Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The Minefield of Life

Each time we leave the house, we expose ourselves to risks that could ultimately shorten our lives. Even within our own homes, in fact, there are countless things that could harm us, from the shower to a stepladder to a loose floorboard. We don't dwell on these risks because, on some level, we understand that trying to mitigate them would be more trouble than it's worth. We accept a degree of uncertainty in exchange for the benefits it brings.

When this cost/benefit analysis is laid out in stark terms, it can appear quite brutal. For instance, slashing the speed limit would probably prevent thousands of road deaths each year, but we allow those deaths to happen because we value the convenience of getting about at speed. Just because we don't obsess over these risks or think about them in such utilitarian terms doesn't mean they don't exist, nor that tacit trade-offs aren't being made.

If we over-thought all the potentially dangerous situations we subject ourselves and others to daily, we'd become neurotic. We would end up fixating on the costs of our actions, because they appear, on face value, more significant than the benefits, which look shabby and selfish by comparison. We would fail to see the disadvantages of not taking that risk, because they are often hidden in the maze of infinite regress that flows from every course of action.

Most of us think of ourselves as decent and compassionate, so if we were asked whether it is acceptable to sacrifice a few thousand lives for the convenience of driving at more than 20mph, many of us would instinctively say no - especially if the question was posed in such emotive terms. We wouldn't necessarily consider the benefits of driving more quickly: the greater productivity it offers, the way it helps vital supply chains, the advances in vehicle safety it has brought, the ability to visit loved ones and see places that would otherwise be out of reach.

When the question is framed as a choice between selfish desires and saving lives, these considerations are sidelined in favour of a simplistic moral equation. Our attention is drawn to costs we'd not previously considered, because to do so would have had us wondering if this, then why not that, and if everything, then life is not worth living. As long as the issue in hand is kept front and centre, however, and no sense of perspective is allowed, then it's disadvantages appear intolerable.

What we say and what we do are not the same thing, however. People are already at liberty to drive slowly. On the whole, they choose not to because the downsides are not continually rubbed in their faces. I dare say that if a concerted media campaign was waged against driving above 20mph, which accentuated the negatives with no mention of the positives, the public mood would swing against driving any faster. This isn't to say that people are weak and impressionable - they simply form judgements based on the data and the arguments they are presented with. If those data and arguments are one-sided and are allowed to dominate the news cycle, people's judgement will be skewed.

Once the public debate is hijacked in this way, and particularly when the authorities offer their endorsement, the prevailing view becomes gospel. Conflicting evidence, however true, comes to be seen as unhelpful, and those who speak it, selfish, contrarian bores. Calling for perspective or offering analogous scenarios is considered foolish. After all, who's going to know more about the matter at hand: the people in high places, or Joe Public?

This blind faith in the wisdom of experts is partly the result of politics being contaminated by managerialism. Since at least the 1990s, social issues have been presented as practical problems with a technical fix - an approach sold as a cool-headed alternative to the ideological approach of old. Of course, many of these experts are, in fact, ideologues who hide their agenda behind a scientific veneer. The idea that problems can be fixed if only we empower technocrats is alluring to those who want to diminish the influence of individuals. The rise of this credentialed class has allowed its supporters to denounce opponents as irrational bigots. It has invited those who want to feel smarter and kinder than everyone else to enjoy a vicarious sense of superiority by subscribing to the verdict of misanthropic experts.

People often cope with the hardships that technocrats infict upon us by refusing to think too hard about the possibility that they're wrong, let alone acting out of malice. Fortitude in the face of manufactured adversity becomes its own compensation - a coping mechanism against the idea that it's all for nothing. When dissenters speak up, they aren't embraced as voices of reason, but shouted down as heretics. Better to accept the party line than indulge distressing truths.

This brings us, circuitously, to the Coronavirus. It is clear from government statistics and scientific opinion that it is not as deadly as first thought. This is obviously of little consolation to its victims or their families, but the fact remains that the eventual death toll will be comparable with that of other viruses that didn't prompt the destruction of our way of life. Significantly, there are nuances to the virus and its effects that suggest it poses little threat to able-bodied people of working age and virtually no danger to children. These should be facts of interest to everyone, yet they are scarcely discussed, not least by lockdown advocates.

If we are saying that, in spite of the evidence, we still need a lockdown (or believe the hysterical approach of the government is a better guide to the severity of the virus than its own statistics), we are prompting the aforementioned question: if this, why not that? If this crisis warrants putting the country under house arrest, then why doesn't everything that poses a similar threat? And if it does, why didn't it previously?

I suspect the answer is that no one tore those other issues out of context and forced us to examine their gruesome detail. Those deaths, many times those of the Coronavirus, remain the unavoidable collateral damage of everyday life. They might trouble us if we thought too hard about them, just as contemplating an egg can turn the stomach, but otherwise (in as much as we think of them at all), we put them down as a regrettable fact of human existence.

For many people, we have come too far and sacrificed too much to turn back now. They indulge the kabuki theatre of social distancing because to do otherwise would involve a loss of face and faith too profound to contemplate. It would turn their reality upside down. 

But reality isn't a question of faith; it's messy and brutal, and is only rendered bearable by keeping it in perspective. Life is a minefield that is best crossed by pretending there aren't any mines. 

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