As Hallowe'en approaches, it seems appropriate to say something about bewitchment. We can all be bewitched by beautiful paintings, melodies that linger, or a face in the moonlight. What is more surprising and much less romantic, however, is that we can be bewitched by the language of news bulletins. In today's radio news bulletin (19 October, although it could be any day), I heard the Welsh First Minister (although it could have been any minister in the UK) say that, in view of the increase in COVID-19 cases, he was going to create a firewall which would be short, sharp and deep. This, he hoped, would be a circuit-breaker and prevent a tsunami of cases.
Now, it might reasonably be said that the situation in Wales and elsewhere is serious and snide and smarty-pants comments about his gloriously mixed-metaphors are tasteless and inappropriate. The minister is obviously sincere and dedicated in his efforts to ameliorate a deteriorating situation, even if his Welsh fluency did get the better of him. Fair enough, and I do respect him and what he is trying to achieve for his people, and all of us. But I want to make some serious points too.
Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations
(1953) writes the following: 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language'.
It is arguable that the metaphorical language commonly used in describing COVID-19 and the fight (another misleading metaphor) against it encourages us to think in the wrong way about it. Firebreaks are attempts to stop the spread of fire, but it is not at all clear how they would prevent the spread of a virus. The virus is patient (I too can use metaphors) and will still be around.
It might be said that I am being too literal and insensitive on the point of using metaphors. To speak of a 'firebreak' is certainly to use a metaphor but, it can be replied, the metaphor is apt. Just as a firebreak stops the spread of fire, so keeping people in their own homes stops the spread of the virus. In terms of the other commonly used metaphor, it would be a 'circuit-breaker'; it would break the contact between people and the virus, at least for a while.
But the trouble is that, to continue with metaphor, there are multiple circuits in society. If you know what you are doing domestically, it is possible to break one circuit to enable you to mend a fuse, but if you don't know what you are doing, you might blow the lot and injure yourself into the bargain. In society, there are many circuits involving human relationships, commercial relationships, educational relationships, political relationships and many others. A circuit-breaker for the limited aim of disabling one circuit to limit the spread of disease might have the unintended effect of blowing the whole system. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening.
It might be more helpful, if less colourful, to avoid metaphors and try to say plainly what the strategy against the virus should be. We've had 'lockdowns'. They provided only a temporary respite at a great cost to other parts of society and other serious health problems, as is now apparent. Perhaps we just need to go carefully about our lives, and put up with COVID-19. I have seen interviews on TV where relatives are distressed because their mother/ grandmother of 90 has died of the virus. But, come on, we all die. And blighting the lives of the young, failing to treat treatable diseases and ruining businesses with the accompanying ruined lives is not an acceptable cost for the uncertain benefits of locking down.
And we can't keep locking-down. As a Welsh businessman said – maintaining the Welsh tradition of the imaginative use of metaphor – 'if you keep sharpening the pencil, there comes a time when there is nothing left'.
In a world with its own very different problems and worries, Samuel Johnson provided good advice in A Dictionary of the English Language
(1755): 'If the changes we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure'. If Dr Johnson seems too solemn, you might prefer the song by Linda Ronstadt with a title that says it all: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow