How did covid split similar people into diametrically opposing camps?


In the 2003 documentary the Fog of War [1], former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara distils the lessons from the disastrous Vietnam War into eleven basic tenets. His rule number one: Empathise with your enemy.

Without sufficient empathy, you will not understand the actions of an adversary nor appreciate the options that are available to them, or perhaps more importantly, unavailable to them.

Whatever your views on covid, you probably know some well-intentioned and thoughtful people who have opposite views to yours. The crisis has been polarising to an extreme.

The following is an analogy that attempts to illuminate why people who agree on many things have come to vigorously disagree over covid.

The cruise ship scenario

Imagine a cruise ship with a number of small boats that can be used for pleasure trips.


At first, happy days

Initially there are plenty of small boats; if you want a small boat, feel free to take one. In connection with the boats, all passengers are libertarians.

Then, not so happy

Then demand for small boats starts to exceed supply. Now rules have to be followed and rotas set up so everyone gets a turn. As challenges appear, passengers remain mostly free, but some rules are appropriate.

Now there is an emergency!

A storm develops. The captain, on receipt of a report from the ship's engineer, breaks the news that the ship is damaged and is sinking. All must urgently get ready to crowd into the small boats, at least temporarily, in order to survive. Now, unlike happier days, the rules for using the boats are strict and harshly enforced. In an emergency authoritarianism rules!

The 85% respond

The storm is worsening and the 85% are frightened. They promptly do exactly as instructed. They find it natural to follow the instructions of the captain who, after all, is the expert. They are careful to create a positive 'we are all in this together attitude' so that all feel encouraged, and are encouraged to comply promptly and exactly.

The 15% respond

The remaining 15% are sceptical; they have looked at the engineer's report and have a different interpretation. They think the problems with the ship have been exaggerated and the captain and his supporters are seriously mistaken.

The 15% think the plan to launch the small boats into a storm is unnecessary and dangerous. They say 'You get into the small boats if you want to; we prefer to stay on the ship and fix the damage'.

The captain does not tolerate this, saying that the extra weight on the ship may hasten its sinking, causing a worse disaster. He orders that everyone must leave the ship, no exceptions.

Fear triggers authoritarianism

The captain is concerned that some might not follow his instructions. To prevent this, he implements continual announcements over the tannoy about how bad the situation is to assure that all are aware and compliant. He tells his staff to spread the word that staying on a sinking ship will mean a painful death for many. He hints to the crew that accuracy of information spread is less important than the effect it will have on the passengers.

The captain instructs that anyone who suggests staying on the ship will be punished and physically removed if necessary.

Authoritarianism triggers fear

The severity of the instructions given out by the captain further convinces the 85% that they really are in grave danger. They start to demand that the captain takes ever stricter measures.

The 15% increasingly see a disconnect between their understanding of the damage reported by the engineer and the increasingly disproportionate actions of the captain and crew.

The passengers are increasingly divided

The 85% support the captain. They stress that in this extreme emergency, the top priority is that the evacuation rules are followed.

The 15% find the authoritarianism dangerous. Taking to a stormy sea in small boats will inevitably result in an avoidable loss of life. The top priority should be to understand the damage and determine how it can best be fixed.

The captain overrules the 15%, saying there is no time. The 15% become angry and distressed at how authoritarianism is preventing examination of the damage and rational consideration of the options.

How are the 85% feeling?

The 85% are puzzled. Do the 15% not hear the tannoy announcements? Do they not realise that their queries are slowing the evacuation and will cause loss of life? Do they not see the arrogance of thinking that they know better than the experienced captain? Do they not realise that they are a minority, are being selfish and should conform to the views of the majority?

The 85% do their best to ignore the 15% and try to suppress their discussions which they think are ridiculous and bad for morale.

Any dissent such as a suggestion that the ship might not be sinking is dismissed as 'conspiracy thinking'. Overall, the 85% do not feel too bad, as the sceptics will be forced to conform whether they agree with the rules or not.

When some small boats capsize in the heavy seas and a few are drowned, the 85% pay little attention, deliberately focussing on the big picture. The captain has told them that the sinking ship has the potential to drown many more people than might be lost in small boats.

How do the 15% feel?

The 15% become increasingly convinced that the 85% do not care about survival and have become very irrational. Debate has been stifled and replaced by strictures that make no sense.

When the first of the small boats capsize and its occupants drown, the 15% feel desperate, fearful and angry. Their lives are threatened by mad people, and their former friends are blind to the whole situation.

What distinguishes the 85% from the 15%?

Given this scenario, let's consider some key differences between the two groups.


The 85%

The 15%

In happy times

  Let’s live and let live Let’s live and let live

In time of difficulty...'s no problem to follow rules that are fair and reasonable's no problem to follow rules that are fair and reasonable

In an apparent emergency…

  We must follow the rules We must understand the situation
  ...urgency: We run and do everything as fast as we can We walk and think about what we are doing
  ...facts and truth: Facts are best determined by experts

Truth is determined through consensus
Where possible, all should try and understand and participate in the process to determine the facts

Truth is independent of consensus. Group-think is dangerous.
  ...Generalisations Generalisations are necessary to save time. We must focus on the things that really threaten us Generalisations can conceal important distinctions. We must be careful to maintain a broad focus or we may lose sight of important issues
  ...Rules Rules must be followed first and validated second Rules must be validated first and followed second
  ...Experts Experts are those with credentials. How else could a non-expert identify an expert? Experts can be badly wrong. Look for a fair and honest process where evidence is evaluated with reason
  ...Fear Fear will you keep you alive Fear will destroy your judgement
  ….The worse it gets... ...the more important it is that we follow the rules and listen to the experts

If necessary, the use of fear is justified to achieve compliance
...the more important it is we ask questions and are prepared to reevaluate past decisions

When fear interferes with the processes of reason, tragedy can easily follow
  ...Discussing the way we think, decide and act... ...will slow us down ...will prevent the most fundamental errors and elicit the best ideas

What leads to scepticism and what to authoritarianism?

At some point as fear increases, there is a point when the 15% separate from the 85%.

The 15% would say whether you are a sceptic or an authoritarian hinges on the level of fear that you suffer from. On the other hand, the 85% will reject this saying they are not authoritarians, they are just realists, and which group you fall into depends on whether or not you appreciate the true gravity of the situation.

The weakness of 85%'s argument is that the sense of emergency generated has led to a deliberate stifling of the processes that might allow a reasoned assessment of the situation. Also, fear has reduced the capacity of passengers and crew to engage in a reasoned assessment.

The 85% are in a vicious circle

The worse the situation appears, the more those with authority want to emphasise how bad things are to get people to comply with their unpleasant instructions. This frightens the 85%, who then complain that actions taken so far are not strict enough. The harsher measures then taken frighten them even further and round we go again.

The 15% are in a vicious circle

The 15% feel ever more distant from what appears to them to be an absurd merry-go-round of rules and practices that are arbitrary and contradictory. They notice, for example, that while the passengers freeze at night in open boats, the captain and top staff are spending the nights back on board the ship. The captain does not share his thoughts that the fear and rules have been over-emphasised deliberately to get the right level of compliance while he and the crew need a good night's sleep so they are fit to manage the emergency.

As a result, the sceptics increasingly assume that the captain has no integrity and no ability to distinguish logic from madness. As the passengers are forced to stay in the small boats week after week, the sceptics increasingly assume that their well-being is not the captain's prime concern.


In connection with covid, 'sceptics' have focussed on trying to reason with 'authoritarians', sometimes bombarding them with evidence. This has not been successful as 'authoritarians' fundamentally do not see this as a time for debate, but as an emergency where universal compliance must be encouraged.

'Sceptics' have become dismissive and cynical about the 'authoritarians'' poor reasoning, and deeply suspicious of the motives of leaders when irrational policies are imposed. These attitudes reinforce the divide between the two groups.

'Sceptics' need to bring covid 'authoritarians' to a place where they can engage in constructive reasoning. This transition depends on the following:

  • Forbearance - 'the quality of being patient and being able to forgive someone or control yourself in a difficult situation' - To maximise the chance that 'authoritarians' come around and see things in a different light, we must make it comfortable for them to change their minds without shame or humiliation.

  • Countering the fear - Fear messages must be deconstructed and countered, creating space for a 'cooler' environment where reasoning is possible and where people may be encouraged to transition from authoritarian irrationality to reason based on scepticism.

  • Dislodging the crooked - It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With rising levels of fear and authoritarianism, some leaders will gain a concentration of power and will use it for their own advantage. Such individuals need to be dislodged from authority, by force if necessary.

'Sceptics' need to understand the state of mind of the 'authoritarians'.

As Robert McNamara said, perhaps still inwardly reeling with grief and guilt over the madness that was the Vietnam war: "empathise with your enemy".


[1] Take a look at McNamara's eleven lessons. Do they apply to Covid? The Fog of War, Wikipedia