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The politics of fear is the enemy of democracy

The elite’s doom-mongering over Covid was an insult to our intelligence and our rights.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

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So now we know, they did seek to terrorise us. They did set out to scare us into compliance. It’s there in black and white in the latest Matt Hancock WhatsApp messages revealed by the Daily Telegraph as part of its Lockdown Files. We should ‘frighten the pants off everyone with the new [Covid] strain’, Hancock said to his media adviser, Damon Poole. ‘Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change’, Poole chillingly replied. And then came what must be one of the most dire and cynical utterances made by a public figure in recent times. ‘When do we deploy the new variant’, Hancock asked.

When do we deploy the new variant. They were openly talking about using information as a weapon, about ‘deploying’ horror stories on Covid to petrify the public into social obedience. This unnerving chat about manipulating the masses took place in December 2020 when the Kent strain of Covid-19 was spreading. Worried that Brits were tiring of abiding by social-distancing rules, Hancock, then health secretary, looked to his team for ideas on how to re-engineer us all back into a state of unquestioning deference. And their big idea was fear. Fear would be ‘vital’, they agreed, in making us bend the knee once more to the ideology of lockdown.

It is the breezy nature of the conversation that feels most disquieting. It is testament to how much the power had gone to their heads that they could so blithely chat about spreading dread among the people. It is a sign of how imperious the political class became during the pandemic years that they could so casually talk about dropping a bomb of fear on what they haughtily viewed as the unruly populace. We were no longer their fellow citizens, to be engaged with as sensible, free-thinking adults. We were marionettes whose strings had to be pulled; child-like creatures to be swayed this way and that by horror stories from on high. As then cabinet secretary Simon Case said to Hancock in January 2021, ‘ramping up messaging’ will be the only way to ensure lockdown compliance – ‘the fear / guilt factor [is] vital’, he said.

To some of us, it’s not a shock to discover that the elites used fear to try to bring about ‘behaviour change’. It’s been clear for a long time that making the masses feel scared, fretful, guilty was a key part of the machinery of compliance during lockdown. From those ghastly government posters showing gravely ill people alongside the words ‘Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules’ to police forces setting up hotlines so that we could snitch on neighbours who were ‘contravening’ the guidelines, they were constantly whipping up foreboding to try to keep us in our place. As far back as May 2020, the sociologist Robert Dingwall, who was advising the government, said officialdom had ‘terrorised’ the populace so much that ‘coronaphobia’ would be the next big problem. In short, dread of Covid-19 might go viral too, possibly preventing the return of social normalcy.

Indeed, some experts diagnosed ‘coronaphobia’ in our pandemic-rattled societies. A report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US described it as a socially crippling ailment, an ‘excessive’ fear not only of contracting Covid but also of ‘public places and situations’. Coronaphobia causes a ‘marked impairment in daily life functioning’, the report said. The deployment of fear often has such impairing, atomising, anxiety-inflaming consequences, in some sections of the population at least. Think also of climate anxiety, a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’, which is apparently most common among the young. That’s not surprising. Eco-hysterics have been ‘frightening the pants off them’ for years.

Fear has consequences. It is a debilitating, demoralising force. Often it is used – deployed – for precisely that reason: to induce apprehension among the public in the hope that we’ll be more likely to do as we’re told. We see this in everything from the politics of ‘nudge’ to the ceaseless doom-mongering about the climate apocalypse, all of which circumvents normal democratic politics in favour of socially re-engineering us to think and behave in the ‘correct’ way. ‘Proper behaviour change’, as they tyrannically call it.

The politics of fear is the lowest form of politics. In fact, it isn’t really politics at all. It is the antithesis of democracy. Where democracy entails reasoned discussion, the politics of fear prefers emotional manipulation. Where democracy treats us as citizens whose views matter – or it is meant to, at least – the deployment of fear reduces us to morally inanimate matter to be ‘nudged’ and reshaped and improved by those who know better. And where democracy involves the coming together of citizens to talk and make decisions, the climate of fear atomises us, alienates us, encourages us to dread our fellow man, whose spittle might be diseased and whose daily behaviour might be contributing to the coming heat death of our planet. Democracy requires solidarity; the culture of fear cannot abide solidarity.

The deployment of dread in the lockdown years was a chilling reminder that the politics of fear is the enemy of democracy. Rather than galvanising the public in a free debate about how to deal with the threat of Covid, and engaging our skills and wisdom to help care for the vulnerable, the fearful elites decommissioned us, essentially – locking us away from society and from each other. We went from citizens to toxins. The good news is that the politics of fear often doesn’t work. Yes, it induces anxiety in some, but a great many of us have retained our reason and sense of proportion in the face of the elite’s psychological terror. Our pants haven’t been scared off. It’s time we deployed our greatest weapon – our rationality and our longing for solidarity – against their low tactics of emotional manipulation and delirious belief that every challenge we face might spell the end of life as we know it.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

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