masked faces, presumably, as we hug. With mere acquaintances for example, or non-essential workers, one would certainly not be thinking of replacing a chaste elbow nudge with a handshake, whatever the science has shown about the rarity of transmission from contact. Listen to the presentation yourself – the whole emphasis is not so much on any alteration of behaviour to come, but in a change from legal coercion to self-regulation of the same risk-averse behaviour.

Now, it is a commonplace that over the last 14 months our minds have been deliberately moulded by the government’s Behavioural Insights Team. Their role has gone far beyond the well-publicized SAGE minutes of last year in which they advocated increasing public fear in order to gain compliance to unprecedented measures whose actual wisdom was never examined. As a useful article by the former chief psychologist of Cambridge Analytica points out – surely a poacher turned gamekeeper – the whole new industry of “psychological nudging” introduced under the Blair government takes for granted that the government’s ideas are always right, and that public “hesitancy” (to use the new nudge-word for vaccination doubts) is always due to ignorance, laziness or other wrongthink.

This is odd, when one considers public attitudes to politicians, who regularly rank lowest in the “trustworthiness” scale. Opinions on the trustworthiness of government behavioural psychologists are seldom sought in polls, but it would be perverse to trust someone whose raison d’etre is to get us to comply unconsciously with politicians we don’t trust. In any case, why would we not assume that they had nudged us into trusting them anyway?

Once one begins the business of government by psychological manipulation (and as I mentioned, it began long ago under Blair), then what confidence can we have in any Prime Minister’s promise that from next month we will be truly free of government control of our behaviour? Until some morally aware Prime Minister denounces and abolishes the whole Behavioural Science approach, the default assumption must surely be that we are considered safe enough to be trained by the nudge, and not the whip.

Another new article reminds us that, to the contrary, our instinct that people seek to govern others because they crave control is correct, and it is only effective democratic counterbalances that keep us from totalitarianism and render governments, on balance, benign. You will recall that such controls have been notably absent across the world throughout the pandemic, not least in Britain. Despotic use of power by politicians large and small has become rampant, confirming our instincts. The use of behavioural psychology compounds the problem in a more sinister way by using the organs of state to remove at source any opposition, by changing our very thinking unconsciously. This is a major aspect of the “propaganda state” I describe in Seeing Through Smoke.

So how does this apply to our release from lockdown? I’ve noted before how the propaganda of fear has continued unabated even as the “dates, not data” agenda unfolds (still announced, spiting four-finger reality, as “data, not dates”). It’s not that social distancing will end on such a day, and mask-wearing on another day (or even that it won’t, for specific scientific reasons). Everything is kept in doubt up to the wire, however clear and reassuring the data. So the initial proclamation about the end of restrictions was later qualified by hinting that masks may remain necessary (why, exactly, is it not possible to decide that now, if hugging can be promised next week?). Yet on Tuesday the usual “bad guy” Matt Hancock told us that abolishing the mask mandate is not off the table, though not definitely on it (but note there is still no explanation of any criteria for such a decision). Today it’s definitely on the table, according to “Whitehall sources” in the Mail… but the same paper informs us there’s an emergency meeting of SAGE today because the Indian variant they couldn’t prevent from crossing from the other side of the world might need to be locked up in Manchester. And if that fails… well, maybe it’ll be data, not dates again.

The net effect is that of nudging us, certainly deliberately, to remain fearful of an invisible menace which many people have still not experienced amongst their acquaintance 14 months on, even mildly. Even if and when laws and guidelines are relaxed, we are being primed to take maximum precautions in order to be “responsible,” to “be kind,” to “stay safe,” and no doubt to save the NHS too. The subtly unstated message there, of course, is that if you actually exercise your freedoms, it’s quite probable that you’re revealing yourself to be one of the selfish people who caused all the grannies to die in the first place.

At one level, this is just insurance for the government’s COVID policy. If anything should go wrong and more COVID deaths (or more depressingly “cases” if they continue their obsession with testing) should occur, they can blame it on those who took the opportunity of relaxed regulation as a licence for unspecified irresponsibility, just as they did when blaming those who ate out because the government encouraged and subsidised them to do so last year.

But it also increases the government’s real ability to control us, by reducing the necessity for coercion, with all its possible political kick-back. They can simply delegate enforcement to the compliant masses who neither know nor care that they are being manipulated, and who are happy to keep consuming bread and circuses via their data-collection phones, and feel virtuous at the same time. There is no need to censor reporting of mass demonstrations when there is no legal lockdown against which to protest. And there is no need for control-not-consent police to truncheon and handcuff dissidents when the public itself dons brown shirts.

Let me put some flesh on this. Currently, most of us who know the ineffectiveness of, and harms from, mask-wearing put up with it in shops for the sake of keeping the peace in a temporary situation. It’s a relatively small lie to live for a short period. Those who refuse to do so report mixed reactions. In a few places nobody seems to care. But most have been harassed by good citizens in useless face-coverings accusing them of putting other lives in danger. Some have been physically evicted by supermarket management, and a few have had altercations about their rights with police or support officers. None of that makes for a free and peaceful life. If the message is subliminally put across that it is still the right thing to wear a mask in public, the legal mandate being unnecessary now because the lesson has been learned by responsible citizens, then much of that situation will remain unchanged indefinitely. The censorious will have been given a licence to be COVID vigilantes.

And the “masks still good” message might well be put across quite explicitly by Johnson, or Hancock, or Whitty (it need only be the offhand remark of one of them to make the headlines) at the momentous “Now you are free!” press-conference in June. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to conceive of such a presentation not containing a strong element of “Don’t blow it.” Even today, Johnson is quoted as saying the pandemic is at its height… though only yesterday the modellers were downgrading their projections for a third wave. For a green government, ours uses an astonishing amount of gas lighting.

The same societal compulsion would apply if, as another example, vaccine passports are made voluntary for landlords, event organizers and other businesses. If companies are as easily intimidated as they have proved to be into endorsing unpopular woke causes, it certainly won’t take many irate customers complaining about having to mix with malicious walking biohazards in Man U scarves to make such passports the norm everywhere.

I have to say that the situation is likely to be as bad, or worse, in church life, where consideration for others, especially hypothetical “weaker brethren” is a clear moral teaching, rather than a utilitarian psychological tool exploited by the Behavioural Insights people. It is just as exploitable by government for all that, and more so because church, as I am finding daily, is not currently a good venue for teaching the medical science of the issues. It is equally difficult to raise interest even in the matter of the mind-games to which we are being subjected by the BBC, the politicians, the NGOs and so on. Propaganda, after all, works, until the people find it’s too late.

I don’t think this scenario of mine is any less plausible than the outlandish projections of the Imperial College modellers back last year, on which current policy is still based. If it occurs, it will have at least two effects. The first is to polarise society even more into the socially-compliant good guys and the “far-right racist conspiracy theorists” etc who think for themselves and wish to act rationally and freely within a true moral framework. Secondly, because of the ramping up of the suppression of freedom of thought and action, using an ideologically-conditioned population, the current crisis in mental health will escalate, because living by lies kills.

How we need to focus on living that biblical truth in spiritual freedom!

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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