Christopher Gage writes at his blog Oxford Sour The Cost of Folly Excerpts in italics with my bolds and added images.
Sociologists say one third of any society harbours a ‘latent authoritarianism.’ All they need is a little wink and a nudge from someone in a lab coat.
For such people, the pandemic was the glory days of a humdrum existence.
They were the winners. They studied the ever-changing rules, the more ridiculous the better. They pretended Sweden didn’t exist. They willed Florida to swamp herself in Covid deaths.
When such measures failed, they recanted with primitive fervour: ‘We didn’t lock down hard enough!’
The pandemic celebrated usually negative personality traits. High neuroticism combined with high agreeableness—the psychic soup of scolds and puritans—became the stuff of winners.
Back then, ten percent of people consistently told pollsters they’d lockdown indefinitely. A crazy poll in The Economist found forty percent wanted masks to remain; a quarter would shut down all nightclubs and casinos; another third craved socially-distanced theatres, pubs, and stadiums. A sizeable number wanted a 10 p.m. curfew! And they wanted all this regardless of Covid-19.
No doubt, the same people would now tell pollsters much different. The social currency of lockdown fanaticism has, like our money, eroded in value.
But they’re still there, and given the chance, they’ll fall in line when the conditions are right.
In his work, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer said that “by embracing a holy cause and dedicating their energies and substance to its advancement,” such people, “find a new life of purpose and meaning.”
To some, the pandemic was the great equaliser. Freedom to them is an ‘irksome burden’ and revealing of one’s shortcomings. As Hoffer said, they want freedom from freedom itself.
Why is it so many obey authority when coerced?
Social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments found that people obeyed either out of fear or out of a desire to fit in, even when obeying went against their better judgements.
In Milgram’s classic study, sixty-five percent were willing to administer a fatal dose of electricity to a fellow human being, provided an authority figure told them to do so. Participants were told the experiment would study the effects of punishment on learning. The ‘learner’ (an actor) was rigged up to electrodes.
The ‘teacher’ (an unknowing participant) was instructed to ask the learner questions, and zap the learner for any wrong answers, increasing the severity of the shock for each wrong answer. The shock generator was marked from 15 volts (a slight shock) to 450 volts (Danger! Severe shock.) The final shock was marked: ‘XXXX.’
The actor would provide the wrong answers on purpose. And dial up the volume of his complaints as the shocks got worse. A slight shock elicited a grunt. He’d scream in agony at 285 volts. Further up the scale, he’d complain of heart pain. At 330 volts: total silence.
When the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would pressure him to keep going: From, ‘please continue,’ to ‘the experiment requires that you continue,’ to ‘You have no choice but to continue.’
One teacher who begged to end the experiment was told he must continue. He went on, repeating to himself: “It’s got to go on. It’s got to go on.”
Milgram found that over two-thirds of ordinary people, when ordered to by an authority figure, would administer a fatal 450v shock to an innocent human being.
Another study found many will change their beliefs to fit in. Solomon Asch asked participants to match one line with three other lines. Two lines were of obviously different lengths, and one line was of obviously matching length.
Without actors present, 99 percent of participants answered correctly. When surrounded by actors claiming a shorter or longer line was actually the matching line, the result was much different. A full 37 percent of participants would change their mind to agree with the others, despite the correct answer being childishly obvious.
Asch said of the results, “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white, black is a matter of concern.”
And don’t we know it.
Freedom is not our default state. Our default state is of safety and suspicion. The free society is an aberration. That’s something we tend to forget.
Postscript: Clive James once said: ‘The problem with Australians is not that so many of them are descended from convicts but that so many are descended from prison officers.’