Hand Cranked Opinions for Cash

Robin Ince's Blog

Blah Blah Masks, Blah Blah My Freedom Blah Blah…

While writing what is hopefully my next book, I have stumbled on two themes that I have found increasingly helpful when dealing with being human and dealing with all the humans around me.

One is an expanding sense of connection that comes from our scientific understanding of life and the Universe. Though some feel that science may alienate us and, in the demolition of cherished myths, leave us filled with anxiety, I find our evolutionary connections to all living things and our cosmological connections with all we can see in the sky and beyond is rewarding. It can enhance empathy, curiosity and a sense of place.

The other theme is the subjectivity of perception and how by scrutinising it it can help slow our rush to fury and conflict or even help us deal with depression and melancholy when we realise that the reality of our inner life may be more malleable than it can seem. Unfortunately, neither of these contemplations are what drives the advertising revenue of the mass media nor is curiosity a well used tool. Effective curiosity is too sluggish for high speed media.

Yesterday, I saw a clip of a well-spoken, well-educated radio presenter delivering a scripted monologue on government ineptitude which ended with him cutting up a mask on air. He was cheered by those who see a mask as draconian oppression of their personal freedom. There is much to criticise in the confusion of this government’s policies, amongst them a confusion of when and where masks should be used, but the idea that it is the mask itself that is the enemy of all who love freedom is simplistic, knee jerk and ill-founded.

The personal freedom narrative is usually not what it claims to be. It is a personal freedom that takes no one else’s freedom into account, so the exercise of your personal freedom may well encroach or trample on someone else’s freedom. It is a solipsism – the world is mine and the rest can rot. It is selfishness dressed up as rebellion. By dint of my personal interests and my career, I talk to lots of professional people who work within science including virologists, immunologists and health workers. Today I was talking to a tired and worried doctor who has been immersed in dealing with COVID-19. He is aware that the pandemic has repercussions for many people in terms of businesses, employment, mental health and much more. He is also aware that unless this pandemic is properly handled, all of those issues will be even worse.

He is not blasé towards those who are suffering from the effects of the pandemic beyond COVID-19.

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We can’t just move on from COVID-19, that is not how viruses work. They are sadly disobedient when it comes to our human needs, they are literally mindless in the way they can cause havoc. To cut up a mask is not an act of freedom, it is an act far more likely to incarcerate you through family illness, through further employment losses, through a further collapse of our infrastructure and greater struggles for the health service. Not wearing a mask will not hasten the treatment of those who have had their care and operations postponed, it will worsen the situation, not make it better. A virus does not care about your personal freedom. It does not care about anything, unlike you, a virus does not have empathy or compassion. To steal Stewart Lee’s memorable simile, cutting up a mask is like complaining about bad hotel service by shitting in the bed. You will have to sleep in the shit.

These are uncertain times. In my lifetime we have never dealt with something like this on this scale. Mistakes will be made. I know many who have been frustrated that track and trace was slow in implementation and are still frustrated by it. I know some who have issues with how the local lockdowns have been carried out and their effectiveness. Most scientists I know have many informed opinions and questions on what is going on and how to deal most effectively with this situation. Some see this government as literally the very worst possible government to deal with a pandemic because the values that they hold dear and have promoted are the very opposite of the values they are now attempting to tell people they must live by. The interests of those that helped finance them into power are the opposite of the requirements of dealing with a pandemic.

The endless promoters of selfishness and suspicion suddenly call for selflessness and camaraderie.

Of all the concerns of health professionals I have heard, not one of them has been concerned that mask wearing is detrimental to dealing with the pandemic. When asked, all of them have talked of them as useful to some extent. The problem is, the issues that they are actually talking about have a level of complexity way beyond getting some scissors out and cutting up a mask. It is an easy theatrical pose to strike and it is an easy win, but it contains nothing of any actual use in terms of information or knowledge or progress. Most stories are too complex so, to monetise them hastily and effectively, you turn them into nothing more than posturing for the gallery. Whether that pose may go on to have damaging repercussions is not your concern, your concern is advertising revenue. When you are paid by the opinion, you don’t have time to make the opinion intellectually worthwhile. You can’t manufacture opinions at an economically viable rate if you properly research each one. You might even find the opinion you’ve manufactured dissolves in the sunlight of knowledge and so you have wasted your time and have to form another one. Better not to worry about that and keep on cranking them out.

Harlan Ellison was wrong, you are entitled to your misinformed opinion, not only are you entitled to it, you’re more likely to be paid cash for it.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book, I’m a Joke and So Are You is out now.

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