A family of six shouted at for being too many; young women escaping from a stifling flat attacked for pausing in their walk to enjoy the sunshine; shoppers leapt on by the police for buying non-essentials with their food; an on-line delivery service railed at for being inessential.
Those are not the rules. The rules are unprecedented in their reach, but not unlimited. The rules were made to keep distances and slow the infection rate, not to give bullies an opportunity for power over the meek.
To put one rule to rest, inessential purchases are not banned: it is only that shops may not open unless they sell essentials: if they do, then they can sell whatever they have in stock. As for the online comments I have read suggesting that Next should keep even its on-line orders and its deliveries closed because they are inessential, what rule or guidance is that? It is nothing but bullying using purely invented rules.
We know about the police getting it wrong, and not for the first time, inventing laws that were never passed – the Home Office have tried to rein them in. Ordinary, private people are a problem. We do not have books of procedure and an understanding of the criminal law and may have no understanding of the new emergency rules, which I have read even if no one else has. That does not stop some people from taking the excuse to harry their neighbours for imagined breaches. In ordinary times a neighbour who tells you off for an imagined infraction of a rule can be told to mind their own business and ignored. They think they are being civic – officious is a word for it – but they have no authority and may not know what they are talking about, but that is not the point: the point is power over others.
There is a time and place for reminding straying neighbours of the law, and urging compliance, or stronger acts. This must be based on actual rules though, and on enforcing the rule for its own purpose, not for the sake of the dry letter or what you imagine to be the dry letter.
In the ‘good old days’ of the seventeenth century and the following Georgian Age, the petty enforcement of the law was given over to mobs, to ‘rough music’ or the ‘Skimmington’ band – a malefactor would be bound and hoisted up on a pole and paraded around the village in shame to a cacophony of jeers and banged pots. I used to think we were beyond that these days. Now I am not so sure.
We all play for one-upmanship from time to time, but playing at “the law” is at another level. The neighbourhood bullies try it, and in normal times are shunned for the game.
These are not ordinary times though. Now the neighbourhood bully can call you a would-be murderer. What a wonderful power that is to feel coursing through your veins.
It is a terror to such people that the infection will pass, and the genuine rules will relax and a large cohort of people will be immune and so unable to contract nor pass on the infection. This would explain the sudden spate of scare-stories about cats and dogs, about long-term immunity not being guaranteed, about hidden statistics, and all the doubts necessary to drive their meeker neighbours to lock themselves away for longer and call for the rules to be kept in place. It is a sociopath’s dream.
Shakespeare as ever puts it well, in Measure for Measure:
O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.
Hobbes has the measure of it:
I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.
Therefore, neighbour, do not think you can command me. I may know more than you do, and certainly I understand more about you than you do yourself.
- Don’t make us resent this
- Proud man, Drest in a little brief authority
- In a sentence, Her Majesty defines us
- The necessity of normality
- What about those who are immune?
- Competitive panicking
- Praying for Boris
- A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
- Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson
- Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
- The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
- By Boris Johnson:
- By Aristotle:
- By Anthony Burgess: