Dr Gavin Ashenden. Lent 5 2020.
A reflection on the Man born blind for Lent 4.
Between last week and this week, everything has changed. It has been like moving from one world to another, without warning or preparation.
Last week I could go where I wanted whenever I wanted. This week I am suddenly under what feels like house arrest. Last week I could shop for anything and find anything . This week I am concentrating on toilet paper and paracetamol, neither of which can be found. Luckily I’m having a bit more luck with milk and bread.
So this is the new normal. House arrest, quarantine, whatever you call it. It’s not total of course; a very English kind of quarantine; as well as occasional food shopping, there is also one bicycle ride a day.
Part of me has always lived in fear of the state growing too powerful and imprisoning people. It happened often enough in a variety of states in the 20th C. But I always thought the threat to liberty in Europe would come from a political idea, not a virus.
So this is doubly strange. Not only didn’t I expect the house arrest but I approve of it in principle. I can see that it will be the cause of a great deal of anxiety for all those whose income stream is wrecked by it. But the trade-off might be worth it. Thousands of lives saved versus thousands of pounds lost?
If the only way to contain a virus and stop it killing people is to restrain peoples’ movement, then the price is worth paying; we accept the restraint.
But what is also strange is a sudden shift in values. Now that the pandemic has struck, our public preoccupation has moved from feelings to facts, from values to Viruses, almost from imagination to science. We straddled two cultures that didn’t relate to each other with clumsy awkwardness, and have toppled from one to the other.
Concern about living with two cultures that didn’t really understand each other, the divorce between arts and science, stretches back a generation.
In 1959, a novelist called CP Snow, delivered a powerful and prophetic lecture. He was worried about two different worlds growing up within one society; two worlds that could not understand each other. He said he had carried out a small experiment.
He had asked some of the people he met who were not scientists if they had any understanding of the second law of thermodynamics and could explain it to him simply? They looked at him blankly.
And he asked some of the scientists he knew when the last time was that they had read a play by Shakespeare?
It turned our that none of the artists have the faintest idea about the second law of thermodynamics and none of the scientists had ever read any Shakespeare.
Snow said that we were heading for a schizophrenic society which would lack the ability for one half to understand the other, and that we were storing up a great deal of trouble for ourselves. Facts and values would be divorced from each other, and we would suffer for it.
In that divorce, cultural ideas lose touch with science and facts, and facts or science might develop a life of their own without values.
Our public conversation for some time now has been about the unbridgeable gap between the idea of gender and the facts of biology. There was a great reluctance to face up to the fact that there was a danger in separating our mental maps from biological science.
It all seems a bit of a luxury now.
Suddenly, in the face of a pandemic what we are obsessed by is how to test for the fact of Coronovirus infection. And how to make a real antidote to the virus. It’s all about facts now because it has become a matter of life and death.
Science wasn’t doing particularly well without values either. `For example, we just took the invention of plastic and poured plastic in unbelievable quantities into the oceans where it began to poison and strangle marine life, and then as we ate the fish, found that we had ingested the plastic ourselves.
The wet market in Wuhan in China seemed to be a particularly unpleasant example of economics without values. We treated the animals spectacularly cruelly and without any concern for welfare or intrinsic value.
And lo and behold, we had poisoned ourselves again, this time with a virus that jumped species and began an assault on our respiratory system. This one managing the feat that some scientists have been petrified of for a while, It combined ease of infection with power to kill.
If the price for overcoming the virus is being imprisoned by the Government or scientific pressure groups for a while in a place, under quarantine, it’s one I am willing to pay. I don’t like it, but I can cope.
What I couldn’t cope with before was the prospect of a Government or pressure groups imprisoning my mind. Not telling me where I could or couldn’t go, but trying to tell me what I could or couldn’t think.
If you constrain my body, I become uncomfortable. If you constrain my mind, I may go mad.