Keep Britain Free, but Wear a Mask – Liberal Article
Campaigning for freedom is nothing new. Protesting continues to be an important practice of democratic power, however, the Unite for Freedom and anti-mask rally in Trafalgar Square last week is not as simple as it seems. Rather than enhancing freedom, it endangers freedom by endangering lives.
The rally consisted of around 10,000 people protesting against government-enforced COVID measures including mandatory masks, lockdown and potential future vaccines. Social distancing measures were ignored and fines were distributed accordingly.
These anti-government protests are a global trend. Many took place at the height of the pandemic when lockdown measures were most extreme and death rates at their highest. At these protests conspiracy theories, disinformation and COVID can be spread.
A core focus of critique is mandatory masks. Whilst some protesters’ reasoning are more extreme than others, the general consensus is that governments are, at the very least, infringing on the rights of citizens. I say extreme because there is no evidence supporting the claims that wearing a mask is more detrimental to health than the risk COVID. These claims are not rational but driven by emotion.
However, these protests can not be overlooked or dismissed. Whilst they pose a danger to public health, they draw attention to the importance of personal freedom. Something that should always be safeguarded. It is rational to challenge power.
These movements are ultimately not anti-mask but anti-mandate. The protests are against what the masks represent, a visual symbol of authoritarian power. Many have never experienced being told what they can and can’t wear, where they can and can’t go, or who they can and can’t see. This is a weird situation.
What these protests and movements are displaying is an understandable wave of fear from the distrust in governments. The ongoing mixed messaging, from delaying the enforcement of masks, to leaders themselves not complying by their own rules, leaves even the best informed often confused.
Furthermore, lockdown unveiled and enhanced inequalities in society. Everyone’s COVID experience has been different, but some have suffered significantly more than others. It’s been made clear that we’re not all in this together.
This doesn’t change the fact that COVID kills. Scientists and frontline workers need to be respected and listened to. Given the public health benefits, masks should not be a political statement.
However, I sympathise with the general concerns fuelling these protests. The Unite for Freedom rally and movements such as Keep Britain Free are united, not just by their disapproval of lockdown measures, but primarily their pursuit of liberty. In recent decades it has become harder for people to take control over their own lives.
The UK’s trend of privatisation moves even public space out of democratic reach. Polarised social media and selective media framing manipulate public knowledge, hindering meaningful democratic participation. The extension of working hours to make ends meet further disengage the public with politics because people simply don’t have the time.
Freedoms are being infringed, however, the form of freedom pursued in these protests misses the point. Our ability to be free depends on our ability to be, for self-actualisation, not just our freedom from state interference. And our power to be rests heavily on our personal health. Government interference is beneficial when it provides a service and this is not the time for anarchy.
Freedom in society is much more complex than the safeguarding of rights. Individuals’ rights come into conflict; mediation and the prioritisation of rights that best ensure equal liberty is needed. To understand this properly the concepts of negative and positive freedom need to be explained.
In the most simple terms, negative freedom is freedom from interference, whereas positive freedom is the freedom to be. Negative freedom is infringed when the state, or other powers, interferes with one’s freedom to visit your friends or go into public without a mask, for example. It is negative freedom that these protests are concerned with.
Positive freedom is not the absence of power but the presence of self-control and determination. Power over one’s own agency. Positive freedom entails being the source of one’s own desires. This latter form is harder to perceive but needs to exist to an extent in order to recognise that it is being infringed. It is positive freedom which we’ve seen restricted in recent decades and this has left the vast majority of us lost in the pursuit of liberty.
At the core of Neoliberalism has been the extension of negative freedom. Deregulation, privatisation, the emergence of the Gig economy are examples of this; freedom from state interference. However, freedom from and freedom to be can and do contradict. Prioritisation of negative freedom is ideal for those who have the resources and power to do as they please. However, for many, neoliberal policies have resulted in personal insecurity that prevents basic needs being met. Insecurity does not allow independence.
The anti-government protests are clear signs of recognition that many don’t feel in control of their own lives. However choosing not to abide by science lead policies and protesting about wearing a mask, of all things, is not an effective route to change.
Firstly because it doesn’t protect freedoms. Choosing not to wear a mask, social distance or abide by lockdown rules puts your freedom of choice above those more vulnerable to COVID freedom to live. We need to remember, no matter how fed up we are with regulations, families have been torn apart by the pandemic. Whilst lockdown measures do restrict negative freedoms, they protect the positive freedoms. Our health is crucial for our capacity to reach our potential for self-determination.
Secondly doing our part as citizens, by abiding by scientific led measures, is not an unjust measure of power. Real restrictions on freedoms come from the loss of jobs, income and homes caused by the COVID recession. We need security to be free.
I am not suggesting we bow down to the power of the state, but I am suggesting we need state interference more than ever. Austerity, the solution to the 2008 financial crash, has not enhanced the liberties for the masses. This time we need a different recovery strategy, one that involves the state.
We should be protesting for Universal Basic Income, employment support and personal security measures. These are changes which will truly liberate us. Yes exercise democratic power and challenge authority, but protest smartly and safely. Wear a mask, practise social distancing, but make sure your voice is heard. We should be in this together.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Abby Milnes
Point of Information
Freedom is a balancing act, we must be careful not to tip it – A Conservative Response
Protesting is a democratic right. But, as Oliver Holmes Jr said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre,” and I think we can all agree that protesting against masks, social distancing and lockdown restrictions, in general, is falsely shouting fire.
It’s pointed out that these protestors are instead anti-mandate, but considering we have recently had an election that gave one party its strongest majority since 1987, another its worst defeat since 1935, and leaving another leaderless, then that to me is a resounding mandate to the winning party. In this context it makes the anti-mandate protestors sound like anti-democracy protestors.
There is a part of the concept of freedom that is briefly alluded to but not outright stated. The harm principle. This states that people should be free to do what they like except when it harms others. If these protests (with notable exceptions, like this BLM protest and others like it) are not following guidelines put forward by science, they are harming others.
Another type of harm is spreading misinformation. People seem to think that freedom of speech means freedom from fact; everything is now debatable. The rally mentioned is an example of this. They’re going against the facts and not following guidelines. This causes harm, even death. Not only to the protestors when they get ill, but more economic and health damage to others in the form of a second wave. The freedom from economic harm has priority over the freedom to protest without a mask.
The point about working hours not allowing for greater participation in politics doesn’t hold. While the 2019 election had lower turnout than 2017, it was still the 2nd highest since 1997, with the highest turnout since then being 2017 itself. In EU elections, 2019 had the highest turnout since 2004.
In terms of protests, you had the anti-Brexit protest in 2019 again, anti-trump demonstrators when Trump visited, the Extinction Rebellion protests and finally the Black Lives Matter movement. People are also engaging more online, that is partly what is contributing to the polarised nature. No evidence is presented to back up that point.
These restrictions are temporary. Wearing a mask and keeping distance are small sacrifices of freedom that are more preferable to the alternative of more death and economic destruction, and that is what these protestors miss.
However, it is possible to still exercise your democratic right to protest and get involved in politics, and the evidence shows that more people are getting involved than ever.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
You should never have the freedom to condemn someone else – A Labour Response
I’m a huge fan of this article and I find myself in agreement with Abby on almost everything. What’s highlighted well is that freedom is in fact endangered when lives are endangered. This is such an important point. Your freedom to refrain from wearing a mask can never supersede someone else’s health. As soon as you refuse to wear a mask on the grounds of personal freedom, that is the trade that you have made.
Both philosophically and politically, this is a difficult situation to be in. Ideally, personal freedoms would always be preserved. But that’s not always realistic or productive. If everyone was allowed to just do as they pleased, then we would have a lot more to worry about than COVID.
Abby also highlights that this isn’t anti-mask but is actually anti-mandate and, ultimately, a rebellion against perceived authoritarian overreach. This mindset, in combination with overall distrust in government as well as the prevalence of conspiracy theories, has laid the foundations for a highly toxic, dangerous and consequential anti-mask movement.
Another interesting point concerns the lack of control in people’s lives. This is exactly where rumours and conspiracy theories stem from. During times of social duress, facts become scarce and rumours serve to fill the gaps in people’s knowledge. Rumours also serve as an emotional outlet for people who are fearful or suspicious.
As for conspiracy theories, the psychological need to control one’s own environment often leads to misperceptions such as the notion that masks constrict your breathing. These perceptions need to be challenged as early as possible before they can spread.
At the end of the day, we all find the masks slightly annoying to wear. For me, it makes my beard itchy and it’s harder to order food over the counter. But it’s a personal freedom that I relinquish in order to protect others. I am no less free as a result of wearing the mask and I know that others retain the freedom to continue to live. That is the trade I’d like to make.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe