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Devil’s Advocate – Responding to Lockdown Apologists’ Strongest Argument: The ‘Pure Fear’ Theory


In any political debate, it can be tempting to focus on the most ridiculous arguments coming from the other side. It may be fun to laugh at the propaganda coming from the likes of Eric Feigl-Ding; and likewise, apologists for the response to COVID tend to address only the most outlandish claims about vaccines and such while a deafening silence surrounds the work of more serious anti-lockdown activists and researchers. But ultimately, to win a political debate, one side must eventually overcome their opponents’ strongest argument.

The ‘pure fear’ defense of the response to COVID does not withstand scrutiny.

The strongest argument in defense of the response to COVID goes like this: While states and countries across the western world adopted broad social distancing measures in response to COVID, and sometimes referred to them as “lockdown,” in practice—aside from the forced closures that devastated certain small businesses and industries—these measures were largely a hodgepodge of loosely-enforced restrictions that citizens could easily flout, and opponents of these restrictions have, over time, often exaggerated their stringency for political reasons. Rather, it was widespread fear that was the primary driver of the devastation that we witnessed during COVID. We can call this the “pure fear” argument. This argument is implied by the mainstream use of the term “pandemic disruptions” as a catch-all for that vast social, psychological, and economic devastation.

Typically, this reasonable “pure fear” argument is then accompanied by a bunch of self-contradictory nonsense about how COVID restrictions saved millions of lives and would have saved even more if they were even stricter, and that anyway the only people who opposed them were a bunch of anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazis, and Trumpers categorically unworthy of gratitude. But for the sake of argument, we can address only lockdown apologists’ strongest argument, which is the “pure fear” argument.

First, the reason the “pure fear” argument is strong is that there’s a degree of truth to it. An objective view of events is that COVID restrictions generally were loosely enforced, and fear itself accounted for the vast majority of the devastation, social deterioration, and illiberalism that we witnessed during COVID. However, for the following reasons, the “pure fear” argument, like all other arguments in defense of the response to COVID, fails to withstand scrutiny.

1. Governments deliberately used propaganda on their own citizens to ratchet up fear of COVID and increase compliance with restrictions.

Across the western world, governments used propaganda on their own citizens for the specific purpose of ratcheting up fear of the coronavirus and increasing compliance with lockdown measures. State scientists in the United Kingdom later admitted they’d used fear to change minds in a series of interviews with author Laura Dodsworth: “Using fear as a means of control is not ethical. Using fear smacks of totalitarianism.” “The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment.” “Psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic.” As one Member of Parliament put it:

If it is true that the state took the decision to terrify the public to get compliance with rules, that raises extremely serious questions about the type of society we want to become. If we’re being really honest, do I fear that Government policy today is playing into the roots of totalitarianism? Yes, of course it is.

Likewise, a report later released by the Canadian Armed Forces revealed that military leaders saw COVID as a unique opportunity to test propaganda techniques on the public, “shaping” and “exploiting” information to bolster government messages about the virus.

As a result of these domestic propaganda campaigns, across the western world, we were all treated to such delightful slogans as “just stay home,” “two weeks to slow the spread,” “follow the science,” and “we’re all in this together”—each of course, in truly Orwellian fashion, being a boldfaced lie.

Needless to say, pro-lockdown officials cannot launch a massive propaganda campaign to deliberately terrify citizens into complying with lockdown measures, then turn around and use that fear to excuse the effects of the lockdowns into which they deliberately terrified citizens into complying.


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