Is the trade off between freedom and safety an illusion? – Professor Frank Furedi on lockdowns

Since the emergence of Covid-19 over 18 months ago, we have been bombarded with a constant influx of information. This information, the nature of which has ranged from medical to political, has had one very significant thing in common; it has instilled a very real fear in most of us. This fear could explain why the imposition of lockdowns – a concept which previously would have been met with fierce resistance – was welcomed, even praised. On July 17, an international Lockdowns Summit was held during which professionals across the world came together – virtually, of course – to present their findings on the efficacy of lockdowns to prevent and contain the spread of Covid-19 as well the ways in which lockdowns have impacted society. The comprehensive exploration of lockdowns and its unintended consequences was astonishing. Of particular interest was the presentation by Professor Frank Furedi, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of over 20 books – the most recent of which is titled How Fear Works – Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century. Furedi’s argument that one of the main drivers of the culture of fear is the unravelling of moral authority is beautifully addressed in his presentation and provides an entirely fresh perspective on the impact of lockdowns. Furedi unpacks the trade off between freedom and security that has become so perfunctory and challenges the new normal with profound insights. – Nadya swart

Professor Frank Furedi on the question of freedom:

I think in many ways one of the most important questions that all of us are confronted with, either directly or indirectly, is the question of freedom. It seems to me that increasingly we live in a world where the threat to our lives, the threat to our health, is often posed as not so much the Covid virus. The threat to our health is often posed as being caused by our freedom. So it’s people acting freely, who are moving about, people who are behaving in an old fashioned, normal kind of a way – it’s their normal exercise of freedom that is seen as a problem rather than the fact that we are confronted with a health issue. And I think this way of looking at freedom as a threat to our security goes back a long, long, long time. 

On trading our freedom for security:

The first and most important and most eloquent way this issue was raised was by Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, who developed this idea that if we would trade off our freedom for security, that under those circumstances we would all be all right. The questions he posed many centuries ago are in many ways more important now, because one of the things that we’ve all seen in recent times is that the values that people attach to freedom have very sharply declined throughout the Western world in the last 18 months. 

The belief that freedom is logically prior to every single set of values, which is in many ways the underpinning of an enlightened society, has been implicitly called into question by the way we are continually subordinating it to the value of safety. And in many ways what we have is the displacement of a freedom loving society by one that, in all but words, defies safety. That’s something I think that is very, very important to us. Remember. 

On society’s obsession with safety and security:

Now I know that some of you, and certainly some of the people that I discussed this with, often take the view that these sentiments, this risk averse sentiment that prevails in our society, this obsession with safety and security, is to a large measure due to the media. It’s in a large measure due to the way that governments have behaved. It’s to a large measure due to the way that our government and institutions work. And I think it is true, it is certainly the case that many of the institutions and governments that are around do trade in the currency of fear. 

But it seems to me it’s important to realise that just about everything that is going on at present, just about everything to do with our risk averse hostility to freedom, our risk averse hostility to going back to the old normal is based upon important cultural forces that pre existed the outbreak of covid. Almost everything that is around at the moment; all the sentiments to do with the way we are handling covid have been around for a very, very long time, but people haven’t really noticed it’s profound and long lasting implications. 

First of all, I think it’s important to realise that worst case thinking – always fearing the worst, always imagining that every dimension of our lives has to come with a health warning – has been pretty much around for a very long time. And the whole idea of the precautionary principle, which in a sense captures this, has become institutionalised over the last two decades throughout most of Western Europe and in large parts of the rest of the western world. 

I think very, very importantly, it’s important to realise that our addiction to safety – which is truly one of addiction – again, has been a profound sentiment that influenced everyday behaviour for decades now. And all you have to do is just remember that obsessive discussion around safe spaces, which has in a sense been around more or less for the last five or six years, and the willingness of large numbers of young people to embrace safe spaces, almost to voluntarily quarantine themselves from criticism and pressure – that, too, has been around. And therefore, it’s not surprising that people who wanted to quarantine themselves in safe spaces five, six years ago today are quite happy to acquiesce to a life of isolation, self isolation and of quarantine. 

On the medicalisation of existential security:

I think one of the most important developments that has occurred in Western Europe has been the medicalisation of existential security. Our very notion of security, our very ideals about safety have increasingly come under the idiom of medicine. All you have to do is just think of the way in which the definition of health and well-being has expanded and expanded over the years. Just the way in which just about every existential problem in our lives has been given a psychological or a medical diagnosis. 

So almost every bad habit that you and I might have now has got a psychological label attached to it. And I think it’s very interesting that even people who are opposed to the current regime of safety inadvertently use the idiom of medicine to protest against it. One of the things that I find quite troubling is that often when people criticise the lockdown, one of the arguments they immediately use against it is its impact on mental health. 

You know, people talk about the impact of lockdowns on the mental health of children, on the mental health of lonely and isolated people, all the while forgetting that if you use one set of medicalised vocabulary against the prevailing one, we are accepting the terms within which our existential insecurities are framed by experts and by authorities in our society. I would rather we, instead of criticising the lockdowns on the ground of its impact on mental health, we criticise it on the grounds of its impact on our freedom. It would be a much more sort of enlightened way of proceeding. 

On the ‘new normal’:

One of the other cultural forces that has been around and is profoundly influential now and in the future is the idea of constantly lowering our expectations; particularly of young people, particularly in education – not just in schools, but also in higher education – where we are lowering our expectations to the point that many of us have adopted inadvertently the attitude of fatalism. We’ve become very fatalistic. 

So instead of seeing ourselves as the subject of our destiny, we see ourselves as the objects of forces beyond our control. There are all these global forces from global warming to global terrorism to the weather, which are continually sort of determining how we lead our lives. And once you begin to adopt this cultural idiom of fatalism, then of course the vocabulary and the philosophy of the new normal makes a lot of sense. 

Because what is the new normal? What is the underpinning of the new normal? What is the message that is conveyed by the new normal? It is basically a message that says, ‘Do not expect to live in accordance with the freedoms that you enjoyed a decade ago or two decades ago.’ In other words, the new normal for you and I is a worse normality than what we’ve been used to in the past – in a sense, a very clear sensibility that communicates and expresses this fatalistic view of the world. And I think that’s in a sense really quite important for us to realise.

On the way in which our belief in freedom has become compromised:

I think one of the most important things, that often has escaped our attention because it took place under the surface and it evolved bit by bit, is the process through which, in our culture, freedom has been transformed into a second order value. I don’t know if you noticed it, but if you look at the way in which in recent decades freedom is discussed, it’s almost as if it’s emptied of meaning. 

I remember giving lectures in the United States where some of the students quite self-consciously hurled in my face the words, ‘Freedom is just a right wing idea’ or ‘Freedom of free speech is just hate speech’. In other words, their view of freedom was something that was entirely negotiable. And how many times have you heard people talk about, ‘I believe in freedom or I believe in free speech, but…’ 

And it’s what comes after the but that becomes really, really important. And if we think that freedom is negotiable and if we think that what comes after the but is really more important than freedom itself and if we, for example, believe that it is right to curb free speech in order to protect people from offense, if that’s how we see the world, then of course, what we really are saying is the right not to be offended trumps the right to be free. 

If you pause for a second, then you begin to realise that one of our most precious given intellectual and philosophical resources that we fought for over centuries, which is that of freedom, has become thoroughly compromised before the pandemic. And if you take a step back, it’s almost as if the pandemic that erupted 18 or 19 months ago was waiting to happen. It was almost as if there were these cultural forces that created the conditions whereby these sorts of forces could erupt and could begin to occur. 

On the tradeoff between freedom and security throughout the last few decades:

I think that you all know that throughout the decades we’ve been debating the tradeoff between freedom and security. It came up after 9/11 and people argued that we should give up our freedoms in a number of areas in order to protect ourselves from terrorism. It comes up quite a lot in the discussion around global warming, where people basically tell us that we should subordinate our free lifestyles in order to protect the environment. 

It has dozens and dozens of different forms of expression. But what’s really important about the idea of the freedom and safety trade off is the idea that in some shape or form, if you and I are living freely – then we are threatening health and safety. And that’s basically the premise. And therefore, the obverse of that is that if we curb a little bit of our freedom, if we agree to have less freedom, then we will feel more safe and will become much more healthy. 

On the way in which we’ve traded in our freedom for safety since the emergence of Covid-19:

Let us pause for a second. Just think back to the experience of the last 18 months. We have fairly systematically traded in freedoms for our safety as the governments would have it. We have given up our freedom of mobility, our freedom of socialising, our freedom of being involved as citizens in public life. Just about every important freedom has been traded in in exchange for safety. 

Now, do you or does the public feel safer today because of the fact that we’ve traded off all these freedoms? Is it the case that throughout Britain people are walking around saying, ‘Oh, I feel really safe, I feel really secure. This has been a brilliant experiment in social engineering.’ Is that what they’re saying? Or are they saying today, at least a significant section of society, ‘Yes, the lockdown hasn’t been all that bad. Yes, I can live with quarantine. Yes, I can adopt a lockdown lifestyle, bring it on. Let’s have lockdowns into the indefinite future because I don’t really feel safe.’ 

Let us pause for a second. Just think back to the experience of the last 18 months. We have fairly systematically traded in freedoms for our safety as the governments would have it. We have given up our freedom of mobility, our freedom of socialising, our freedom of being involved as citizens in public life. Just about every important freedom has been traded in in exchange for safety. Now, do you or does the public feel safer today because of the fact that we’ve traded off all these freedoms? Is it the case that throughout Britain people are walking around saying, ‘Oh, I feel really safe, I feel really secure. This has been a brilliant experiment in social engineering.’ Is that what they’re saying? Or are they saying today, at least a significant section of society, ‘Yes, the lockdown hasn’t been all that bad. Yes, I can live with quarantine. Yes, I can adopt a lockdown lifestyle, bring it on. Let’s have lockdowns into the indefinite future because I don’t really feel safe.’ 

And if you, for example, listened to the Today program this morning, you find all these people in the northeast of England saying, you know, ‘I think we should have masks for a very, very long time to come. I don’t feel safe when I go out in the street and people don’t wear a mask. I don’t feel safe when I get on the tube or on the bus. I don’t want to go to work because I don’t feel safe.’ 

And therefore, the point I’m really trying to make is that rather than making us safe or making us feel safe, our loss of freedom, which is an indirect way of losing our agency or power as human beings, actually has made us far more insecure and anxious. And I think what human history has shown us over the centuries is that every time we give up a bit of our freedom for the illusion of safety, we don’t become safer. But if anything, we become even more obsessed about our safety and it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the more you’re thinking about your safety, the more you organise your life around being safe – the less safe you are. I mean, that’s the irony. That’s the paradox that we should be able to have learned from our experience so far. 

And therefore, the conclusion, I think, that we have to draw from this is that, in a sense, it’s not freedom that makes us unsafe, but it’s the very opposite. I think the task of people like ourselves at this conference is to get across a very simple message – a very, very important message; that trading in freedom does not make people feel genuinely safe. 

We need to get across the message that it’s when we act as free citizens, when we dare to leave our homes and go out and go into the public spaces and engage with one another, that we begin to feel a sense of solidarity, gain strength from each other, that, really, security comes into its own. Safety and security are accomplishments. They are gained when human beings interact with one another. 

Of course, we have a very real problem with the virus. Covid is a very real threat. But the way we deal with it is by giving people more opportunities to exercise their agency to kind of come together, to work together and begin to discuss what are the appropriate solutions that make sense for their circumstances. 

On challenging the establishment of the ‘new normal’:

It seems to me that what we have to come back and argue, and this might seem very reactive or old fashioned or weird, is the very, very, very simple idea that, for us, the old normal was good enough. That for us, the old normal was the product of centuries of intellectual and political and scientific struggle and achievement, that the old normal is not something that we just simply give up in order to fatalistically embrace the advice of experts who can decide for us what normalcy will be. 

Because what is normal should not be the product of people discussing normalcy in a laboratory. What is normal should be the product of debate and discussion between people like you and me. 

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