Ignorance, Coronavirus, Brexit and Honesty: reflections on Camus’ ‘La Peste’

“The Rat Wants Out” by donjd2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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“The evil that is in the world nearly always comes from ignorance.” This is a central message of Albert Camus’ La Peste. It’s also, to my mind, the message most relevant to our struggles against coronavirus and Brexit. 

La Peste is the story of a (fictional) outbreak of plague in the (real) city of Oran, on the coast of Algeria, then a French département. The story starts, famously, with the city’s rats, which come out into the streets to die, but it’s not long before the plague claims its first human victims.  When it was published, in 1947, some took La Peste to be an allegory of life under German occupation or of the rise of fascism. But reading it today I find that this analogy, though hinted at in some details, is neither explicit nor a core feature. What Camus does say plainly is that the plague is a symbol of evil in general. 

Ignorance – this is my thinking now, not that of Camus – can be of two kinds. The first is simple ignorance of the facts. That’s when you “stand to be corrected”, as the saying goes. Correction can be a humiliating experience but, if you accept the correction, it can make you wiser and more likely to think and behave differently in future. The second kind is wilful ignorance – that’s when you’ve been told you’re wrong but, instead of acknowledging this, you double down on your error and bury your head in the sand, not wanting to know about the consequences of your actions for others. Worst of all – and here I return to Camus – is “the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and that thus legitimizes murder”. The soul of the murderer is blind, says Camus. He knows not what he does. 

Fifty years on from when I first studied it at A-level in 1967, Camus’ roman philosophe makes uncomfortable reading – more so now than it did then, because I know more. I might have made myself happier by escaping into the world of P.G. Wodehouse, a favourite refuge in times of trouble. But I decided I had to re-read La Peste because I needed to understand what we are up against in our new enemy, the coronavirus. 

A brief digression into language here. People criticize politicians’ use of the language of war – words like “fight” and “enemy” – to depict our engagement with this new plague. I disagree with this criticism and think the metaphors of war, provided they are used responsibly, are apt. Because, as Camus points out, all you can do in response to the presence of evil in the world is fight it as best you can, preferably by coming together. That is the core belief of Rieux, the doctor who is the narrator of La Peste. And it’s my belief too. 

I’ve wondered for some time about the links between Brexit and the COVID-19 epidemic. Both are illnesses, that is for sure – the first an emotional illness and the second a physical one – and both have proved highly contagious, spreading rapidly but invisibly, with effects that are quickly and obviously fatal in the latter case and more slowly and less obviously so in the former. Beyond this there are, on the face of it, few or no parallels, the two infections having brought about opposite reactions in our country: while Brexit was, and remains, extremely divisive, the virus has, on the surface at least, brought our people together. The epidemic has reaffirmed the values of community, of working with each other to defeat a common enemy; it has reminded us, in the words of Mr Johnson, that “there is such a thing as society”.

The underlying factor that links these two diseases is ignorance. In La Peste, there are those who deny the plague and continue to meet and to make merry as if nothing had happened, just as in today’s Britain, at the start of the lockdown, there were those who continued to congregate in parks or on beaches, to hold parties, to visit friends and family, to travel to second homes, in defiance of the risk to themselves and others. There is no firm dividing line between those who are simply ignorant of the facts and those who are wilfully ignorant and are therefore, as in Camus’ book, guilty of murder. But as time went on and government messaging grew ever stronger, it became less and less possible to condone the behaviour of these “lockdown deniers”, especially when they were senior government ministers or advisors. A careless walk costs lives, as one wit put it. 

Photo by Simon Chater

As for COVID-19, so too for Brexit. Back in 2016, Leave voters could be excused as having made a genuine mistake. Our pro-Leave politicians presented a fraudulent case and too many of our people fell for it. But in the years that followed, as the implications of Brexit became clear, factual ignorance morphed into wilful ignorance. Many Leavers did not want to know the facts about Brexit and, when confronted with them, became abusive in their defence of the indefensible. In Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright uses the phrase “moral numbness” to describe those who have lost the ability to imagine what others think and feel, a loss she identifies as a predisposing factor in the spread of fascism. We saw, and still see, plenty of moral numbness in hard-core Brexit supporters, blind to the suffering and hardship they have caused, even when the victims are friends, neighbours, family. Worse still is that fatal English combination of ignorance and arrogance – people who not only do not know anything about the EU but who glory in their lack of knowledge. This is Camus’ “ignorance that thinks it knows everything”, an emotional disease just as real and dangerous as the physical disease caused by coronavirus. When Brexit leads, as it already has and increasingly will do, to lost jobs, to hunger and shame, to depression and then to death (whether by suicide, violent attack, substance abuse, illness or neglect), its supporters will have to accept their share of the responsibility for these tragic consequences. Wilful ignorance is no excuse.

Yet can we, should we, forgive them, precisely because “they know not what they do”?  This is the teaching not just of Christianity but of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, but it is easier said than done! Rationally, I find it meaningless to forgive those who don’t know or can’t accept that they have done wrong. But I also know that, if we don’t forgive, we are as trapped in evil, as steeped in its poison, as those who need our forgiveness but can’t or won’t bring themselves to ask for it. As Camus says, “We are all plague carriers”, both the guilty and those who condemn them. 

The only way to combat the plague, Camus says, is through honesty. The starting point is to recognize the disease for what it is. Near the beginning of La Peste, before the epidemic has taken hold, Oran’s councillors can’t accept that the deaths occurring in the city really are cases of bubonic plague. Precious time is lost and the disease spirals out of control. We saw the same fatal inability to confront the truth in the prevarications of today’s UK politicians, invariably doing too little and too late while fumbling evasively in their answers to questions. Almost alone among Western leaders, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, with her decision to “go in early and hard”, succeeded in controlling the disease with minimal loss of life. Tellingly, because she was honest with them, she carried her country’s people with her. 

Would that more of the UK’s politicians had spoken and acted as promptly, clearly and decisively against Brexit. Perhaps, like Oran’s councillors, they could not see Brexit for what it is – a resurgence of the disease of fascism. Perhaps they were complacent, believing it could not happen here. Or perhaps they did not care, placing their career and party interests ahead of the very survival of their country. The arch-villain in this third group – those who didn’t care – is the morally numb Mr Johnson, who used Brexit as a ladder to power regardless of the consequences, and who has since surrounded himself with sycophantic yes men, sworn to parrot the same lies and fantasies again and again until these lead, as they must do, to disaster. The culture of dishonesty that has engulfed our politics presages great suffering to come. 

Whether or not you see La Peste as an allegory of the rise of fascism, it is Camus’ last words that stay in the mind as you close this book. As the plague recedes, the gates of the city re-open and people come out onto the streets to celebrate. Listening to their cries of happiness, Rieux realizes that “this happiness is always under threat.” He knows what the joyous crowd does not: “that the plague never dies, never disappears, that it can lie dormant for decades in furniture and fabrics, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs, old papers, and that the day will come when, for the torment and edification of man, the plague will once again bring out the rats and watch them die in a happy city.” 

Uncomfortable reading indeed. May it also prove salutary: send this article to three people – a Brexit supporter, a lockdown denier and a Conservative MP!