The other day, I told a friend of my surprise at how 22 percent of Americans are very worried their children would die or be severely harmed by the coronavirus if they caught it, while the data tell us the risk for a child is in fact minuscule.
My friend said he wasn‘t that surprised, for, as he put it, parents worry about their children. We went on to discuss this risk in the context of other possible harms, and in the end agreed this wasn‘t really the proper reaction; children were more likely to die in a car crash, or even just by falling out of bed or down the stairs at home.
But why did my friend initially react the way he did?
In a guest chapter in Dr. Robert Malone‘s new book, Lies My Gov‘t Told Me, security specialist Gavin de Becker discusses how certain dangers become more prominent in our minds, precisely because they are hard to conjure and understand; we tend to focus on the worst case scenario, essentially a highly unrealistic, but also a highly scary possibility. De Becker takes an example from an old interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci to explain this. The subject is AIDS:
“The long incubation period of this disease we may be starting to see, as we‘re seeing virtually, as the months go by, other groups that can be involved, and seeing it in children is really quite disturbing. If the clos econtact of the child is a household contact, perhaps there will be a certain number of individuals who are just living with and in close contact with someone with AIDS or at risk of AIDS who does not necessarily have to have intimate sexual contact or share a needle, but just the ordinary close contact that one sees in normal interpersonal relationships. Now that may be farfetched in a sense that there have been no cases recognized as yet in which individuals have had merely casual contact close to or albeit with an individual with AIDS who for example have gotten AIDS…”
Fauci carries on in the same manner; I‘ll spare my readers the rest of it. But what is he actually saying? In de Becker‘s words: “There have been no cases of AIDS spread by ordinary close contact. But the message people understandably took away from Fauci‘s fear-bomb was quite different: You can catch this disease by less than intimate contact.” As we all know now, Fauci‘s speculations were completely unfounded, but it was fear-mongering like this that drove a prolonged wave of fear of gay men. And as we see, what gives rise to the fear is not the actual message – no spread by ordinary close contact – it is the unfounded, and thus meaningless speculation of possible, might, perhaps …
Why do we panic over a message that in essence doesn‘t tell us there is anything to panic about? Why do we let unfounded speculation drive us mad with fear, even when the speaker acknowledges no facts support his guesswork (“no cases recognized…”)?
As Mattias Desmet explains in The Psychology of Totalitarianism, there is a fundamental difference between the language of humans and the language of animals.
An animal establishes the bond with another animal through the exchange of signs, Desmet says, and those signs “have a well-established connection to their point of reference … the signs are generally experienced by the animal as unambiguous and self evident.” (69) On the contrary, the communication of humans “is full of ambiguities, misunderstandings, and doubts.” The reason is how the symbols we use “can refer to an infinite number of things, depending on context. For example: The sound image sun refers to something completely different in the sound sequence sunshine than in the sound sequence sundering. Therefore, each word only acquires meaning through another word (or series of words). Furthermore, that other word, in its turn, also needs another word to accquire meaning. And so on to infinity.” The result of this is that we can never “convey our message unambiguously, and the other can never determine its definitive meaning. … That‘s the reason why we so often have to search for words, so often struggle with saying what we really want to say.
The ambiguity in our messaging is part of the human condition. It can never become completely overcome, but we can still limit the consequences it has. We do this through discussion; that‘s how we clarify, how we increase the precision of our messaging. The ability to discuss and to reason is uniquely human; animals convey clear messages to each other; the clarity of their messaging means there is no need for discussion, no need for reasoning.
As humans, we are cursed by the ambiguity of language. But at the same time this very ambiguity underlies our ability to discuss, to reason. It is our ability to reason that allows us to clarify our messaging and our understanding of other people‘s messaging. And reason also makes us capable of scrutinizing statements and exposing logical fallacies. In fact, as Australian journalist David James points out, in a recent Brownstone article, this is key if journalism is ever to get out of the rabbit hole it has fallen into, after journalists gave up resisting lies and deception. “To counter the tidal wave of falsity,“ James says, “two things suggest themselves. They are the analysis of semantics and the exposing of logical fallacies.“
It takes training and exercise to become good at analyzing complicated cause-effect logic. I know, for my day job is training people to do it. Most people never go through this training, even if we all really should. But out of the two things James suggests, the first is something we should all be able to do, even without any training in logical thinking: We can all try to make sure we understand correctly what we read or hear. “What does this really mean?” is the first question we must always ask when reading a text. Looking at Fauci‘s text quoted above, it contains at least two statements. One is a factual statement: There have been no cases of contagion spread by ordinary close contact. The second is a hypothetical statement: Contagion spread by ordinary close contact may be possible.
Once we have established what the message means, the next step is to ask: “Is it true?” Is the statement supported by valid evidence? Out of those two statements, the first is supported by facts, the second is not. This means the first statement is valid, the second isn’t. We won‘t catch AIDS by hugging a patient. Your gay uncle isn‘t dangerous.
This is how rigorous reasoning helps us weed out wrong and irrelevant statements, how it helps us distinguish between fact and fiction, based on how the purported facts fit with what we already know for sure, and how they add up; if they are coherent; if they are relevant in the context. But if we do not think, we react to unfounded fear-mongering, precisely in the way de Becker describes.
Shortly before the Covid panic struck, I spent a month in India. While there, I visited a small village in Gujarat to take part in the inauguration of a school library we had been supporting. Everyone I met with, from the Dalit farmhands up to the mayor, agreed on one thing; the importance of education. A couple of months later, the village school had closed; all schools in India had closed. And this wasn‘t all. The poor, who lived hand-to-mouth in the cities, had to leave; they were forbidden to make a living. The 14-year-old kid who used to bring tea to our office left. We haven‘t heard from him since.
Many perished on their way to the countryside, from hunger, from sickness, from exhaustion. Those who made it to their villages were often barred entry. Why? Because of the mad fear that had gripped the population, just like everywhere else in the world. Even if in India in 2020, mortality from the coronavirus was minuscule.
When I first heard the news, I thought of this 14-year-old chaiwala, his life, his hopes, his dreams being destroyed, I thought of how his fate was symbolic of the fate of the hundreds of millions sacrificed on the altar of panic. This became a turning point for me personally. I went all in to fight the panic, fight the fear. Having clearly envisaged the devastation that was in the cards, I felt I had no choice.
For panic on this scale is dangerous; it is devastating. And in the end, there is no difference between burning witches out of fear of sorcery, and locking down whole societies due to wildly exaggerated fear of a virus. In both cases, unfounded fear leads to utterly self-centered behaviour, it prompts us to ignore others, or worse, to sacrifice them, in a misguided attempt at protecting ourselves. And in both cases, people lose their lives.
At the heart of panic lies despair. Despair, in the Christian sense, is when one gives up the hope for salvation. This is why despair is the sin that cannot be forgiven.
What would be the equivalent for the modern atheist? When someone decides not to have children, out of fear that the world is coming to an end; this is despair. When someone severs all ties with other people, ceases to take part in life, out of fear of a virus; that person despairs.
Religious or atheist, despair is when we give up on life. It is a negation of life. This is why it is an unforgivable sin. And now we clearly see the moral importance of critical thinking: Our language is incomplete, our messaging is ambiguous. Unlike the animal that knows for sure, we never know for sure, we always need more information, we need discussion, deliberation; we must talk and we must think. Without thinking, we succumb to irrational reaction to whatever hits us, ignoring all but ourselves and the object of our fear; we succumb to despair, we abandon life. This is why, in the end, thinking is a moral duty.
It is in this light that we must view Dr. Fauci‘s fear-mongering in the 1980s and how it severely harmed an already ostracized minority. It is in this light also that we must judge the authorities all over the world who relentlessly pumped out panic-laden, often knowingly false propaganda during the past three years, in order to provoke fear and despair, while deliberately silencing and censoring all attempts at promoting a more balanced and healthy view; how they stifled critical thinking. And it is in this light that we must view the disastrous consequences of this conduct, and how it first and foremost harmed the young, the poor; our smallest brethren.
This is their crime of crimes, their unforgivable sin.
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