By Ben Harris
I am not a gestalt practitioner, and so I thank you for providing me the opportunity to write here. It seems to me that we sometimes emphasise our differences and sometimes our commonalities. Whilst there are of course important distinctions in how different modalities deal with the unfolding experience of therapy, I am sure that our shared interest in human dynamics and healing engenders a perspective that unites more than divides us.
Christmas and the New Year period invite a reflective state of mind. I find myself thinking back on the period since March 2020 during which Covid has dominated life, but the dynamics laid bare by this period also lead me to think further back into my own past to my turbulent teenage years. But first let’s deal with recent events.
We have lived through an unprecedented pandemic that has officially claimed 150,000 lives in the UK and about 5.5 million lives globally. Some of us have lost loved ones to this serious respiratory disease. But we have also lived through a period when governments imposed unprecedented restrictions on the warp and weft of everyday existence: the flow of life. Have these restrictions, which have forced people apart and into a more isolated mode of existence, been justified?
Global deaths represent approximately 0.07% of the global population. UK deaths with Covid are about 0.22% of the population. The UK figures are probably overstated because they include anyone who died within 28 days of a Covid diagnosis, whatever the cause of death. The global figures may well be understated due to poor diagnostic capacity in some parts of the world. In the UK, the median age of death with Covid is 83 (1). This compares with current UK life expectancy at birth of 78 for men and 82 for women. The Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis estimates a global median infection fatality rate of 0.23% for Covid from his meta-review of infection fatality rates (2). This could be on the low side, but not by too much – some other credible estimates suggest an IFR of around 0.5%. It is estimated that 95% of all people who died with Covid up to March 2021 had at least one comorbidity (3). This is germane to the question of whether people are dying “with” Covid or “of” Covid. Do these facts and the pandemic narrative contradict one another? That must be a subjective question for each of us to answer for ourselves. We should, however, be aware of misinformed public perception – for example, only 30% of Americans correctly understand that the case mortality rate of Covid is “less than 2%” (4) (a high figure in any case). The mistaken belief that Covid is a highly lethal virus may undergird much support for the unprecedented policy choices which governments in the developed world have imposed on their societies over the last two years.
Fear, isolation and total solutions: a vicious circle
We might ask what our highest goal is. Is it avoidance of death, or is it the pursuit of living life in the unknown amount of time we have allotted to us? Of course, to fully live we need relationship. A great deal of fear has stalked the land over the last two years. Many of us have, either throughout or at the beginning, found ourselves making the desire to avoid death paramount – to keep ourselves separated from one another to protect ourselves or vulnerable people in our lives. There were lockdowns, there were encouragements to limit social contact, and there were masks.
It’s very difficult to say how many lives lockdown saved (or how many years of life lockdowns saved, given the generally elderly nature of those susceptible to Covid). Professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial told us 1.6 million lives were saved in the UK. If that were true then the case in favour of lockdowns would seem unarguably correct. But his case revolved around him positing a 4% IFR, which is, politely, extremely high at 6-17 times credible estimates (5). The Department of Health and Social Care suggested that ultimately the loss of quality adjusted life years from lockdowns would exceed these losses attributable to Covid (6). Lies, damned lies and statistics. Perhaps ultimately it is a matter of personal prejudice. We tend to like statistics that support our pre-existing preferences. In any case, it seems to me that the medical, social, psychological, and developmental costs of lockdowns have not been given sufficient weight in the media and political discourse on Covid. Some estimates suggest that 900,000 people in the UK alone were pushed into poverty between 2020-21 by Covid containment policies (7), and whilst it is expected 700,000 of these will be pulled out of poverty this year, that remains to be seen. Undoubtedly these experiences will leave scars on those concerned. We will be counting the cost of delayed medical appointments and treatments for years to come, and there are suggestions from a Brown University study that masking children in schools may have contributed to a retardation of average developmental progress by the equivalent of 23 IQ points from 2018 to 2021 (8).
We might think of compulsory mass masking as a few different things: an intervention of limited effectiveness in reducing Covid transmission (9) with an uncertain small to moderate impact (10), certainly. An act of solidarity, perhaps. But we might also think of them as UK government advisor Professor Robert Dingwall described them: “a symbolic reminder that people are dangerous, the world is dangerous, and you might feel safer at home. They create a sense of threat and danger, and that social interaction might be something to be anxious about. So mandating masks can feed the fear.” (11) We might wonder if the silent pandemic of fear, deliberately promoted by the behavioural scientists of the government’s SPI-B committee (12) in order to staunch the transmission of the virus, has been every bit as influential as Covid itself in providing the impetus for driving us apart from one another for the last two years.
Causing a society to become fearful is an extremely powerful tool. But it can have unintended (or sometimes intended) consequences. Terrible things have been done by groups of people in a state of fear throughout history. The Belgian psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Joost Meerloo, in his seminal work on totalitarian methods of control of mass populations, wrote that fear is a highly effective tool of mental coercion that kills individuality and promotes a manipulable group think. This group think seeks to punish dissent as a manifestation of the individual ego. People in this state wish to be “part of a huge mystic social organization that protects against threat and distress, in oneness with the leader.” (13) This is a mystic condition because it is unreal.
All totalitarian systems – by which we mean systems devoted to specific goals without limit, and systems in which every aspect of life is politicised in the service of these goals – operate by degrading connections between ordinary citizens to diminish the bonds existing in civil society. The state becomes the nexus, the organiser of social relations, taking over from spontaneously-generated community networks. Such systems always have a policy goal to make us more alone in the sense of real authentic relationships, even as they promote an ersatz unifying cause as a salve to the aloneness they produce. Either that, or the goal is groped towards unconsciously. It is interesting to me how common it is for people imply that if certain outcomes to policies are “unintended” then that means that these outcomes are irrelevant. What is conscious and unconscious is a delicate interplay. Does it really matter if enormous harms are perpetrated whilst sleep-walking? If similar policies of isolation, promotion of fear and promotion of scapegoating keep being sustained in many places can we really say that this is unintentional, even if it is slyly perceived at the foggy edge of our rulers’ awareness?
Fear tends to reduce us to the fight/flight/freeze/fawn state. Put another way, fear promotes aggression, withdrawal, immobilised restriction and obedience. To my mind we have seen all of these behaviours encouraged by the state since March 2020. Aggression against the unvaccinated, lockdown sceptics, and mask-refuseniks. If someone is a “granny-killer” don’t they deserve whatever they get? And more, perhaps. The London Evening Standard ran an article in December with a headline describing unvaccinated people as a “lethal liability we can ill afford” (14). What kind of florid language is this? Where does it lead? What do you do with lethal liabilities? Withdrawal from the common life – who can forget the slogan “stay home, save lives?” And obedience? Well, who can imagine prior to March 2020 needing to hang on the every word of politicians’ earnest, stern speeches on pain of being arrested and made criminal for undertaking everyday acts?
Psychology Professor Mattias Desmet at the University of Ghent has suggested that Covid biopolitics leads to what he calls a “mass formation”, echoing Meerloo, whereby individuality and independent thought is relinquished to the “mass” (15). The conditions for such an outcome are fourfold: A lack of social connection, a lack of meaning making, an increase in free-floating anxiety and an increase in free-floating frustration and aggression. These conditions existed before the pandemic, with the death of religion, an increase in gig economy “Mc-jobs” and technology’s fraying of genuine connection, but Covid has certainly exacerbated these issues. The culture’s mass media promulgates an object which the generalised anxiety may be attached to, and then offers a strategy for dealing with it. Participation in the strategy creates a new social bond and renewed meaning in individual lives and the culture. The object of aggression becomes firstly the virus we are “at war” with, but then, more satisfyingly, the aggression focusses on those who don’t adapt their meaning-making to go along with the newly-manufactured narrative.
These political impositions on the ordinary course of life in the service of the Covid containment narrative, and the social and psychological dynamics they have encouraged, have created something of a closed loop: Fear justifies more restrictive measures, which promote isolation, loneliness, and a sense of threat, which in turn keeps us in fear and in dependence on the state and its measures for psychological safety. All these dynamics act to maintain the cohesiveness of the mass formation. How will erstwhile free societies break out of this loop?
The personal is political
When I was a young man I was a very political animal. I was a staunch socialist and I believed that my view on any given social or political issue was right, simply by dint of me thinking it. I was a good person – more, a righteous person, and so those who opposed what I believed and what I willed were, by definition, stupid or bad.
I was an angry, bitter and resentful young man. Obese, disembodied, highly focussed on the world of the rational mind and operating in the black and white thinking of Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position (16). I was disconnected from myself, and therefore necessarily from others. I oscillated between a sense of self-important grandiose superiority and a guilty and ashamed feeling of worthlessness and inferiority. A typical dynamic for someone with narcissistic traits in their character style. I was lonely because I couldn’t be real with myself or others.
I don’t aim to flagellate myself for public sport; I wasn’t so bad, and the gauche, pained young man was able, over time, to heal his body and mind sufficiently to strike out onto a new path of life-long growth and exploration. But I do want to tell what I think is an instructive story.
I was involved in my University Labour Club and the local Labour Party at this time. There was a council by-election for Oxford City Council in a pretty, leafy, somewhat bohemian part of North Oxford which Labour had previously held. As a precocious and self-righteous teenager I entertained no doubt that Labour would hold the seat. After all, how could anyone possibly not support the Labour Party? I threw myself into the campaign, leafletting and canvassing. In the event, the Liberal Democrats won the seat from Labour. I didn’t know what to think. I was disgusted by the moral indecency of the people of North Oxford in rejecting the Labour Party, of course. But I was also threatened by the outcome. Shocked. I came of age during the rise of Blair at a time when all Labour could do was win and win again. Blair was a bit right-wing for my tastes but I liked the winning. This was the early noughties when the shine was just beginning to come off the new Labour government. And here I was being confronted with a return to ordinary political gravity. I had invested a great deal of myself in the party and in being a socialist. We might say that in my object relations I had wrapped up being Labour with being good, but also in being a winner, strong and powerful and successful. All of these things that I didn’t feel about myself but could partake in by being part of this movement. To see it defeated felt like a personal rejection. My will had been frustrated and I was enraged and hurt.
The morning after the results came in I was wondering along a street in the ward. I passed a pretty terraced cottage with a large bright yellow Lib Dem billboard in the window, with equally vibrant yellow pansies growing in a box on the windowsill beneath. I checked that no one was approaching. And then I uprooted every single last flower from the box, tore them up and threw them on the pavement. Petty, cruel, vindictive, destructive. I recall my state of mind. It was clear to me that the Lib Dem who lived here was a dreadful human being who needed to be punished. I was going to teach them a lesson. Actually, of course, this person represented an obstacle to my will, threatening my sense of power. I was going to wreak vengeance on those who had threatened it. I reflect on this small experience these days. I feel it is illustrative of a wider force in our political culture which has stirred and now rises unchained. Something I thought I had dealt with internally now seems to me to return externally, menacing us collectively.
The political mind
The three Viennese Schools between them seem to me to have a great deal to say about human nature and motivation. Freud talked about the pleasure principle, Frankl talked about the will to meaning and Adler emphasised the will to power. Then we have what we might call the will to relationship emphasised by the British object relations theorists.
None of these competing motivations seem intrinsically contradictory to me, but we might say that some minds may be drawn more in some directions than others. The political mind is more pronouncedly motivated by the acquisition and exercise of power, mostly because many politicians find themselves in the clutches of the superiority-inferiority dynamic inherent to developmental questions emerging from narcissistic wounding. The sad truth is that many politicians are not fully in touch with their humanity, both light and dark. The exercise of power over others appeals – amongst others – to the covetous, the narcissistic, the psychopathic, the psychologically split or fragmented. Such damaged individuals feed on the narcissistic supply their positions offer. But then perhaps we elect the politicians we deserve.
I hope I have established the relevance of the little vignette of me as the agonised, frustrated young man who had put aside pleasant pursuits in favour of the search for power. I was not lonely, exactly. Although I had my dark nights. But certainly, I was alone. I did not know myself and I could not make real contact with others. I would have secretly thrilled to the idea of forcing others to their knees, weeping in the shadow of my power. I might then have believed for a moment that I was strong rather than vulnerable. As we know, this external acting out of the reaction formation of the terror of smallness can never quench the bottomless void. But some do not know this.
I am not suggesting that those motivated primarily by the will to power are the only people attracted to politics, but there is a reason people suggest that psychopaths tend to end up in parliament, the boardroom or prison. On this Meerloo states: “Becoming a chosen statesman in our era of increased human competition and increased dependence on the masses of voters builds up in officeholders qualities that are nearly psychopathic… not long ago I treated the leader of a huge humanitarian association, who was accorded much esteem by his fellow citizens, but who was a sick, psychopathic tyrant in his own family circle. His children trembled at the sight of him and developed – of course – a cynical attitude about all idealism and humanitarianism.”(17) Perhaps a good balance is not to become cynical about all professed humanitarianism, but to look at the outcomes of supposedly caring acts.
We may even need some political leaders who have ruthless streaks and who have lower empathy levels. The governance of ever-more complicated modern states is not a children’s picnic after all, and prioritisation of limited resources might require a certain degree of detachment. It is also natural for politicians to exhibit narcissistic tendencies in their character structures – no one would put themselves forward for office without a belief that they are up to the task and deserve it. It is certainly not my goal to write a sensationalist article about those narcissists and psychopaths over there whilst the rest of us pure and decent types shake our heads. That would be a self-gratifying fantasy.
And yet, the devil is in the detail, and it is all a matter of degrees. We know that living in a free society requires our leaders to restrain themselves, to accept limits on their powers over private lives and to exercise forbearance in their desire to crush or punish those who stand in the way of their will. For the society to remain free and not to become a totalised society they must therefore restrain aspects of their nature that have pushed them towards seeking political power in the first place. But they have helped to create a dynamic where a significant part of the population has entered into a mass formation which demands their limitless action and protection.
Adler didn’t think of the will to power as intrinsically evil by any means. It was the primary positive life force for him. For Adler, the will to power was conceptualised as moving beyond the inferiority/superiority oscillation. The issue with the perfectly natural will to power defined in the more Nietzschean sense emerges in my view when there is an imbalance (in many cases a lack of empathy). Saint Thomas Aquinas and the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck (18) in their own very different ways defined evil as a lack, and I sometimes wonder if we should start talking about evil in the therapeutic space. Peck thought there were very few genuinely evil people, but that they were defined by a profound and catastrophic lack of empathy.
Politicians ply their trade in part through the judicious use of projection, either their own or manipulating others into the use of projection. If one can define the hated other and then offer a solution to it/them, that will buttress one’s electoral coalition against “the enemy”. In this case, a split mind that is unable to see a more nuanced reality clearly becomes an asset.
It’s all very well talking in theoretical terms, but why am I going on about the will to power, evil and lack of empathy in relation to the psyches of the political class? It is because I see a sickness much greater than Covid infecting many societies, including our own.
Acts of punishment
These recalcitrant, selfish, stupid, evil people who refuse to take a vaccine. Some of them in the NHS no less! Over 100,000 of them! They need to be dealt with. We will “piss them off to the end” as Macron said a couple of weeks ago. These people are “often racist and misogynist extremists” as Trudeau says.
There are indeed currently about 100,000 NHS staff who have declined to be vaccinated for Covid. The government estimates that they will sack up to 73,000 doctors, nurses, psychotherapists and support staff in April because they won’t have been vaccinated.
There are somewhere between 5 million (by ONS figures) and 11 million adults (by NIMS figures) in England who have not been vaccinated for Covid. These people, right or wrong, for whatever reason, have made a personal choice that frustrates the will of the political class. Are people entitled to retain their own judgment or should they subsume it within the mass? The answer of many governments is clear.
Quebec will be levying a “substantial” new “health contribution” fee on the unvaccinated. In Canada as a whole, the government is removing social security payments from unvaccinated people who lose their jobs for not being vaccinated. If you are unvaccinated, it is illegal to board a plane or an intercity train in Canada. In Austria, vaccination is to be made compulsory in April under threat of up to £3,000 fines every three months, with imprisonment to follow if fines remain unpaid. In Greece, unvaccinated pensioners will receive a fine of EUR100 a month. Unvaccinated people can’t go to restaurants, bars, pubs, cafes or any other than essential shops in a swathe of European countries. In some countries they can’t enter many supermarkets to buy food. Everyone else has to show vaccine passports to indicate their compliance with state policy. In Lithuania, unvaccinated people are not allowed to leave their home to work. Unvaccinated MEPs are not allowed into the European Parliament to vote. The Northern Territory in Australia recently imposed a temporary lockdown that prevented unvaccinated people from leaving their homes for exercise. Work is increasingly the preserve of the vaccinated only. Unvaccinated psychologists in Victoria, Australia are unable to work online from home because their home counts as a workplace – and all health professionals must be vaccinated to attend a workplace. You cannot leave your home to work if you are unvaccinated if you work in most industries. Victoria also maintains an indefinite 9pm to 5am curfew for unvaccinated people, not that there is anywhere for them to go anyway. In the words of the Premier Dan Andrews “There is going to be a vaccinated economy, and you get to participate in that if you are vaccinated. We’re going to move to a situation where, to protect the health system, we are going to lock out people who are not vaccinated and can be.” Measure after measure is piled on every month in country after country. How far will it go?
Whilst it is mostly unvaccinated people currently bearing the brunt, it is not only them. The American Paediatric Association recommends compulsory masking for all infants, all day, aged 2 and up in day-care settings. Quebec operates a 10pm-5am curfew for all citizens. Australians who fall ill with Covid or are close contacts of Covid cases can be sent to quarantine camps by the state, normally for 14 days, but with the option for the authorities at the camps to extend their stay for poor compliance, seemingly with no judicial review. In Germany a limited lockdown applies; the vaccinated are allowed to see up to ten people at once, which admittedly is better than the one person an unvaccinated person is allowed to be present with.
This is just a small sample of the complex, bureaucratic, legalistic and inexorable crushing of the human spirit which in my view is going on. It has been two years now. And by some measures and for some people things are getting more stultified and controlled, not less. Reading back over what I’ve written I find it hard to believe. It leaves me feeling disorientated, struggling to comprehend the very studied yet casual inhumanity of it all. Others will feel differently, but to me there seems to be a crazed obsessional element to governments’ Covid responses. And to me, my tearing up of the yellow pansies has some light to shed.
Some of the politicians enforcing these measures have a crumbling self-image to maintain. They are not the all-powerful figures they wish to present themselves as. In many cases their lives lack nourishment, meaning and genuine connection. They live in a split world of good and bad, categorised according to what serves them. If you think about it, this is a kind of hell. Control is the life-blood for many of these damaged and pained people. The idea of a situation where they cannot grasp and operate levers of control is terrifying or humiliating to many of them. Over the medium term, Covid containment attempts have proved a failure everywhere they have been tried. Vaccines have proved effective at reducing severe symptoms for a period of four months or so per dose, but they are not effective in controlling transmission. The virus won’t do what politicians tell it. The sheer knock to their sense of self that this simple fact produces is deeply threatening to people so steeped in a mindset where the aggregation and wielding of power is their life’s work. But if the virus won’t respond to an iron fist, human beings will. They are far, far easier to control. The worst measures are reserved for those who have defied the state’s chosen method for dealing with the pandemic. But no one really escapes the authoritarian measures. We should remember that a frustrated will to power responds on a spectrum – from small measures to enormous. It is possible that the patent absurdity of the position many governments have ended up in will ultimately lead to a roll back of some of this, but equally why wouldn’t small things turn to larger things if left unchecked? Could any of us have imagined this world in March of 2020?
With the exception of Macron and Trudeau, many of the other leaders consistently say that it is very sad and upsetting for them to implement these measures; but needs must. Their hope is to “persuade” the unvaccinated to do the right thing. Which they seek to do by making it difficult or impossible to buy food, to work, and to live an ordinary life. That doesn’t sound like persuasion to me. That sounds like the use of state power to coerce. It seems to me that whatever anyone’s view on Covid and Covid vaccines, we should all be concerned by the idea of living under governments that are gaining a taste for forcing citizens to do things against their will on pain of having a hard-line, Chinese-style social credit system deployed against them.
A brief consideration of epidemiology
Are these measures normal? Are they moral? Are they practically justified? These questions are inevitably subjective, but in part they are determined by epidemiological facts. If this is a public health crisis, and if these measures will save lives and reduce pressure on the health system, then why shouldn’t unvaccinated people be restricted from engaging in ordinary life? The government maintains that vaccination limits transmission. No doubt this is possible, and there are studies that suggest this. But raw data from the UK Health Security Agency (an Orwellian rebranding of Public Health England if ever there was one) weekly vaccine surveillance reports do not suggest that infection and transmission is higher amongst unvaccinated people (19). There is other evidence to suggest that viral load (20) and infectiousness (21) is similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated infected people. More to the point, highly vaccinated countries show no reduction in Covid cases since roll out of the vaccines. There is no evidence that vaccine passports in operation in European countries, Australia or Canada (or indeed Wales or Scotland) have reduced the spread of Covid. In fact, Covid cases are up in most countries since these measures were introduced.
This is all rather uncertain. Something that is being ignored in the government’s framing of this discussion is that many unvaccinated people after being infected will have natural immunity to Covid, which is superior to solely vaccine-induced immunity. Any system that fails to take account of this fact is a system of political punishment rather than a public health intervention. We might think that natural immunity is ignored because taking account of it would allow many unvaccinated people to escape restrictive and coercive measures. Many of the NHS workers who will be terminated will have natural immunity. Perhaps this is too cynical. But it is my assessment that much of the public policy in this area is to do with disciplining the “bad” unvaccinated rather than to do with protecting people from a virus. Perhaps societies need scapegoats to function. We see the latest group being moulded in front of our eyes.
If there isn’t strong evidence to support excluding unvaccinated people from normal life, why is it happening? I tend to the view that we tell ourselves the stories that we need to tell to do what we want to do. Is there a strong evidenced rationale there to exclude all of the unvaccinated? No. But the psychological demand for vindictive mastery amongst a political class humiliated by the virus and by the numbers of people questioning their pandemic approach requires that the unvaccinated be punished, just as the demand for safety from the fearful segment of the population demands the same. So those dissenters who stay outside the newly created acceptable consensus, or mass formation, are persecuted. It all has a rather mediaeval feeling to me.
Measures against the unvaccinated are undertaken on the basis of rationalisation. We can see this by the ways in which data is ignored or manufactured as necessary. To justify punitive measures against unvaccinated people, those people need to be presented as a threat – the “lethal liability” described above. This is the origin of the narrative of the unvaccinated as hospital bed-blockers. A number of MPs over the last month have stated, contrary to the statistics, that 90% plus of ICU beds are occupied by unvaccinated Covid patients. This gets picked up and repeated as fact when it is not. In fact, at the point of writing, NHS England data indicates that only 23% of ICU beds are occupied by patients with Covid, 59% are occupied by non-Covid patients, and 18% are unoccupied. Because the vaccines provide good protection against severe disease outcomes within their window of protection, 60% of Covid ICU admissions are unvaccinated, which equates to a total of 14% of ICU beds being occupied by unvaccinated Covid patients.
Of course, I might not be “right”, whatever we mean by that, in the picture I’m painting of an unfolding covert acting out of vindictive psychological desires. But across Western countries there are millions of people, irrespective of medical status, who do feel this is what is going on. Protests numbering in the tens of thousands and sometimes the hundreds of thousands have been ongoing in many dozens of European, American and Australasian cities every weekend for the past six months and more. The media mostly ignores these although occasionally reports on them, often negatively. These are not the biggest protests in recent generations (the Iraq war protests were bigger) but they are the most sustained widescale protests since at least the anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s. Of course, people protesting doesn’t make them right, but passionate opposition from a significant minority should perhaps lead us to question whether these draconian measures can really create a good enough healthy society. It is now indisputably clear that a significant proportion of people consider the behaviours of their governments over the last two years as morally beyond the pale.
I realise that I am open to the charge of projection here. I am saying some quite unflattering things about what I perceive to be in the collective unconscious of the political class especially, but also in the wider culture at the current time. But my concerns come from an awareness of my own nature, not a denial of it. I recognise the humanity in the inhumanity. And I recognise my own inhumanity. In such febrile times it is particularly important that we should all do the hard work of getting in touch with our shadow, as Jung would put it. The younger me desperately wanted to be a politician and to righteously wield this kind of power over others. I’m thankful to have found a more fulfilling path through life. One of the most important things leaders in the political and bureaucratic sphere might do is consider if they are acting from a commitment to public welfare, to simply remain safe in the face of an aggressive and punishing consensus with its own momentum, or for the gratification of unconscious desires. Starting to understand what we are doing is the first step to escaping this difficult state of affairs.
To my mind this is a psychological, philosophical, spiritual, ethical and political question as much as it is a public health or medical question. Jung’s principle of enantodromia looms large over this dark tapestry: The idea that everything that exists, if taken to extremes, becomes its opposite. The obsession with health and hygiene seems to me to be creating very sick and unhealthy societies for us to live in. What happens to a society when we are encouraged to see each other as a biological threat?
I don’t want to suggest that the interpretation I have outlined is the only way of seeing the situation. Manifestly it isn’t, because it seems this perspective is a controversial one. The mainstream perspective is that containment measures are effective and justified in the face of a severe pandemic. But each of these perspectives is an interpretation. There is no obvious truth here. But then when is there? Perspective is always in the eye of the beholder – but certain facts are selectively reinforced, and others ignored. If one only focusses on the daily Covid death total on the news, then that will likely encourage a mentality that supports authoritarian and stringent containment measures, the costs being justified, if they are considered at all. But a perspective that takes into account a more holistic view on costs associated with the “new normal” may well come to a different conclusion.
Those of us more psychoanalytically inclined are sometimes accused of being perhaps a little bleak in our assessments. Maybe that’s fair. This is quite a bleak essay. But I want to finish on a note of optimism. I feel that there might just be a bit of a shift in the atmosphere in the last few weeks or so, in the UK at least. And there are important organisations that have set up and started running just in the last few months. Against Vaccine Passports, Together, and Therapists for Medical Freedom spring to mind. These may not be your cup of tea of course. You might not agree with their aims to resist vaccine passports and segregation based on medical status. But my optimism is a more general one. As the minority finds its voice and starts to speak with steadiness and conviction, so the majority is forced to take back some of its projections. From there, perhaps a real conversation –without threats of throwing people out of society, shops, and their jobs – might take place. In that, we might find that being together in difference is not just tolerable, but perhaps an enriching form of togetherness after all.
Integrative psychotherapist in private practice
UK and Channel Islands
(1) https://www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/averageageofthose whohaddiedwithcovid19
(4) https://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/coronavirus/conservative_news_viewers_ more_accurately_estimate_covid_19_death_risk
(11) Quoted in Laura Dodsworth, A State of Fear (London: Pinter & Martin, 2021), 113.
(12) Laura Dodsworth, A State of Fear (London: Pinter & Martin, 2021), 65.
(13) Joost Meerloo, The Rape of the Mind (Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2015 ), 165.
(16) Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude (London: Vintage, 1975).
(17) Joost Meerloo, The Rape of the Mind (Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2015 ), 223.
(18) M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (New York: Touchstone, 1983).
This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.