Our Age of Mistrust
Our trust in institutions — and each other — is rapidly fading
When the Omicron variant began to spread rapidly across Europe and North America in December 2020, most Western countries were protected from the doomsday scenario some had predicted thanks to mass vaccine immunity. However, not everywhere was as fortunate. In both the UK and the US, cases surged to record highs in the wake of the new variant — however, the consequences of this differed drastically for both countries. In the US, hospitalisations with COVID reached — and, in some places, even exceeded — previous Delta-era peaks. Meanwhile, in the UK, hospitalisation levels remained just a fraction of that which they had been a year earlier.
The crucial factor defining both country's realities? Vaccine take-up. In the UK, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the population had received both doses of the shot. In the US, this figure stood at below two-thirds (64%). This difference, while small, is substantial — with most experts believing the threshold for herd immunity lies somewhere in between 60–70% vaccination take-up. The consequences of this disparity, as shown in the below graphs could not have been greater.
The vaccinated majority — who were promised a ‘return to normalcy’ following the shot — have become increasingly, righteously angry at the unvaccinated as it’s become clearer and clearer this simply isn’t the case. Of course, it’s true that it was never going to be possible to return to a life identical to that which we lived two years ago — not after a generational epoch upended the entire global economy and way of life. It’s also true, however, that much of the reason we remain so far away from any remote sense of normalcy right now is that in the face of a safe, free and highly effective vaccine, a stupidly large percentage of the population has decided to refuse it.
Our current wave of vaccine skepticism is two-fold; a consequence both of declining institutional trust and rising misinformation — both of which endlessly feed into each other. After a series of disastrous foreign policy interventions, the banking crisis, and two years of a fumbled pandemic response, trust in politicians and the institutions of government are at an all-time low. With the nation’s most powerful figures lacking legitimacy in the eyes of millions, a void of legitimacy has formed and grown. Among those filling the void have been countless propagators of misinformation — some ill-intentioned, others simply misinformed.
Joe Rogan — the 54-year-old former Fear Factor host turned podcast giant — has found himself at the centre of the Coronavirus misinformation debate in recent weeks. Streaming giant Spotify has found itself in a state of almost perpetual controversy after signing Joe Rogan exclusively to their platform for a reported $100 million in May 2020. The podcaster’s brand of unfiltered and often unsubstantiated musings — not dissimilar to that which most of us have been on the receiving end of at countless family dinners and bar chats — has made him an admirably relatable everyman for millions. It also means he has a long and checkered history of offensive and incorrect statements that have alienated him from many.
Banning ‘bad speech’ only makes sense when you no longer trust those around you to reject said bad speech and embrace opposing voices of reason
After advocating young people forego the vaccine early last year and recently interviewing the discredited vaccine scientist Robert Malone, Rogan has become something of an unsuspecting poster-boy for Coronavirus misinformation. Earlier this year, 270 doctors, professors, and scientists (among others) signed an open letter branding him a “menace to public health”. More recently, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell — who had around 10 million monthly Spotify listeners combined, and who boast some of the most acclaimed albums of all time — pulled their music from Spotify in protest of the company’s platforming of Rogan.
Spotify is highly unlikely to sever ties with Rogan — who they have invested far too much in (both financially and otherwise) to abandon this quickly. That doesn’t mean, however, that the departure of Young and Mitchell from the platform is irrelevant.
At the same time as the current Rogan controversy has made headlines, a number of other stories have emerged that undermine any attempts by the right to portray themselves as defenders of free speech. In Virginia, the newly elected Republican governor has passed an executive order that ostensibly bans “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), but in reality, will almost certainly be used to hide schoolchildren from America’s ugly racist past. Meanwhile, school boards across America are continuing their campaign of book bans; with a Tennessee school board most recently voting to ban the award-winning novel Maus — which uses depictions of mice and cats to explain how the author’s parents survived the Holocaust. Alarmingly, this comes just months after a Texas school leader instructed teachers to balance anti-Holocaust literature with “opposing” viewpoints.
The CRT hysteria and the growing book bans offer an interesting comparison to the calls for Spotify to kick Joe Rogan off their platform. Of course, a direct comparison cannot be drawn between the two — there is a big difference between opposing vaccine misinformation and opposing teaching the realities of history. Similarly, there is a big difference between banning the teaching of a book in a school and asking a private company to not pay millions to a podcast host.
Nevertheless, both phenomena show an increasing preference on both sides for suppressing and de-platforming views seen as dangerous, unsafe, and/or inappropriate. The idea of sunlight as the best disinfectant of offensive and untrue information — the belief that bad ideas are best countered with good ideas, rather than suppression — has fallen out of favor on both sides.
As much as this reflects a growing mistrust in our institutions to deliver and convince us, collectively, of the truth, so too does it reflect a growing mistrust of each other. Banning ‘bad speech’ only makes sense when you no longer trust those around you to reject said bad speech and embrace opposing voices of reason.
And how could we be expected to still trust each other? Much of America spent four years heralding Donald Trump as the country’s savior in the face of a cabal of a satanic pedophilic elite, while another segment of the population compared him to Hitler and decried his election as the arrival of fascism to America. Over the last year, as most of the population have gladly gone to get vaccinated against the Coronavirus, others have warned we are being injected with tracking devices and dangerous chemicals that will eventually ensure our species downfall.
Previously reasonable people have fallen prey to the most ridiculous of ideas that they never would have given the time of day just a few years ago. Ties between previously inseparable parents and children, siblings and friends have been irrevocably severed over political disagreements. People sacrifice their jobs to avoid vaccination, while others celebrate as a young, unvaccinated father who is denied a heart transplant. A little over a year ago, a former member of the air force — who had served the US in the army for over a decade — risked, and ultimately lost, her life in an attempt to overturn the results of the previous year’s democratic election.
We live separate, aggressively conflicting lives from each other. We physically segregate ourselves from those who vote a different way to us. We block those online who we disagree with until we’re surrounded solely by voices that confirm our existing assumptions. We consume news so different from each other that the worlds we describe to each other are unrecognisable. We live in different realities, and when we are confronted with a reality different from ours — say, an election result that didn’t go our way — the results are ugly, explosive, and even deadly.
We don’t just distrust each other, we dislike each other — 16% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats (equivalent to over 20 million Americans) say we’d be better off if “large numbers of the opposing party” died. How can any country where millions of its citizens believe that expect to function healthily — or function at all, for that matter?