Teaching Fear by Example?

June 02, 2020

It’s difficult to write any controversy surrounding Corona Virus without a criticism of one being perverse or even callous in one’s attitudes. The fact of so many people having died and counted as a number as they died, has in its way prohibited the acceptance of any thought or idea which might be taken by the more severe and judgemental amongst us as being detrimental to the memories of the dead.

A borderline case might be exampled. One of the Scientific Officers assisting the government in one of the recent Daily Bulletins had said that the attrition upon the elderly and especialy upon the infirm elderly in Britain, has been such that it is reasonably possible to expect next year’s death figures in care homes to see a fall from the average levels.

This observation has the sanction then of official statement. It is an uncomfortable statement emotionally, although as a straightforward statistical projection it is a sound one. Thus it is a good example of the problem of respecting the memories of the dead, yet at the same time telling ourselves truths about this recent situation.

Another item of contention, one not so astringent as is the former, but instructive nonetheles, is the question of whether masks should be expected to be worn, or maybe not?

Today in the news there was an item about German policy in this regard: that German schoolchildren are to return to their studies, at least some younger children are - I believe? These children shall be wearing masks by government policy.

I want to skip over the question of whether masks are effectual and exactly what they are efectual in doing in the struggle with Corona Virus. The question is an important one – but it is important for deciding the medical value of masks – and this is not my present concern here.

The Official UK version is that masks can assist in preventing their wearers from infecting others nearby them. My wife, an ex nurse, adds that masks cannot prevent others in close proxinity to a masked carrier of the virus – from possible infection - especially when such a masked person sneezes or coughs sharply close by.

Masks may be OK for normal breathing and for preventing passing on any infection from the wearer to others. Let’s settle for that - for argument’s sake.

The truth of the case in the minds of most wearers of masks I contend and believe. is rather different. I do believe many wearers are wearing masks in the hope that masks can at least somewhat prevent their wearers becoming infected.

I say this simply because it is common human nature to chose to protect oneself in the first place, and others thereafter. This outlook in one akin to that of Victorian Self-Help, and to Adam Smith’s dictum of paying regard to oneself innuring to the general good of all.

These two kindred outlooks even today and generally are widely accepted and acceptable as being valid and sound.

It takes a special kind of person to wear a mask in the first place for the sake of others – a surgeon or a medical person maybe – and perhaps then only when on duty?

Our Lord said “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend”. Since The Lord Jesus considered this act to be the pinacle of loving self-sacrifice, and considering how very difficult it is for any of us to come close to following many of even his somewhat lesser precepts; it seems to me to be reasonable to supppose, as I argue, that masks are worn by their owners for the reasons I have offered.

Let us assume so.

This present debacle at its ground level reduces to a contest between humankind and the virus. Both humankind and the virus are of the natural world. So it is a part of the natural world set against another part of the natural world. A Kingdom set against itself – I have written about this theme before now.

Humankind has in its toolbag the fields of scientific research and understanding, in so far as that reasearch and understanding is sound and capable of assisting humankind in this conflict. We do well to remind ourselves that some things, many things, perhaps more than are considered as known by us, are in fact unknown to us. The fields of sciences are no exceptions to the truth of this fact.

So humankind in its special armoury of science holds only a partial and incomplete bag of tools to be wielded against the virus. There remain so many unknowns that any preventative or curative action or supposition is at best only liable to a degree to be effectual. Further without there having been adequate trials and testing of any treatments, they will not have had eliminated from them to the greatest practicable extent those risks of complications ariising from their application as treatments; and which in the normal course of their production as treatments would have been taken in hand.

This situation means that treatments to a greater or lesser extent are gambles, and it is a question of setting the risks of administering them as treatments against the particular need for them and their potential benefits. In extreme cases it is as we say in our proverb: “Any port in a storm”

This level of doubtfulness about whether mankind will contest succesfully against the virus generates a level of fear arising out of its presence and power; and it is this fear, plus the inherent fact that scientific interventions are always modifiers of what might loosely be called ‘the natural course’ of the virus throughout the world; these two considerations, and maybe some few others, are leading the peoples of today into supposing ‘nature’ to be an adversary,. Under a banner of evolutionary dogma, perhaps even nature as being ‘red in tooth and claw’.

When a friend or a family member is infected it is difficult to remain emotionally neutral about the virus,and nor, by extension, about nature itself. One sees from day to day persons who have suffered and some who have suffered loss from the spread of the virus; and of course whose pasions run high and are levelled at targets, persons, or nations, policies, actions, which could not have had anything but at best a very remote bearing on the fact of their recent losses.

News stories carry items of this kind. The news people are wise not to point out the inappropriate nature of the complaints or of the targets of the complaints; but still the news people broadcast these kinds of stories as being of and in ‘the public interest’. They thus have cake and eat it too – a story to catch the heartstings and an aunt sally to throw stones at, and no-one heartless enough point up the incongruous disconnect between subject and object in the stories.

The complainants under such emotional turmoils and pressures can be forgiven much more easily than can the news vendors, whose vocation is to gratify salaciously their audiences with such news items.

But ask yourself – what sort of messages are such stories offering to their general audiences? That it is OK and good to vent one’s pains and grief at any useful but not reasonably culpable aunt sally? Even when the aunt sallys concerned are may be indeed culpable for other and not-related misdemeanours.

Masks. Masks are an intervention, then, and in so far as they take effect, are a modifier.

If we allow scientific actions to be called interventions which modify ‘the natural course’ of things; and then if we allow psychological studies to be a discipline of science; we might conclude that wearing of masks are an interevention which not merely modifies physical events and situations; but that wearing masks intervenes and modifies the psychological states and situations of the wearers and also of those persons who are perceiving the wearers of them.

This argument seems to me to be sound.

Let’s now bring together our arguments. We said that our view of science together with the fears arisen out of awarenes that unknown factors are at work, have together placed the natural world in our common apprehensions, as being the adversary We said that scientific acts etc as interventions act to modify situations; and that for the science of psychology and the mind this is the case also, just as it is for physical states.

The question I want to examine now therefore arises naturally: What effects do wearing masks in school have on the young infant children in Germany? Put another way we might ask: What messages are we sending to those children about the nature of the world and our human place in it?

Recall I said we, being part of nature, presume to be antagonists against it; that the practices of science have encouraged this outlook in our minds. We are inmates of a house divided against itself.

Now I said also that most people wearing masks I believe wear them in the first instance so as to protect themselves .

Can you do the arithmetic and conclude what kind of messages we are sending to the infant German schoolchildren?


  • Nature is a hostile force
  • Be afraid of natural things
  • You need defences against it
  • Masks will help protect you

More specifically:

  • You cannot be sure of the air you are breathing
  • Look after yourself first
  • The people in charge say you must wear masks
  • I am safe in a mask

and lots of other similarly unsettling things

Now I am not arguing that ‘nature should take its course’. I am arguing about:

  • The degree to which we should intervene and so modify
  • The disjunction between practice (wearing masks) and theoretical actualities (concerning masks)
  • The actually demonstrable disproportion between use of modifying interventions and the levels of risk
  • The inappropriteness of the measures being taken, even as given by authorities’ and by scientists’ own standards
  • The costs in fear and apprehension involved in the common outlook on nature as hostile; and which being encouraged
  • The expectation that the fuction of science is to be there to defeat en mass __natural incursions

There is more too.

As a final example of these trends on display in the life of today and across many nations, I want to raise the situation of flooding in the UK. Flooding occurred last year 2019 and years immediately previous.

The general outlook has been solid, but is is beginning to change. It is that floods are to be prevented and fought back against by interventions. Flood defences at great cost have been built and their builders have been seen to have failed in their intentions.

Repeated and severe floods in the same local areas have occurred in recent years.

The interventions of farmers, foresters, dredgers, landowners, which have contributed to the flooding problems have been off the official table - not up for consideration.

Having cleared lands for them to have become grouse moors, golf courses, garden city estates and such; plus deforestation of hills and uplands; plus halting dredging; plus continuing to build housing and premises beside known rivers which are liable to flood; plus poor groundwater drainage - and add to all these other man-made hazards of industrial interventions, made without due thought and aimed at business purposes – and together you have the things historically which have led us to where we are today regarding flooding.

The idea that nature should be allowed to claim back some sway, by us allowing some land to become or revert to say fen and moor, and thereby taking some pressure of susceptibility to flooding off other parts of the nation – this tradeoff is now beginning to be seriously considered.

Nature is not to be fought back at and laid low. One boils a pan of water and when one fails to allow steam to find an escape the pan then blows and scalding water goes everywhere - can cause injuries.

Nature as partner is better. Give some slack to nature and she will repay you. Fight her you will certainly lose. Nature knows more ways around our situations for defence than we know how to build them. And likely she always will.

Confrontation breeds solidarity rallied by antagonism. When the ‘enemy’ is not a human army, the push back against our incursions is inevitable, a Newtonian type reaction, and in the nature of things.

We do not need so much to repopulate The Isle Of May or The Highlands or Exmoor with geese, otters, deer, which had been hunted out precviously by men (mostly); thus fixing our general mess with sticking plasters.

We need to repair our attitudes; embrace our human place as being part of nature; as a species like all others living in alliance with nature; able to live only by means of the accommodations of nature; so that like in marriage, we accept nature, in so far as it is humanly possible ‘for better or for worse’ and divorcing only upon the occasions in which the laws of ultimate survival operate

This recent few months having seen the closing down of much of our trade and economic activity has allowed nature its head - even in our urban deserts. More songbirds, more flowers, and greater varieties of flower and bird and insect. Cleaner more tasty air; silence, no road noise, a slower more measured pace to our lives and a sense of having a more solid settled life.

It has thus been proved that much of what we make, buy, sell, provide is not needed and it is these excess items which have beenforcing the pace of our lives during ‘normal’ times. Yes, I know and understand that many people have lost money and are struggling because of that.

Nonetheles the birdsong in the tree and the sweet air in the street are not to be sneered away as being ‘responsible’ for this their losses and the sufferings of these people.

Because our economic system has been held in abeyance, and as a result these persons are in need and are suffering; none of this is a case for saying we must get up and running ‘as you were’ as soon as possible.

This late eventuality has shown that there are other ways to live by – we have lived through some of them recently. All the people who have been left in jeopardy by this crisis and who live here in UK might be found better lives and sources of income ; income which is not tied to manufactures and service provision of items which have been serving only to clutter our lives and minds, by their focussing our lives on hard anxiety.