Boris Johnson did not impose lockdown in March. He is imposing it now, moment to moment. And moment to moment the resulting spiritual and psychological harms are being reinforced as we all internalise the protocols of the “new normal”, and collude in the creation of a sinister world in which we are expected to suppress our natural habits of association. These harms cannot be quantified. They are therefore invisible to even the best scientific models, let alone the Heath Robinson contraptions our Government seems to be in thrall to.
The wearing of face masks on public transport may or may not be of epidemiological value. But that cannot be the whole story. We are not talking of an extra item of clothing. The face is a primary engine of social interaction, and to compel us to cover it up is an act of spiritual vandalism. In The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton argues that the face is metaphysically ambiguous. It is part of the body but also transcends it. Our smiles, frowns and other expressions remind us that we are not just bodies but also persons. That we are not just objects in the world, we are also perspectives on the world. The face, he suggests, allows us to relate to each other as subjects, as one “I” engaging with another “I”. The reason why wearing a face mask seems strange has nothing to do with it being a novelty. It is because it is unnatural, in the sense that it goes against our nature as persons.
If people wish to wear a mask, then of course that is up to them. But when a Minister looks into a television camera and announces that we must muzzle-up in public then that he is helping himself to social capital that doesn’t belong to him. He had better be pretty sure that the medical benefits are worth it.
And speaking of the constitutionally eccentric decision to govern us by press conference diktat what, exactly, is the legal status of these restrictions? The entrepreneur Simon Dolan has launched a legal challenge to the Government’s impositions, and seems to have extracted a clarification from government legal types. The schools, they are whispering, were never instructed to close; and the anti-social distancing measures are not rules but guidelines. I am not quite sure how a legally enforceable “guideline” is different from a rule, and this has the stench of Jesuitical legal equivocation. But it is worth making the point that had the Government decided to operate on the basis of guidelines, and not rules, then we would be in a far better place now. At least in terms of our psychological well-being.
Guidelines are invitations to the rest of us to co-operate in the achievement of a healthy social order. When you issue a guideline, you are allowing the people you intend to guide to develop their own habits of response. When you issue a rule, on the other hand, you are demanding obedience. And when those rules are by their nature at war with our status as social animals, then the harm you are doing is, literally, incalculable. The Prime Minister decided to lock us in a room, “for our own good”. Is it any surprise that some of us do not want to come out again?
There is a very modern assumption that all harms are physical and that to live is just the same thing as to be alive. The Government continues to operate according to a grubby calculus of mortality, the purpose of which is to preserve as many lives as possible. But that is not so much a policy as a worldview; one which is eminently disputable. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it seems incapable of thinking its way out of it. Its attachment to lockdown seems to have become theological. Mr. Johnson is willing to fight a virus by insisting on a radical revision of the natural rhythms of human life. A conservative Prime Minister has concluded that the “old normal” is not worth conserving. Extraordinary.
The intangible harms this lockdown is generating are overtaking its medical justification. Society is not a machine that can be paused; it is an organism that needs to be nurtured. The Government should not be looking for evidence that its restrictions/rules/guidelines/whatever can be eased. It should be asking itself, moment to moment, whether they can be justified.