Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that honorable character and a life of wisdom begin with a clear understanding of one basic principle: “some things are within our control, and some things are not.” How we are perceived by others — our popularity — is ultimately outside our control; we should focus on character, not reputation, because “trying to control or change what we can’t only results in torment.” The year 2020 has revealed this to be true. Many Americans, especially affluent types, prioritize reputation over character, and it has indeed resulted in torment.
In the COVID debate, there is a mainstream, “popular” narrative, and a competing, “unpopular” narrative — a “fringe.” The former exploits the common, mediocre desire to be “popular.” Joining the movement is easy. It results in back-pats, validation, and requires no uncomfortable confrontations. This narrative states that it is impossible for humanity to survive the COVID-19 pandemic without a vaccine, lockdowns, and masks, some combination of which will be required into the indefinite future. The narrative supports blaming others for “infecting you” with diseases, rather than encouraging personal responsibility for immune and general health.
Proponents of the competing narrative, on the other hand, must stand up to massive social forces simply to make their arguments, which are not radical: they support a return to classic pandemic management tools, the same ones used by Sweden and other states and countries which did not lock down for COVID-19, which resulted in average mortality for 2020. They do not believe this pandemic warrants a complete overhaul of the economic, social, and educational systems. They believe that every human being should be empowered with truthful information about risk and how to best care for personal health, and to make his or her own choices.
Faced with these competing narratives, we must consider motives and costs. The force of social pressure to conform with the mainstream narrative is large, so we know from the outset that the people willing to argue against it are either insane, or extremely driven, courageous, and strong. It is easy to eliminate the possibility that they are crazy — many of them, such as Elon Musk and the scientists who drafted the Great Barrington Declaration — are giants in their fields. They risk everything, weathering exhausting personal attacks from all sides, in order to battle the crowd.
Who are these people? What do they gain by doing what they do? Princeton professor Robert P. George, a specialist in moral and political philosophy and the theory of conscience, uses the example of slavery to demonstrate that every serious moral dilemma reveals two categories of people: the majority, who go along with the popular zeitgeist no matter how atrocious it is; and the minority, who risk their very existence to fight it.
“I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.
Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them — and us — would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.
So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing: (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.”
Epictetus would recognize these people, those willing to pursue unpopular causes, as people of character — mature people who create their own merit by forgetting what other people think of them.
“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think of you!”
While this path leads to wisdom and self-respect, Epictetus recognizes that it carries a tremendous social cost — which is why only a minority choose it. “You may be ridiculed and even end up with the worst of everything in all parts of your public life, including your career, your social standing, and your legal position in the courts.” This happened to the abolitionists for decades, and it is happening to COVID dissenters now: Dr. Scott Atlas was smeared by 100 of his colleagues at Stanford, who then refused to debate the substance of their claims against him; one Google search will reveal dozens of smears against the Great Barrington Declaration and its authors.
What do these anti-lockdowners gain by presenting their case to the public? Nothing material — a concept which is difficult for pro-lockdowners to understand. What they gain is security in the knowledge that they fought for truth, justice, and what is right, even to the point of risking everything. This is a privilege.
Anti-lockdowners get to stand up for the least powerful in our society. For those who have no voice. For the people who are desperate for their industries to survive. For the small business owners who make just enough to feed their children. For the “essential workers” who stand in the supermarket checkout day in and day out, while their children stay home playing video games in place of school. For the kids in developing countries who walk for miles through fields just for a WiFi signal. For the frightened elderly people who haven’t hugged a family member in eight months. For the hospital patients who will die alone and afraid. For the religious congregations prevented from doing outreach.
For the families foregoing holidays, birthdays, and travel. For the socially isolated. For the babies who are growing up without seeing smiles. For the special needs kids deprived of their therapies, for the women and children locked home with abusers. For the new patrons of the food bank, for the formerly proud career men newly sunk to the unemployment line. For those driven to drugs or drink, for those whose rehab was suspended. For those considering suicide. For those whose vaccinations and medical treatments have been delayed or cancelled. For those wondering if life will ever again be worth living. For those who feel there is nothing left to rely on, now that lives, livelihoods, and educations can be decimated at government whim.
Anti-lockdowners believe that all of these people, every single one, deserves a voice, a unique vote as to the philosophy of his or her life, and that no one else — even someone vastly more powerful — has the right to override it. By supporting this system of equality and fairness, anti-lockdowners seek to live in a world built on those principles, which protects themselves, their families, and the world of human beings as a whole, prioritizing human beings over corporate and government interests.
What do the lockdowners gain? To answer this question, we need only consider who the acceptance of their program benefits. Tech interests, billionaires, pharmaceutical companies, certain political parties. The 1% — the same people who can easily work from home, who are not harmed by lockdowns, who consider themselves so smart that their decision as to “what should be scary” must hold for every single person on the planet. No votes are needed, because their judgment is so good. Whatever businesses and educational systems and social structures need to die, must die, because they say so. All they need to do to push this system is gain the cooperation of the media, which can be done with dollars alone.
Ask yourself, who deserves your trust? I would argue that anti-lockdowners are today’s abolitionists — people willing to take up an unpopular cause at incredible risk. Lockdowners may currently be “popular,” but they are on the wrong side of history.