Just thought I’d post an interesting sub-polemic Against Empathy, by ace Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, which I read last year when the world was a different place. I remember thinking, in that phantasmagoria we call 2014, that while I wasn’t convinced at all by Professor Bloom’s application of his firm stance against the false guide ’empathy’ in the political sphere, on the everyday personal and/or professional sphere his argument seemed more solid. I especially liked the importance of the distinction between ’empathy’ and ‘compassion’. The article didn’t disappoint when Buddhist practitioners appear, their brains being scanned by psychology labs to find out what conscious compassion looks like, as brain data.
One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.
The gathering storm
Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.
As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:
there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”
In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020
Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.
Herd it through the grapevine
Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “
He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”The Guardian, 13 March 2020
Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.
Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.
Their finest hour
In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:
all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary
Silver linings, unexpected consequences.
The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.
Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:
Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.Hunter, D. ibid.
Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:
Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.
Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.
One from the archives for you today. I’ve never been a fan of watching sport, with one exception: Sumo. A couple of years ago I recorded some Sumo commentary, as a pilot for a series that never took off, mainly because I couldn’t find a good source of footage for the non-contact psychological conflict that forms the initial stage of any sumo bout. This section can be considered most important, but it’s often unseen.
I released the video on select social media channels, but not publicly. However, someone mentioned it yesterday and I thought it was worth re-cutting and airing. So here for your pleasure is my commentary on three bouts from the first day of the November 2017 basho.
In late 2015, after physically healing an injury I’d sustained in midsummer, I was looking for some psychological healing experiences. Laughter, of course, is often called ‘the best medicine’ and there seems to be some truth in this. I discovered laughter yoga, which I found an excellent tonic.
What’s the medical evidence for this? Somewhat inconclusive it seems. We know laughter produces endorphins, and seems to involve the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus and the amygdala. In other words, it’s ancient, something laid down early in our primate evolution, and indeed laughter has been observed in other primates.
On the other hand, there’s some evidence the cortex is involved: there’s a cognitive component. This makes intuitive sense. I’ve been told I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I will laugh or smile along with the rest of humanity at funny cat videos, but I also laugh when others do not. For example, I recall watching the 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in my view an underrated film, and finding it hugely funny in the way it uses American cliches and mythologies to satirical effect. You can’t find that funny without a certain level of cognitive sophistication. My co-watchers were confused as to what I found so funny, while I found the film a fresh look at America. Christopher Hitchens was inclined to consider irony one of the consolations for the losing battle we are all fighting, and something he couldn’t live without; I’d agree irony and wit are precious jewels, producing such satisfying smiles.
Laughter seems to have evolved as a survival strategy for both individual and social health. There’s evidence it relieves stress, boosts the immune system, helps keep a healthy heart and blood flow, and even reduce allergic reactions. It may extend life. It also has social benefits, improving relationships amongst humans. It can also be used to reinforce social isolation of particular humans while improving bonding amongst those who join in the laughter, thus reinforcing shared social norms. The object of the laughter thus plays an important role in those relationships.
In these times, anything that can help our health, particularly the immune system, as well as improve social relationships, has a value that perhaps should not be understated. So I thought I’d share with you three videos that have made me laugh a lot recently.
Thinking about the first example, I guess this is a case of laughing at someone else’s expense, in this case Liam Gallagher’s. And who better? Here’s Sacha Baron-Cohen, on an American chat show, with a very funny story about him:
Chat shows, in amongst the tedium, can provide some spectacular moments of wit and humour. I’ve always been an admirer of Graham Norton. His early forays into the chat show format on Channel Four I thought constituted a quiet revolution in the chat show format. The way he re-focused the format away from the guests and onto the audience, facilitating their participation in the conversation, was very clever. Using early internet humour to widen the tired chat show format into something that could comment on our wider culture, stands as a genuine advance in the form, and he’s partly responsible I think for bringing internet culture to the mainstream.
Here are two examples of humour, again at someone else’s expense. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks seize a golden opportunity to make fun of David Walliams, who runs with it beautifully.
My final example is an example of self-deprecating humour, but also perfect timing. Lee Mack tells a very funny story of how he got sacked from Pontins, so perfectly told it even has John Cleese doubled up. Mack apparently regarded this as one of the proudest moments of his career:
Laugh every day, even if you don’t want to. One thing I learned from my laughter yoga experiences is that simulated laughter brings many of the same health benefits as the ‘real thing’, and can easily lead to ‘real’ laughter in ourselves and others.
Laughter, in fact, has been called one of the most contagious things known to humanity, and usefully is transmittable over a distance of more than two metres. Along with orgasm it’s also one of the most effective natural analgesic mechanisms available to us. Perhaps in addition to collectively clapping for those on the front line, we could engage in collective laughter at those responsible for the current crisis, as a way of excluding them from society, and improving social bonds amongst the rest of us?
We have nothing to lose but our pains.
This post’s featured image is copyright Amauta Fotografia, used under license.