Some of the UK’s national parks saw visitor numbers soar to bank holiday levels over the weekend. The message about social distancing and self-isolation is taking time to sink in. "Life should not feel normal," said the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. If it does, she added, “You should ask if you are doing the right things." The public’s response to these unprecedented times has exemplified the best and the worst of humanity. What, then, does the coronavirus crisis tell us about the fundamental nature of our species? Your answer to that question will depend on whether you agree with the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes that people are naturally disposed to ‘rapine and revenge’; or with the 18th century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau that humans are essentially good. The tussle between self-interest and altruism has been part of the human condition since we were decorating caves. Now an ever-tightening lockdown will make life-changing demands on all of us. We are social animals who evolved and adapted to survive in groups, so how well are we equipped to cope with extended periods of self-isolation? Some predict an epidemic of depression and suicides. Others argue that we are far more adept at developing our own inner life than were our ancestors in the ancient world, who saw exile as a fate worse than death. Are we right to be worried about the moral and psychological effects of a prolonged lack of human contact? Or are we more resilient than we think? With Hilda Burke, Andrew Colman, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Mark Vernon.
Producer: Dan Tierney.
Danger and Opportunity?
The coronavirus pandemic has given the world a smack in the face. Sporting events have been cancelled, national borders have closed, jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance, the over-seventies will soon be asked to self-isolate and families are having difficult conversations about whether grandparents can be allowed to see their grandchildren. It’s life, but not as we know it. A cynical politician once said that you should never let a serious crisis go to waste, and pundits are already suggesting that we now have an opportunity to re-think society. After all, in Chinese, the word for crisis is often interpreted as signifying both "danger" and "opportunity". Is it time to make changes that would not have been feasible without an existential threat hanging over us? Could we, for example, strengthen global partnerships, accelerate the shift to sustainable energy, think about a universal basic income or forge a new sense of community? Such ‘politicisation’ of the problem is appalling to those who just want to get through this ordeal and return to normal; they say it’s much too soon to conclude that free market liberal democracy has failed the stress-test. They are sure that, if we do the right things to protect the most vulnerable, it will soon be business as usual. Yet history shows that a major crisis can be a catalyst for crucial changes. Talk of re-purposing hotels as make-shift hospitals and manufacturing plants to make ventilators, invites comparisons with the Second World War, which gave us the welfare state as we know it today. We won’t get through the corona crisis without ceding a lot of our individual autonomy to the state, but is that an opportunity for greater collectivism in the future - or a danger to liberty? With Rachel Cunliffe, Laura Perrins, Rabbi Lord Sacks and Dr Jamie Whyte.
Producer: Dan Tierney.
The anti-racism campaigner Trevor Phillips has been suspended from the Labour Party over allegations of Islamophobia. Some have described the move as “Orwellian”; others believe he has a case to answer. The issue turns on what we mean by ‘Islamophobia’ – although even to pose that question is to invite denunciation in some quarters; why split hairs when it’s obvious that anti-Muslim bigotry is rife? The Conservative party has been under attack for the allegedly Islamophobic utterances of some within its ranks, but it is waiting to agree on a definition of ‘Islamophobia’ before committing to an inquiry. It is 20 years since the term entered the political lexicon and almost a decade since Baroness Warsi declared that Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner table test’ and become acceptable in polite society; yet, we still haven’t quite decided what it is and what it isn’t. Some people – including many Muslims – have a problem with the word itself because they think it reinforces the idea that Islam is something to be afraid of. Islam is a religion, not a race, but the definition used by the Labour Party calls Islamophobia ‘a type of racism’, because of the comparable experiences described by Muslims at the sharp end of group discrimination. Meanwhile, free speech advocates are concerned that any formal definition risks blurring the line between the unacceptable hatred of people (Muslims) and the legitimate criticism of ideas (Islam). Once we have our definition, whom should we appoint to decide whether particular words or deeds are Islamophobic? And if there’s a spectrum that runs from insensitivity and disrespect at one end to the most hideous kinds of hate crime at the other, where along that line should the law intervene? With Mohammed Amin, Myriam Francois, Ibrahim Mogra & Fiyaz Mughal.
Producer: Dan Tierney.
Late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a tiny organism migrated from an animal to a human. Three months later, COVID-19 has gone global. So far, nearly 90,000 people are known to have caught coronavirus and more than 3,000 of them – mostly already ill or elderly – have died. Here in the UK, the government has acknowledged that its ‘containment’ strategy is likely to fail and is planning for delaying the spread of the virus and mitigating its effects. But nobody knows how the virus will behave in Britain, and planning for the unpredictable is far from straightforward. If we know we can’t win this fight, but we don’t want to lose it too badly, what are we prepared to sacrifice on the battlefield? How authoritarian do we want the government to be? Must we be ready to accept martial law, the isolation of towns and cities, closed schools, factories and offices, bans on public transport, concerts and sporting events? While some would see such measures as sensible, others warn against authorities who would stamp on our civil liberties out of a nervous need to be seen to be doing something. And what about those in the ‘gig’ economy who can’t afford not to work? The moral dimension goes beyond the arguments about precaution, panic, freedom and frailty. The coronavirus dilemma could be seen as a real-life example of that age-old ethical thought experiment, the ‘Trolley Problem’. Should we do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable in our society, even if the knock on effect to the global economy has the potential to cause suffering and death for many more people further down the line? With Dr. Tony Booth, Dr. Norman Lewis, Julian Sheather & Professor Dominic Wilkinson.
Producer: Dan Tierney
Profiling, Safety and Trust
The boss of Ryanair has been criticised for saying that airport security checks should focus on Muslim men who are travelling alone, because they pose the biggest terror threat. The Muslim Council of Britain said Michael O'Leary's comments were "racist and discriminatory". Profiling is the practice of categorising people and predicting their behaviour on the basis of particular characteristics. We're profiled all the time by businesses and insurance companies with the help of computer algorithms. That same technology has been piloted by police and will now be used to identify low-level offenders who are deemed likely to go on to commit "high-harm" crimes, perhaps involving knives and guns. Is it right to target specific groups on the theory that they are statistically more likely to commit certain crimes? Civil liberty watchdogs argue that such ‘pre-crime’ profiling not only violates everyone’s civil rights, but fosters alienation and hostility in marginalised communities. Supporters of ‘data analytics’ believe that, on the contrary, it can eliminate all bias and human error from these judgments. There’s a wider debate about the balance between public safety and trust. Should we worry that these preventative measures are eroding our goodwill towards authority and each other? There are proposals to introduce airport-style security checks in ever more areas of our lives, from concert halls to places of worship. Security campaigners say it’s a necessary step towards making us all that little bit safer. Libertarians call it an over-reaction to a statistically-negligible threat. It is, they say, allowing the criminals to dictate how we live our lives. With Nick Aldworth, Tom Chivers, Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper and Tom McNeil.
Producer: Dan Tierney.