Last weekend, in the middle of a worsening pandemic, a crowd of almost a thousand people marched through the streets of Dublin, protesting at what they saw as illegitimate restrictions on their freedoms. Most of us agree that these “restrictions” are in fact sensible public health procedures and fail to understand how being asked to wear a mask in public constitutes an oppression. Christians would have to be very creative to understand it as anything more than a concrete expression of “love thy neighbour”.
RTÉ responded to this by proposing “an open discussion” on the topic on one of its radio stations. The counter-backlash to that proposal was intense as people understandably worried that framing this simple issue of public health in terms of two opinions of equal merit is a distortion of the truth.
How are we to make sense of this fraught moment? On one side we have a disparate group who think they are being rational and brave by scrutinising the agreed common sense put forward by the authorities – in the face of widespread scorn. On the other is an opposing group who feel we are on the cusp of a “Weimar moment” where the forces of fascism gather on the streets to enact violence that will escalate, with devastating consequences.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. A student of Karl Barth, he was set to have a comfortable and prolific career until the Nazis emerged. Forsaking opportunities to flee, he returned to his native Germany from America. He led the church struggle against the heresies of National Socialism, became actively involved in the Resistance, and ultimately participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. As we know, that plot failed. Bonhoeffer was captured and held at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where – just three weeks before the American troops arrived – the Nazis hanged him.
In a letter from the camp, he reflects on the dangers of what he calls “folly” (modern translations – perhaps too harshly – transmute this as “stupidity”), concluding that “Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil.”
Fascism or Folly?
Claims that people who protest the public health measures are “fascists” is not just factually wrong, it is self-defeating. Bonhoeffer warns in this letter that forces like fascism “can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force” but “against folly we have no defence.” Counter-protests do not penetrate folly. Physical force does not subdue it. He continues:
“reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So, the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”
Those who have protested the response to Covid-19 are not the rare rationalists who can think critically through an issue. The anti-mask protestors, whether aggrieved by government over-reach or terrified by 5G phantoms, have arrived at conclusions that fall short of the truth but also fail entirely to enact love. By their errant conclusions it can be logically inferred that their reasoning has gone astray. But it would be a dire mistake to think that a more effective ad campaign will resolve the problem. Bonhoeffer diagnoses this kind of folly as a “moral rather than an intellectual defect.”
“If we are to deal adequately with folly,” we must address the moral universe that cultivates such shared ignorance. Bonhoeffer believed that the folly he saw running riot through society in the 1930s was a reaction against historical circumstances, a seemingly random outburst that is in fact an internally coherent response to the chaos of historical circumstances. He would suggest that the consistent minority in all our societies who are attracted to these kinds of contrarian conspiracist positions is predictable. It is the end result of people having given up “trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves” and instead embracing a compelling narrative offered by another.
This is what makes folly so dangerous: “Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”
Viewed in this light, we can begin to reconsider the anti-mask protestors. Their understanding of freedom is almost entirely negative – they long to be free from instead of free for. But if we are honest, mainstream “moderate” political and cultural positions overwhelmingly share that emaciated understanding of freedom. In fact, many of the positions where Christians appear to be distanced from majority opinion in our culture turn on this question – whether we find our freedom in being served or in serving. If we spend decades telling people that their freedom is found in autonomy, we cannot expect everyone to automatically embrace the massive about-turn that has occurred in the last six months as we discovered we are captive to Covid-19 as long as we act as solitary individuals.
The disorientation that is evident in the anti-mask protests, which veer confusingly from all sorts of conspiracy theories about satellites to “chem trails” to 5G mobile phone networks is again a reaction with which many people can honestly empathise. I don’t need to visit with a fringe protest group to hear complaints about drowning in data. The world is too complex for anyone to fully understand it and engaging with simplistic accounts is something all of us have done. Aligning our view uncritically with what our friends believe is not some harbinger of fascism. It is an almost universal human experience. If we spend decades telling people to distrust all sources of authority, we cannot expect that they will continue to believe the sources of authority you want to maintain.
This is no apology to the fundamentally selfish and potentially lethal refusal to wear masks and comply with the relatively relaxed restrictions required to flatten the curve. Considering the question in the context of Bonhoeffer’s experience shows us that while everyone engaged in folly is not necessarily a fascist waiting to be unmasked, it is its own kind of folly to think that the way to respond is “open discussion”, as if the problem is a simple mathematical error somewhere along the thought-process.
Bonhoeffer’s ultimate answer to the problem of folly is not one likely to win widespread support in contemporary Ireland. He asserts that folly can only be ultimately overcome “by an act of liberation” achieved by realising that there is a God who is deeply invested in the truth. Wisdom from the deepest sources is the only vaccine against this kind of shared social folly. But he is also sure that even in times when folly is all around, that should “in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances.”
Private and Public Morality
Because we have largely reduced all questions of ethical significance to private matters, there is no overarching good to which we can compellingly appeal. If you construct a moral environment where moral decisions are private, how can you then expect public morality to be embraced? And if you have so celebrated individualism that private autonomy becomes the primary metric for all personal and social decisions, how can you be surprised when people respond to the truth with, “that’s just your opinion?” Ultimately, the folly that arises from skewed ideas of freedom and the folly that arises from a corrosive mistrust of authorities arrive at the same problem facing Irish society: is there a good we share in common? The protestors seem unable to answer that question, but so too do the counter-protestors.
When Bonhoeffer says that such public folly is a moral problem before it is intellectual, he does not mean a matter of private ethical probity, but the social setting in which we live our lives. If our vision of flourishing human life is reduced down to a solitary, alienated individual who is materially prosperous and culturally autonomous, then such dangerous folly is not limited to the anti-mask protestors, but is an epidemic within our society.