OF THE TWO great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I’ve never doubted which of the two is more sinister.
Sure, the world of Air Strip One has the Thought Police, the elimination of the English language one word at a time, constant surveillance, and the guarantee that any subversive behaviour will see you vanished into the night to be tortured using your greatest fear; but, as evidenced by the ill-fated resistance of poor, downtrodden Winston Smith, the apparatus of Oceania does at least permit, albeit accidentally, the possibility of realising that it’s an awful place to live.
The London of Brave New World, on the other hand, controls its subjects in a way that they, for the large part, seem to either enjoy or, at least, remain drugged-up enough to be ambivalent towards. This is where the savage, John, provides a useful contrast to the more ‘civilised’ individuals he finds himself surrounded by – he claims the “right to be unhappy” and he is right to do so – discontent being one of the only things that fuels change. This is what makes the totalitarianism of Brave New World far more frightening, and realistic, than that of Orwell’s masterpiece… it’s a seemingly benevolent dictatorship that renders most of its inhabitants fond of their chains.
You may be asking, why begin with this standard grade English compare and contrast exercise? Surely you passed that now non-existent exam a while ago? Well, yes I did, and others too for what it’s worth, but the benefit of having one’s mind furnished with the sinister beauty of Orwell, Huxley, as well as others like Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and J.G. Ballard, is that the essence of what they wrote remains constantly applicable, even in circumstances in which the exact detail is not directly comparable. It’s a bit like theology but without the unfortunate business of having to work with an epistemological circle that just won’t square.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it the kind of state intrusion into private life that many of us never thought, or perhaps hoped, possible. Prior to this unprecedented set of events, the idea of phrases like “lockdown” (which, remember, finds its most commonly recognised use in the American prison system), “only leave your home once a day for exercise”, and “maintain two meters distance from others” would have been the stuff of nightmares and in many cases still remains that way.
Speaking purely personally, my last memory of the ‘normal times’ is of attending the Scotland v France Six Nations match at Murrayfield. At the moment, the photos I have of that day look like they were taken on a different timeline to ours.
I have, to my knowledge, never welcomed any of the restrictions that have been put in place by either the UK or Scottish Governments. I choose the word ‘welcomed’ carefully. While I acknowledge that, for the most part and subject to the kind of human error that is inevitable in such circumstances, the majority of the response to the pandemic has been absolutely necessary and many more would have gotten sick and died without it, it certainly has not been ‘welcome’ in my life. I have, when not scared out of my better reasoning by the sheer weight of it all, gone along with it in the begrudging, resentful, bad-tempered acceptance that I normally reserved for the queue at my bank or local post office.
However, it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that there are some in our society who have welcomed and enjoyed the restrictions. Anyone who has had their mask visually checked as they pass some Karen or other in the supermarket or has been curtly asked to douse their hands in unrequested hand sanitiser will surely attest to this feeling. The internet, that vast unedited deposit of human experience, is replete with examples of these special Covid constables swinging sticks to enforce social distancing, chastising their fellow shoppers for failing to adopt approved mask etiquette, or otherwise berating those who have infringed on the rules in some small way and therefore provided a tantalising opportunity for some social capital.
In my, perhaps cynical, view these incidents are not about sincere safety concerns but are, more often than not, about that most attractive of behaviours, if we’re honest with ourselves, that of public shaming. Everyone makes mistakes, that much is true, but through the lens of an iPhone, your mistake was made by you and you alone.
To put it bluntly, I worry that there is a section of our society that – rather than simply acknowledging the need for social distancing, lockdowns, hand sanitiser, masks, and all the other faff we go along with it in a begrudging passive-aggressive way we Brits are famed for – actually like it. For them, a world of covered faces, hygiene fixation, floor markings showing exactly where to stand, and quiet night-time streets is actually rather appealing – offering as it does that noxious and intoxicating mix of comfort and rules-based order that such a person finds very reassuring.
I am, it has to be said, deeply worried about what happens with those people, and the impact they will have, as we all struggle towards a normal that they would rather we did not return to. At best, they may delay it, at worst, they’ll ensure it never happens and we’ll remain perpetually in a hospital corridor painted unconvincingly to look like a society.
To an extent, I sympathise. Fear is real and the events of the last year or so have been really scary. We’ve all felt out of control, under the influence of something far bigger and stronger than we are, and so seeking refuge in a set of rules and procedures that promise safety, or at least less danger, can look very appealing. Just because it’s understandable, however, does not mean it should be condoned – and in this case it should be actively resisted.
As I find to be happening more often as I get older, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I hope that this group is small, composed of people who are just loud but practically ineffective, and that their worldview will eventually disappear into the fringes of society as we head towards ‘level zero’ and beyond that (the sinister phrases of this pandemic really do litter the conversation, don’t they?)
I hope that wearing a mask in public will return to the purview of the crank or the motorcyclist and that brandishing hand sanitiser will once again, eventually, be treated with bemusement and raised eyebrows. However, at the moment, it feels like the hope of a man with the last of his life savings in his hand as he gazes nervously across the roulette table.
If I am wrong – which I cannot stress how much I am hoping is the case – then there will have been no reason to worry and the irony of my own panic over nothing will not have been lost on me. In that case it will have made absolutely no difference and I once again will have found myself running around the farmyard with just an acorn-sized bruise on my noggin, as I have done on several other issues in my life.
But what if I’m right? What if there are enough individuals whose inherently totalitarian instincts and rule-favouring predisposition have led them to enjoy being told how to act, what to wear on their faces, and how far apart to stand from one another? If there are, then we will have a real problem that we will have wished we had acknowledged earlier and done something about.
It is comparatively easy for government to change policy; it can be achieved with a strong speech, a vote, and the stroke of a pen. Changing, however, a pervasive, embedded, conditioned, and embattled social attitude by releasing people from a protective travel cage they have come to find comfort in and decorate as if it were their own, will – if such a group exists – be incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible.
I do not believe that the restrictions that have been put into place during the pandemic have been done simply to control people – as some of our more wacky citizens do. I’m inclined to take at face value the insistence that policy-makers have temporarily curtailed our liberty only to keep us safe, save lives, and prevent preventable illness. To me, the claims that Matt Hancock or Humza Yousaf style themselves after Big Brother – exercising control for control’s sake – are ridiculous and proof of a different kind of sinister urge entirely. However, the possibility that they, and we, have nurtured a big enough segment of the population who have manufactured their own soma out of the regulations and will not give it up is, according to my gut instincts, very real and very scary indeed.
If we are to have any kind of society to return to once this is all over, those of us who prize our liberty must make it clear that it has only been loaned to those in charge, either politically or socially, and not given away permanently. It must be stressed we begrudge, resent, and are deeply annoyed by having to go along with these measures but have done so because of sheer public health necessity and compassion for others that, while serious, is temporary.
We must also make it clear that we expect our freedoms to be returned, in exactly the same condition that they were loaned out in, as quickly as is humanly and humanely possible. If there is a big enough groundswell of popular support in this direction then the army of the scared and self-righteous, if they are as numerous as I suspect they might be, can still be defeated… ironically, for their own good. If not, then why even bother leaving the house?