Regular users of social media will be aware that there are polarised opinions about how the UK, and many other countries, have responded to the threat posed by the novel virus, SARS-COV-2. At one end of the continuum are those who staunchly believe that the COVID-19 restrictions (lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine passports) were, and continue to be, necessary to prevent even greater carnage from what they regard as a once-in-a-lifetime viral threat, even arguing that restrictions should have been stricter and imposed earlier. At the other pole are people (like me) who typically argue that the COVID-19 threat has been significantly inflated, the restrictions have caused far more harm than good, and vaccine passports are both unethical and unnecessary. Between these opposing views, however, are an intermediate group – probably comprising the majority of the UK population – who rarely share their thoughts about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, at least not to anyone outside their homes. It is the future behaviour of this ‘silent middle’ that will determine the kind of lives we, and our children, will face in the years to come.
The silent middle
It is reasonable assume that most of this intermediate group harbour some concerns about the country’s direction of travel, as we incrementally lose our basic human rights and freedoms, and descend into a China-style surveillance society. What kind of life do we want for future generations? The state rarely surrenders powers it has acquired. It seems implausible that people in this silent middle are totally on board with recurrent lockdowns, permanent travel restrictions, mandatory masks and coerced vaccination. However, if our political leaders do not hear more dissent from the general public, I fear we are heading to a dark place where each human being merely comprises an anonymous cog in a huge state-controlled machine.
The silence of some people will be a direct result of fear, the consequence of a concerted government effort – as directed by the state’s behavioural scientists – to ‘nudge’ us towards perceptions of inflated risk of a virus that, for the large majority of the population, does not pose a significant threat. (In a previous blog, I’ve offered a ‘COVID-propaganda detox plan’ to help people recover from the consequences of these scare tactics). In contrast, many in the hushed middle appear to be banking on this dark new world being a transient phase that will shortly blow over; their mantra might be something like, ‘Keep my head down, avoid hassle, and life will soon be back to normal’.
The Canadian investigative journalist, Julius Ruchel, eloquently refers to the need to ‘break the illusion of consensus’ if we are to prevent the state’s escalating social-engineering agenda. Our governments must be made aware of the dissent among its people. The silent middle must come out of hiding, show themselves and make their views heard.
But how can those of us who already openly oppose the dominant COVID-19 narrative encourage our fellow citizens in the silent middle to make some noise?
How can we encourage more open expression of dissent?
Those already at the more sceptical pole of COVID-19 opinion have, until now, relied upon scientific evidence to try and persuade others that the dominant narrative is fundamentally flawed and, adherence to it, leads to restrictions that are ineffective and hugely damaging. But if data alone was sufficient to shift the dial of public and political opinion it would have done so by summer 2020. If you actively do the research – rather than passively absorbing the perpetual messaging from Government, SAGE and the mainstream media – the science has already demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that lockdowns and mask mandates are counterproductive, asymptomatic transmission plays a minor role in maintaining a pandemic, and there is no rational or ethical justification for imposing vaccine passports.
Rather than relying on ‘the science’ to change the minds of those in the silent middle, we must resort to psychology, the main aims – in the first instance – being to increase doubt and curiosity about the veracity of the dominant COVID-19 narrative. This is a difficult task. Strongly held beliefs, that the holders have rarely (if ever) questioned, are self-maintaining; they significantly bias the way people perceive, and make sense, of the world around them. In the words of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts’.
In the same way that prejudices are often immune to rational challenge, fixed ideas about the important benefits of COVID-19 restrictions – such as, ‘Lockdowns save tens-of-thousands of lives’ and ‘Vaccine passports are the best way of keeping everyone safe’ - distort the person’s psychological functioning in three main ways:
1. Focus of attention. From moment to moment, we notice only a very small part of what’s happening around us, the large majority of surrounding activity being filtered out, ignored as irrelevant noise. Thus, for example, a pro-lockdown person’s attention will be grabbed by media reports of potential carnage – as predicted by the likes of Professor Neil Ferguson – if the Government had not repeatedly confined people to their own homes. Conversely, the extensive real-world evidence that lockdowns appear to do far more harm than good will be ignored. In others words, we tend to selectively focus on stuff that supports our existing views while overlooking information that doesn’t.
2. Memory biases. Existing beliefs influence memory, whereby events and experiences that support these beliefs will be easier to recall to mind than those that do not fit the person’s current perspective. Thus, believers in the Government’s COVID-19 story may, for example, easily recollect the early (contrived) images of people falling dead in the streets of Wuhan, purportedly victims of the virus, while holding no memory of an article they once read about the risk of serious harm from COVID-19 being extremely small for healthy people under 70 years of age.
3. Interpretation of new information. Our day-to-day experiences typically expose us to events that are ambiguous and that can be made sense of in different ways. Beliefs that we currently hold will influence how we interpret this new information, instilling a bias that confirms our existing views. If a pro-lockdown person witnesses Professor Neil Ferguson describe another doom-laden prediction of future COVID-19 deaths the event is likely to be construed as an expert at the top of his profession sharing his wisdom. In contrast, a more sceptical onlooker will be prone to dismiss the academic’s words as yet more propaganda from someone whose academic department is funded by Bill Gates and the pharmaceutical industry.
The end result of these cognitive biases is to perpetuate and strengthen existing beliefs, to maintain the status quo. In so doing they reduce the likelihood of a scenario where a person’s current world view is at odds with new evidence – a mismatch that would evoke a discomforting state of mind that psychologists refer to as ‘cognitive dissonance’. And it is important to emphasise that none of us are free of these prejudices; those of us at the sceptical end of COVID-19 opinion must always be mindful that our own beliefs may be distorted or inaccurate and, as such, we should strive to remain open to considering information that challenges our current ideas.
Given the distorting impact that current views have on our attention, memory and the way we interpret new experiences, a central message for those of us striving to influence the beliefs and perspectives of others is: aim to encourage access to contrary and challenging information that is JUST OUTSIDE THEIR CURRENT RANGE OF AWARENESS. When those of us of a more sceptical perspective engage in debate with people with opposing views about COVID management we often make the mistake of sharing evidence and ideas that are too far away from the other’s existing viewpoint. As a result, our sceptical arguments will most likely be ignored, dismissed or distorted. A much more fruitful approach would be to encourage and enable access to contrary information that is on the periphery of the person’s current perspective.
In practical terms, how can this be achieved? How can we become more effective in our efforts to inform and persuade?
Five practical tips to encourage the silent middle to speak out
1. Always be kind and respectful when communicating with people who do not share our sceptical views. Avoid resorting to verbal abuse or ridicule. Nobody likes to be told they are an idiot or a sheep. Although personal attacks of this sort might feel cathartic for those doing the abusing, verbal assaults never change the perspectives of the victims; on the contrary, they will likely become even more entrenched in their support of the dominant COVID-19 narrative.
Also, body language and tone of voice should always be welcoming and non-threatening so as to convey the message that we are seeking a constructive exchange of ideas (rather than a fight).
2. Listen to alternative viewpoints. All of us are continually trying to make sense of this crazy world, but we can often reach different conclusions. Constructive conversations involve genuinely listening to the other’s point of view and showing curiosity about the experiences that have shaped their opinions. If someone says, ‘Lockdowns are necessary during a pandemic’, encourage the person to share more details about how they think lockdowns help and their observations that led to this conclusion (rather than instantly opposing it). Do this respectfully and in a non-adversarial way, with responses such as:
‘If you can spare a couple of minutes, I’d be interested to hear more about your views on the benefits of lockdowns’
‘The majority of people seem to agree with you. Has there been anything you’ve seen or read that helped convince you of the necessity of lockdowns?’
Resist the temptation to respond with contradictory facts and conclusions as this will instantly polarise (or shut down) the conversation and make it less likely that the other person will actively consider new information.
3. Identify areas of agreement. The Government’s propaganda machine has nefariously created an in-group (the virtuous and responsible followers of the restrictions) and an out-group (the wicked and reckless rule breakers), anyone sceptical of the dominant COVID-19 narrative running the risk of being instantly labelled as an ‘anti-vaxxer’ or ‘conspiracy theorist'. Yet in reality, irrespective of our current opinions about the COVID-19 crisis, almost everyone shares the same goal: a favourable outcome for our country and its citizens. Therefore, it can be helpful for the sceptic to highlight this unity with statements such as:
‘I believe we ultimately all want the same thing – it is just that we might have different views about how to achieve it’;
‘We’re on the same side – we both care for our children and our communities’.
Furthermore, the majority of people in the silent middle will have experienced unease regarding at least some aspects of the mainstream COVID-19 story and corresponding restrictions, so the challenge is to discover what these are. The sort of questions to identify areas of agreement include:
‘Has there been any aspect of the various COVID-19 restrictions that you have not been 100% on-board with?’
‘Over the last 20 months, has there been anything you heard from the Government or SAGE scientists about COVID-19 that you found difficult to believe?
‘Since March 2020, has there been any aspect of the various restrictions – lockdowns, ‘rule of six’, social distancing, mask mandates, limits on length of time outdoors and number of people permitted in your own home – that you did not fully comply with all of the time?’
Sharing some (truthful) personal information about one’s own change of mind can also empower someone who has bought into the official COVID-19 narrative to consider an alternative perspective without losing face. So comments such as, ‘I used to believe that too until I saw/read/witnessed … …’, can be useful.
If this style of questioning fails to identify any areas of doubt, this would suggest the individual is immune to outside influence at the present time. In such circumstances, a polite withdrawal from the COVID conversation is indicated - an agreement to differ - so as not to expend any further time and effort on someone who is highly unlikely to shift perspective.
4. Discuss these areas of agreement in more detail. When areas of doubt about the veracity of the dominant COVID-19 narrative have been identified, focus the subsequent conversation on these rather than straying into arguments that are, at this point in time, unwinnable. (For example, it will usually be more productive to debate the experimental nature of the COVID-19 vaccines rather than the merits of vaccines in general).
Encourage curiosity and – hopefully – a desire to find out a bit more. So if, during conversation, someone expresses a doubt about the effectiveness of face coverings, provide a bit more information about the lack of real-world evidence that masking the healthy reduces viral transmission. Sharing links to scientific evidence might be appropriate at this point, so long as the material referred to is simple and does not require too much effort to digest. Alternatively, using stories & metaphors to support our counter narrative can be very powerful, often achieving greater impact than facts alone – for example, personal testimonies about the distress associated with mask wearing or those relaying valid reasons for not agreeing to vaccination.
5. Encourage more contact with like-minded people. Being around others with similar viewpoints can help to validate sceptical views and thereby empower people to express visible dissent about the dominant narrative. Therefore, when it is apparent that the person harbours significant doubts about the Government’s COVID-19 story, share information about sceptical groups and forums. Useful online resources for accessing news and scientific findings that are rarely mentioned on the mainstream media include the website of the Health Advisory and Recovery Team (HART) and the Daily Sceptic. Even better, suggest the person considers joining a local group campaigning against the dominant COVID narrative, such as Stand in the Park.
If someone does opt to join a real-life group of activists, try – if possible – to ensure that the new person is initially introduced to those existing members with similar viewpoints. Campaign groups always harbour a wide range of opinion, from those concerned solely about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions at one pole to those with fully-formed ideas of a nefarious worldwide scheme at the other. Ambivalent new group members would likely be put off by hearing more extreme perspectives that are too far away from their current psychological position.
Those of us – perhaps around 10% of the population – who have already been openly sceptical about the dominant COVID-19 story will often have found the last 20 months extremely frustrating. Despite the bulk of the science supporting our side of the argument, the coalition of Government, SAGE scientists and mainstream media have relentlessly peddled the official narrative in an attempt to justify the unprecedented restrictions and human rights violations. Consequently, the large majority of the population has passively complied, apparently in agreement with the exceptionally-lethal-virus-requiring-extreme-measures story, while broadly impervious to any attempt to persuade them otherwise.
We urgently require many more of those in the silent middle to visibly express dissent about our country’s direction of travel. It is imperative they feel empowered to openly communicate - to friends, work colleagues, family members, casual acquaintances, their hairdressers, pub landlords – that they are not on board with the imposition of damaging restrictions and our slide into authoritarianism. To achieve this aim, maybe we sceptics need to be a bit savvier about how we communicate our counter narrative and I hope this blogpost will help inform the debate.
Image courtesy of Jason Leung at Unsplash