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Everyone Does What They’re Told, But No One Knows Why

We're reliant on experts to tell us truths too complex to work out. When did we stop living on a human scale?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listen to White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx speak in the Rose Garden for the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

We’re living through a strange sort of plague. As TAC’s own Matt Purple has observed, “It’s as though there are two dimensions, the news world and the world nearby, and you struggle to reconcile them, to determine which one is more real.”

Heather Mac Donald’s skepticism notwithstanding, I’m convinced by the bones of the argument for an extreme response: 300 million Americans, an infection rate of about one third, and a 3 percent mortality rate. It’s simple math—three million dead. The possibility of being contagious without being symptomatic helped get me on board, as did the easily intelligible image of “flattening the curve.” Whoever came up with that bit of PR deserves a raise. Sure, I spent a few days pushing back against my “alarmist” friends who canceled our planned Korean BBQ outing two weekends ago. But I was soon directing my annoyance towards anyone who acted the way I had just a few days earlier. This must be how woke people feel all the time.

Still, I’m not too embarrassed by my former stiff-neckedness. The Venetians who suffered through the bubonic plague of the 14th century had the advantage of being able to look out the window and see corpses rotting along the canals. We’re forced to make due with John Oliver’s infographics, and although the reasons for closing up shop and enduring cabin fever aren’t terribly complicated, they do require a certain amount of imagination, a willingness to distrust one’s senses. Things might have gone just as smoothly had the CDC announced that we should stay inside because Apollo was angry with us.

This sense of abstraction is nothing new. The requirement to accept bureaucratic impositions on everyday life in order to solve problems that do not manifest themselves in everyday life could serve as an accurate, though somewhat cynical, definition of civilization itself. A member of a self-sufficient hunter-gatherer tribe wouldn’t fight unless his own neighbors and kin were threatened, but ancient Egyptians suffered heavy taxation so that Pharaoh could wage war on people they’d never meet in countries they’d never visit. They couldn’t walk along the Nile and see an obvious reason to put up with it all any more than a mother living in Oklahoma City in 1942 could look out her window and immediately understand why her husband had to leave and she wasn’t allowed to fill her gas tank.

But whereas the pharaonic government benefitted from an air of theocratic mystique, secular states in which you can watch the president on TV or reply to him on Twitter are expected to clearly and persuasively justify inconveniencing their citizens. Modern people feel strongly that things ought to make sense to their satisfaction. There must be a better reason than “Pharaoh is a living god, so deal with it.” The problem is that better reasons are almost always more complex, and therefore more debatable, and therefore less unifying. “Pharaoh is a god” is a lot easier to wrap your head around than “well, you see, imperial expansion means tribute, which will affect our budget in such and such a way; and our foreign policy is conducted according to such and such a principle” and so on. The former explanation requires a single leap of faith; the latter demands several steps of logic and runs the risk of confusion and disagreement at every stage. And in some cases, including the coronavirus, disagreement can be deadly. Any good crisis response now requires a mix of persuasion and coercion.

As institutions grew more efficiently predictive and invasive and the world more interconnected, the proportional relationship between individually perceptible evidence of crises (or potential crises) and the impositions they justified became increasingly inverse. As the justifications get harder to simplify, they also get harder to swallow. The sense that some key piece of information has been left out or manipulated in order to serve the explainer’s ulterior motives becomes overwhelming. The movie The Big Short, which uses a series of hilariously dumbed-down, sexed-up, and necessarily reductive illustrations to explain the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, is an excellent example.

It seems as though nothing that matters happens on a human scale anymore.

This feeling is not limited to any political or ideological camp. Hillary Clinton lost because the inhabitants of the Rust Belt were convinced she didn’t care about them. Only later, in a revelation that would have shocked were it not so fitting, did we learn that she ignored these voters because the AI pulling her strings told her to.

Wendell Berry’s agrarian exhortation to “every day do something / that won’t compute” expresses a similar frustration at being reduced to a mere line of code in the computations of the bureaucratic state.

As much as I can’t stand their ideology, Marxist intellectuals are pretty good at diagnosing this particular problem. In the Q&A session following his 1990 address “Cognitive Mapping,” Fredric Jameson said, “you can teach people how this or that view of the world is to be thought or conceptualized, but the real problem is that it is increasingly hard for people to put that together with their own experience as individual psychological subjects in daily life.” Global capitalism, he laments, cannot be overthrown unless individual members of the international proletariat transcend their local prejudices and achieve a total understanding of the capitalist system’s interconnectedness that even experts lack. Jameson acknowledges that he has no idea how to reach this goal. According to him, conspiracy theories are the closest most people will ever get to a totalized and intelligible conception of global society. We’re at the mercy of institutions.

Generally speaking, humans don’t like to be told what to do when it’s not readily apparent why they should do it. When I was four, my mother labored in vain to explain to me the science behind dental hygiene. After all, nothing bad happened if I forgot to brush my teeth, so why should I? The only answer that worked was the pharaonic “because I said so.”

The coronavirus shutdown has, in large part, been based on a similar rationale. Yes, most people have accepted the arguments about transmission rates and curve flattening, but I doubt they’d have done so unless the heavy hand of state power had first acted to shutter stores and ban gatherings. We want an explanation to bridge the gap between our lived experience of the crisis (most cases aren’t severe enough to justify missing a day of work under normal circumstances) and how we’re told to respond to it. But most of us also aren’t public health experts. It thus boils down to “the government seems to be taking it seriously, so I should too.”

I believe that the government’s response to the coronavirus is appropriate, but I also worry that it will teach the government how much disruption we’ll stand for as long as it’s backed up by official decree and supported by some explanation, any explanation. The response to this crisis is justified, but what about the next crisis? What resources do we have—other than the famously flawed intuition that prompted me to visit a packed Korean restaurant despite my minor cough—to help determine how much infringement is too much? If we can’t understand the crisis, we can’t know whether they’re taking advantage of it, and of us.

Taken to the extreme, we could end up with a world not dissimilar to the conclusion of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, in which artificial intelligence governs humanity and controls the global economy, enforcing laws and production quotas alike based on algorithmic calculations that the human mind is literally incapable of grasping. Due to the First Law of Robotics, they cannot harm humans, but we have become the sheep to their shepherds. Everyone does what he’s told, but nobody’s sure why.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.

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