The witch-hunting of those who criticise the response to coronavirus is chilling – and dangerous.
Two nasty ailments have gripped Britain in recent days. The first is Covid-19. The second is intolerance of dissent. The authoritarian instincts of the chattering classes have been on full display in this crisis. You can see it in their daily pleas for Boris Johnson to turn the UK into a police state. You can see it in their sneering at people who visit parks or take a walk on a beachfront. And you can see it most disturbingly in their implacable rage against anyone who deviates from the Covid-19 script and asks if shutting down society really is the right thing to do. Like medieval scolds, they brand such people dangerous, insane, a virus, accessories to manslaughter. ‘Shut them down!’, they cry, thinking they are signalling their concern for the public’s health when really they are advertising their profound contempt for freedom of thought and critical debate.
In an emergency, freedom of speech doesn’t stop being important. It becomes more important. The vast majority of people accept there will be restrictions on their everyday freedoms in the next few months. They know they won’t be able to socialise very much and will have to stay indoors for long periods of time. We accept this because, in contradiction of the anti-masses hatred coming from the media class at the moment, who are fuming over photographs of what they view as thick, ignorant scum walking in parks, people actually have a strong sense of social solidarity. They are concerned for the health of their friends, families, community and society. They accept restrictions to that end. But even in a moment like this there should be not a single restriction on freedom of speech. The right to dissent from the middle-class apocalypticism enveloping the Covid-19 crisis is the most important liberty right now.
And it’s a liberty under threat. The speed and intensity with which questioning extreme responses to Covid-19 has become tantamount to a speechcrime is alarming. I had a taste of it this weekend, when I found myself in the eye of a storm over a Spectator piece I wrote questioning the wisdom of closing pubs. Peter Hitchens did too, after he wrote a Mail on Sunday piece questioning the Covid shutdown of society. Others who have wondered out loud if the freezing of social and economic life is the right response to this novel new virus have been hounded, shamed, reported to the Silicon Valley authorities. David Lammy calls us insane and dangerous and says our words should be unpublished. Unpersoning will be next. Questioning the lockdown will see you blacklisted from polite society.
How swiftly we become McCarthyites. How naturally intolerance comes to that section of society that thinks it knows best. Partly, of course, this is always its default mode. As we know from the past couple of decades of social shaming, No Platforming and outright state assaults against people who are deemed to hold hateful or wrongthink views, the new elites are not exactly friends of freedom of speech. But the rising tide of Covid-19 censoriousness also suggests that these people think that when things get serious, when society faces a genuine threat, then freedom of speech becomes a negotiable commodity. Words potentially become dangerous. Bad ideas can lead to loss of life. So police speech, shame the dissenters, silence the ‘virus’ of incorrect thought. This is as wrong as it is possible for someone to be. It is precisely moments like this that show why freedom of speech is the most important value in a civilised, democratic society.
Right now, our societies are doing something historically unprecedented. They are asking us to change our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable just a couple of weeks ago. Some European societies have completely shut down. This week the UK will likely introduce a Coronavirus Bill that will give our government extraordinary power over individuals and public space. The right to question this is essential, for two reasons. First, because we should never feel comfortable with restrictions on freedom. Even if we accept them as short-term measures in a mass act of social solidarity to protect life, they should still make us bristle and balk and constantly ask questions: ‘Why is this necessary? When will it end? When will the Coronavirus Bill be repealed?’
https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/03/2 ... -of-covid/
Arnold J. Toynbee