Until three years ago, Laura Dodsworth was a photojournalist, known for Bare Reality, a project in three series in which she interviewed women and men about their private parts and took pictures of them. But in March 2020, Covid reached the UK and everything changed.
Dodsworth’s experiences of lockdown motivated her to write A State of Fear (2021), a bestselling if controversial book which David Aaranovitch lambasted in The Times as ‘a covidiot’s guide to the pandemic’ and ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. She also turned her photographer’s gaze on the effects of lockdown on people’s lives, authoring one photo-essay called ‘2 metres’, on the impact of social distancing, and another with Nina Murden on the ‘ideological significance of face masks’.
‘The freethinker,’ as Bertrand Russell once put it, ‘will not bow to the authority of others, and he will not bow to his own desires, but he will submit to evidence.’ If the idea of ‘freethought’ brings to mind the radical-liberal, secular humanist tradition represented by Russell or J.S. Mill, then Dodsworth is not your typical freethinker. She describes herself as ‘between social conservative and libertarian’, although her political views are ‘in flux’. She appreciates the value of hierarchy and social order, and has some sort of religious ‘faith’.
During the pandemic, though, she ran a podcast entitled ‘Freethinking with Laura Dodsworth’. And just recently, she has finished a book, co-authored with Patrick Fagan, called ‘Free Your Mind’, subtitled ‘the new world of manipulation and how to resist it’. Fagan himself was formerly Lead Psychologist at Cambridge Analytica. He has criticised the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, or ‘Nudge Unit’, for its ‘authoritarian maternalism’ during the pandemic. Fagan’s own website describes him as ‘turning minds into money’ through his ability to ‘nudge people’s behaviours’ – which does make you wonder if there is not a certain inconsistency somewhere. ‘Free Your Mind’ will be published by HarperNonFiction on 8th June.
I caught up with Dodsworth over coffee on the fifth floor of Waterstones, Piccadilly. We discussed her experience of the pandemic, the origins of her two latest books, and why, for her, freethinking is fundamentally about knowing your own mind.
The interview raises many questions. Does the individual matter – even in a pandemic? Did Britain’s intelligentsia fail to think critically? Is the political cause a new form of religion? Are we all more easily manipulated than we would like to imagine? Comments are open below.
~ Emma Park, Editor
Freethinker: What was your personal experience of lockdown?
Laura Dodsworth: It was horror. There was very little about the experience that was not horrific. The fear that was instilled in people, the way people reacted out in the countryside where I live – they would jump to the edges of lane, seemed almost to bury their faces in bushes. People were so jumpy and frightened about contact with others. While that might have been a reasonable response at the beginning, we now know it was an excessive response. So much of that was down to the way the government amplified fear, used martial language, and put us onto a wartime footing.
A lot of my own work got knocked off the table at the beginning of lockdown, which was worrying. Self-employed people were not well looked after by the state at the outset. As a single mother who has to earn a living, I was also worried about how I would be able to help my children with their education. My sons were 13 and 15 at the time, and in different state schools. In some subjects, we had no contact with teachers at all. It was obvious that their education was suffering.
I was horrified and appalled by the impact of lockdown on society. There are so many things that we should value as a society. One is good health, evidently, and not curtailing the natural length of our lives. But we should also value freedom of movement, freedom of thought, the ability to work, the ability to worship, the ability to be educated. You cannot do all that within the four walls of your home. I experienced difficulties as a result of lockdown, but, to me, it was obvious that other people would experience much greater hardship. I was stunned that so many people – commentators, the media, people I knew – were not considering how lockdown would affect the most disadvantaged. So I decided to photograph and interview women in single-room accommodation in London.
I remember I was driving around the motorway to East London to meet one woman. It was just a few weeks after the beginning of lockdown. It was rush hour, and the motorway was deserted. It was disorientating – it made me feel as though I was in an apocalyptic film. I have spoken to other people who went out in lockdown and said how beautiful London was when the streets were empty. But I could not enjoy it because, for me, it was a sign of devastating disruption.
What was lockdown like for the women you interviewed and their families?
There was one woman and her son who lived in a room with no windows, no ventilation. That is illegal. But there are people who live like that. Her son had a really bad cough, which I would attribute to mould – the property was sub-standard. There was another family where the boy had developed anxiety quite badly. He would not put his feet on the ground because he was worried about insects and rats in the property. Normally he would go to school and escape, but now he was in this room the whole time. Since the start of lockdown, he had already made one attempt on his life. He was under ten years old. I found these stories heartbreaking.
Some people said that the ultimate point was that people should be provided with better accommodation. Yes, they should. But more immediately, nobody should ever have been told to stay indoors in lockdown. It was not safer for them to be in single rooms at that time. It was a cauldron of stress and anxiety and missing out on school. These children really needed school. They needed their free school meals. They needed the education, the pastoral care and the escape from their living arrangements. And as children and young women, they were at vanishingly small risk from the virus.
Did other people’s responses to the lockdown surprise you?
There was an exchange on Facebook among my “friends” – in air quotes – where somebody who was a nurse and therefore a key worker, with all the prestige that meant at the time, was saying that she had seen a window cleaner’s van on the roads. She was outraged that a window cleaner was out disobeying lockdown because he was not a key worker: he had no right to be out – he could be spreading the virus. She had seen him, of course, while out in her car going to work. But that was okay, because she was a nurse.
This woman was an active Labour Party member, and the whole Facebook thread was about how wrong it was that a window cleaner was out in his van. What everybody had forgotten was that he was just somebody trying to earn a living, trying to do labour for money, probably for himself and his family.
I was surprised that people who were left wing, who I had thought of as good critical thinkers in the past, wanted to scapegoat somebody for trying to earn a living. It did not take much critical thinking to realise that he was not killing people by being out in a van on a road. I found that kind of response horrifying.
How was the course of your career affected by the lockdowns?
My three Bare Reality books involved interviewing people and turning the interviews into first person stories [accompanied by photographs]. Otherwise the only journalism had been writing about my own projects, although I had studied journalism in my 20s. When lockdown started, for the first time, I had a reason to research and write, which I had not had before. At the time, I felt very much like an outlier. In fact, somebody who had commissioned me before in the media messaged me to say that I was one. But no innovative thinking, no great art, no scientific discovery, no entrepreneurship has come from anywhere except the outlying regions. You always need people who can think outside of the group and outside of the box. To be called ‘outlier’ as an insult shocked me.
How did you come to write State of Fear ?
When China shut its borders in early 2020, I looked at the footage and I thought, ‘That’s terrible – those poor people being shut in their apartments.’ I never thought that we would do anything that mad. When we did, I realised that the things I had taken for granted – the freedom to leave the house, to work and to have relationships, but also freethinking – were illusory, because if they were real, they could not have been curtailed so easily.
A censorship machine kicked in very quickly. I was stunned to watch the mass evocation of fear and compliance. The SPI-B minutes about increasing the level of perceived threat seemed to indicate a real departure from how we used to think of ourselves in Britain – from ‘Keep calm and carry on’. So I started researching, initially for an article, how the government had used fear to make people follow their rules.
I mentioned the idea to my publisher. He said, ‘That’s interesting – do you think there is a book in it?’ I started to think about it, and realised that there was. I knew it could make me unpopular and that it could be the end of my career in the media. But the direction that society was travelling in was so bad, the economy was going down the pan – everything was going so wrong, I thought I might as well commit to doing it.
What are the main points that you want the reader to take away from the book?
There were pandemic plans. The government did not use them.Normally you would not use fear to increase compliance with a lockdown. The government did. People do not realise how much ‘nudge’ and behavioural insights are embedded into the government’s way of doing business. The ‘Nudge Unit’ is keybecause it was set up within the Cabinet Office and was part of policy since its inception.
[Note: the Behavioural Insights Team, or ‘Nudge Unit’, is now independent of the UK government and fully owned by Nesta, a registered charity that describes itself as an ‘innovation agency for social good’.]
There are also behavioural scientists throughout other departments. Other bodies include, or have included, the British Army’s 77th Brigade, the Rapid Response Unit, the Counter-Disinformation Unit, and the Research Information and Communications Unit. ‘Nudge’, censorship, surveillance and polls are thoroughly symbiotic with each other.
Another key point is there was never an exit strategy for the use of fear and behavioural science during the pandemic. If this had been a lab experiment, the scientist asking you to take part in it would have had a plan for how to de-escalate your fear and get you back to a safe place. There was never a plan for how to de-escalate people’s fear of the virus. When the SPI-B advisors were recommending that the level of threat was increased, they never had a plan for how they would bring people back down from that heightened emotional state.
The use of fear and nudge is fundamentally anti-democratic because it moves the Overton window for policymaking. Once you have frightened people, you have softened them up for policies they never would have accepted otherwise. The campaign of fear and the lockdowns have created mental health, economic, social and cultural effects that we will take decades to come out of. That is why it is really important to understand how propaganda and psychology can be weaponised against people.
Was there a tendency in public discourse to stress the importance of the collective and to portray individualism as selfish? Does respecting people as individuals still matter – even in a pandemic?
I think people were forgetting the lessons learned after the World Wars. All the great thinkers of that time, from Arendt to Jung, talk about the importance of the individual. Hitler used to amass people in huge groups, shout at them, and create big shows – because then people lose themselves in the group; they are more likely to identify with the group and be capable of bad things. It is very important to hold on to your own sense of values.
What are the worst legacies of our society’s response to the pandemic?
The pandemic was an epiphany for me, because it was the first time I understood how much we are lied to, and how much the media gets on board with upholding lies. Even now, we are told the ‘cost of living crisis’ is due to Brexit, but we are never told it is due to lockdowns. The worst legacy is that, having seen how people can be manipulated en masse, we know that it will be done again. But I have faith in the individual, and in people’s ingenuity, agency and power to say no, and to think for themselves.
Talking of which, you have done a podcast on ‘freethinking’. What, in your view, does ‘freethinking’ mean?
Everybody wants to be an individual and everybody wants to know their own mind. No one says, ‘I don’t want to know my mind, I just want to be told what to think all the time.’ Everybody wants to be able to think for themselves regardless of influence – to develop their own thoughts and arguments. A second point is that, once you have have the confidence in what you think, you must have the confidence to express it. There is some value in knowing your own mind, but if you never express it to anybody and you follow the flow against your better judgement, you have not gone the whole way. Clarity of thinking and courage in expressing your thoughts are both important.
It is a question of practice. Once you have done it, once you have been in the outgroup and unpopular once, it gets easier. There is also the satisfaction of knowing that you have done it because you have been guided by your own thinking, conscience, morals and values.
Has free speech become a ‘right wing issue’? If so, why?
I do not think people on the left trust people to know their own minds and think and speak for themselves. They like top-down policies and collectivism. But I am apolitical. I spoilt my last ballot and if there was an election tomorrow, I would spoil it again.
The response to lockdown was partisan. Trump said that he did not like lockdown, and so everybody on the left decided to coalesce and oppose people like him, rather than to think for themselves. It became a partisan issue – both in the UK and the US – and it should never have been. But I do not see the paradigm in terms of left versus right. I think it was about authoritarianism versus – I cannot say ‘liberalism’, that does not mean anything – versus freedom of thought and speech. If people were actually freethinkers, this would not have happened.
The suggestion that people on the right wing must be exploiting free speech for their own ends is nasty and ungenerous. The people that stand up for free speech have often done so to the detriment of their reputation and career – I have experienced it myself. I am lucky that State of Fear was a bestseller, because there are plenty of places that may never commission me again. I lost professional contacts and friends. If you stand up for free speech, it is not to further your career or your reputation.
In an extreme situation like the pandemic, where the government was ruling in this manipulative way and in disregard of Parliamentary process, would there be a case for civil disobedience?
Yes, I think there can be a case for that. Take the Milgram experiment, where people were told by men in white coats to give patients what they thought were real, even fatal electric shocks. People will conform – they will obey authority. What we saw in the pandemic was that these tendencies will be mercilessly exploited to encourage us to follow rules. Throughout history, governments have asked their people to do things that are morally wrong. In such cases, there can be a moral compunction to disobey.
How important is freethought in dealing with the manipulation of our behaviour by others – whether in the government, the media or elsewhere?
In the short term, it is the only answer. The government’s deployment of behavioural science is anti-democratic. We have never been consulted on it. It causes harms. There were people who developed Covid Anxiety Syndrome or a whole range of mental health problems as a result of lockdown. People lost jobs; businesses went under. What the government was able to achieve by making people comply with the Covid regulations was the most depressing act of self-destruction our country has seen in our lifetime. Where is the oversight? Who is the regulator? What ethical framework is the ‘Nudge Unit’ operating in? The answer is, they have no ethical framework.
We cannot rely upon the people who enact these programmes to oversee them safely or to curtail them. It is too useful. The only answer is for the individual to take some agency in educating themselves and in learning how to spot when they are being manipulated. You, the individual, can learn to spot when you are being manipulated – it is like learning how a magician does his tricks.
Can freethinking help us to work out our moral values?
Absolutely. You have to know your own mind, which means you have to know when you are being influenced and be able to let it happen if you choose, or not to let it happen. What people need to do is to be brave and bold about speaking up when they do not agree, and not be afraid and feel that they have to follow the crowd.
Can you tell us more about Free Your Mind?
The aim is for people to free their minds. It really is that simple. If you want to be a freethinker, this book will help you to get there.
Increasingly, we live in a world of manipulation, because governments all around the world are using propaganda, as they always have, but combined with more sophisticated techniques from social psychology. These in turn have combined with technology, to give us the propaganda in digital environments. We are all on our devices all the time. We are exposed to thousands of marketing messages and news items every day. We are constantly bombarded by information telling us to buy this, vote for that party, believe this, support that charity.
To know your own mind, you have to be able to recognise the influences that are trying to penetrate it. There may be times when you want to let it wash over you, but it should always be your choice.
Each chapter sets out a principle and then illustrates it using interviews, our own theories, cultural references and the latest research in behavioural science and psychology. The chapter finishes with three rules that people can follow to back up the principles. You can read it chapter by chapter and come away with practical ideas about how you can be more psychologically resilient and less susceptible to mind manipulation.
Does freethinking necessarily go with an outlook that is critical of religion?
I don’t know. Since lockdown, I have become more sympathetic to religion than I have ever been. I have faith, but that does not mean I agree with everything that I hear in a church service or read in the Bible.
Because we are in a post-religious world, people are reaching from the collective unconscious, without even knowing it, for a new religion. Look at what came out of the pandemic, the way people wore masks: many religions have covered parts of the face or the head. There were images in the media of elderly people spaced out in cathedrals waiting for their vaccination. Altar cloths were covered with NHS rainbows. In some of those images, you could almost see an intersection of the old religion and the new one.
The human mind is incredible. The things that people are worried about now, like artificial intelligence or ChatGPT, were created by our minds. But the mind should not be enslaved by other people. Your own mind is like treasure. It is everything: how we perceive the world, how we think, the font of all our achievements. And so it should be free.
Update, 5 August 2023: see also Emma Park’s review of ‘Free Your Mind’ by Dodsworth and Fagan, and ‘The Battle for Thought: Freethinking in the 21st Century’, by Simon McCarthy Jones, in the Literary Review.
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