Risky Signs: Philosophy and Covid-19

In an earlier post, I discussed the politics of the restrictions of freedom during the Covid-19 pandemic in Tom Sorell’s new interpretation of Hobbes. Here, I consider the risks involved in the use of signs during the pandemic.

Communication about Covid-19 and political responses to the pandemic have been dominated by a special kind of sign: highly focused and immediately impactful numbers, images and instructions. The pandemic is the first global crisis where simple and direct signs are at the forefront of responses to the threat. By simple, I mean unambiguous in their message (apparently, as we shall see). By direct, I mean fast in their assimilation (again, seemingly, because initial speed does not discount later and more insidious effects).

Such direct signs are frequently described as symbols, because the two sides of the sign – the part that’s sensed and the part with meaning – are taken as firmly and immediately connected. In my view, it is better to keep the idea of sign, since there is no symbol that cannot be broken apart and shown to be artificial. The heart is a sign of love, not an essential symbol for it: we can conceive of beings without hearts capable of love.

Some signs were important for earlier crises (anti-loose talk posters in WWII, the price of a barrel of crude in the 1973 oil crisis, unemployment figures in recessions, inflation numbers during periods of stagflation, or stock and bond levels in the 2007-8 financial crisis). The difference for the global pandemic is that signs unify communications and bring together actions and ideas at many more levels of society than careless talk messages, unemployment statistics, the oil price or market values.

The new signs are pervasive and ubiquitous. My argument is that their apparent directness and simplicity should be countered by criticism at all times, in particular at the point where the sign is communicated. Thoughtful and well-informed criticism of signs must continue to be taught at every level of education.

I say continue because, against the politically motivated view that they are about knowledge, subjects such as history, literature and the sciences now specialise in critical reflection about sources, culture and experimental evidence. This education should be widened into media, where the critical assessment of signs should accompany all reports, not just those in some parts of journalism. A mere report amplifies a sign, when it should always question it.

My aim is not balance, in the sense of including different points of view. The argument is for critical and well-informed scrutiny: a cautious assessment of all claims, rather than balance between them. The point is to help citizens arrive at thoughtful decisions about signs, within democratic collectives and nations.

In response to the immediacy of signs we should ask ‘Why might this sign be true?’, ‘What does it presuppose?’, ‘Who benefits from it and who is excluded by the sign?’, ‘What consequences might it have?’, ‘What is the history of this sign?’, ‘How has it been made?’, ‘Who made it and why?’, ‘What evidence does the sign rely upon?’, ‘Which sciences can be taken in support of it and is there consensus?’, ‘Which interpretations are available for the sign?’, ‘Is the sign new and original?’, ‘What changes in risks does it imply?’, ‘What knowledge does it rest upon?’ and ‘Can different signs be created?’

The need for rapid communication is one reason for the preponderance of direct signs. The 2020 pandemic has called for fast changes in behaviour across populations. Convincing, easy to respond to, and commanding information must reach many people, speedily and effectively. Instructions and ideograms about masks aren’t new, but their rapid global dissemination, reach and importance are. Yet for every simple message based on scientific advice, there have been opposed signs.

The problem is therefore deeper than encouraging citizens to obey instructions. It is about giving them the critical tools to come to the right decisions in a world dominated by direct signs that contradict each other.

Though a consensus has grown about wearing masks during the 2020 pandemic, many nations questioned the value of wearing them in order to protect low stocks of masks for health professionals. These low stocks were due to poor planning, but governments and their scientific advisers prefered to doubt the value of masks rather than cause panic buying and hoarding. Even if we discount the need to protect stocks, global scientific bodies have changed their advice on mask wearing.

Where there was once clear advice one way, there is now clear advice the other way, but even that directness is much more subtle and deeply layered than it first appears. These apparently simple signs call for highly developed language use, rather than simple obedience, if we are to be able to remain critical and change our views, as the signs themselves change. Coming at the end of a series of definite instructions, “a fabric mask can protect others around you” is a complicated conditional statement, dependent on our understanding of the meaning of ‘can’, of risks, of probabilities, of benefits and downsides, and of opportunity costs.

Another reason for the importance of signs is the threat of pandemics to political order, because the failure to protect citizens’ lives is a fast-track to vote losses or rebellion for any government. This threat will grow as the pandemic, economic recession and social upheaval and breakdown combine, leading to increased fear, poverty, lack of jobs, unstable futures and mistrust between different parts and levels of societies.

Governments need to combine effective action, the impression of effective action, and control over flows of information to drown out criticism and dominate the airwaves. To do this they have resorted to simple and direct signs and messages. These signs encourage – or order – actions in response to them. They try to convey sure command and control, rapidly submerging other discussions; in particular, when they bypass mass media and communicate directly with individuals, through social media, email and phones.

If the crisis continues to grow, all three aims of these messages might fail, with further disease, economic failures and loss of control of media and popular debate. This failure and its consequences constitute the background for the high risks of direct signs. The most important point to retain is that the faultiness is inevitable. The signs are inherently risky and we use them at peril to our powers of critical reflection, flexible inventiveness and wise planning.

Struggling against death counts and the premature loss of loved ones – the most visceral evidence of incompetence – governments have tried to appear on top of the situation and to have effective answers to the pandemic. They have done this through measures of dubious effectiveness, such as early temperature tests that could not have detected asymptomatic cases, or technical solutions that had not reached maturity, like the UK and other nations’ predicted (and proven to be) dismal roll out of tests for the virus and mobile phone tracking apps.

Signs aren’t just pushed out by governments. There is also pull from the public. Direct and speedy signs respond to the need for information from citizens faced by a new and deadly disease accompanied by severe economic pain and social disruption. This demand for news is matched by competition among media to retain readers and viewers, at a time of financial duress as advertising revenues fall and subscriptions become more important sources of funding.

In turn, increased desire for public information and media responses to it, clash with, and sometimes complement, the search for government control. This came out strongly during the pandemic in widespread and often sordid comparisons between different countries and continents.

Goverments could not be seen to fall behind others, at the same time as they called on nationalism and patriotism in answers to the pandemic. Responses in the media were couched in the language of war and based on national and sub-national territories and symbols, rather than larger blocks such as the EU – old flags against a new virus.

Time and again governments and media adopted ‘it will not happen here’ messages. Arguing that they were better prepared, had the right science, better health services, stronger economies, and – foolishly and with racist implications – exceptional national characteristics. Only to be undone in the most horrific way when the virus spread further.

In addition to and reinforcing other reasons for the use of signs, there is a need to give meaning and cohesion to the pandemic. It is odd to think that direct signs can make something complicated meaningful and consistent. Longer arguments and explanations seem to be required.

This assumption about extensive discussion is a misunderstanding of how, sometimes, a special kind of sign quickly articulates many competing stories, histories, theories, positions, ideas, feelings, material facts, technologies, discoveries, claims, practices, pressures and demands. The list is long because a world is articulated differently.

Signs gathering disparate elements of a crisis into meaning are like statements as described by Michel Foucault. He says that such statements are ‘existence functions’ (L’archéologie du savoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1969, p 115). This means that statements bring many relations between words and things into existence, thereby constituting a new situation. A function relates two sets to each other. A statement – an existence function – takes language and objects from an earlier world and, by relating them differently and adding novel factors, brings a new world into existence.

The proposition ‘This is a pandemic’ has specific verification criteria. It’s a description of a state of affairs and can be tested against them. The statement ‘This is a pandemic’ is an intervention on a state of affairs. The statement realigns the state and changes the world as a relation between words and things.

Deleuze insists that statements are rare for Foucault, because they accompany transformative connections at many levels of a world. There will be numerous claims to the status of statement, but few will turn out to be existence functions. They are like a great painting, photograph, cartoon, or turn of phrase in revealing many features of a situation, but they do so actively, pervasively and without the artistry:

… there is always the possibility of opposing a sentence to another, or to form a proposition on another. Statements, on the other hand, are inseparable from a space of rarity, where they are distributed according to a principle of parsimony or even deficit.

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Paris: Minuit, 1986, pp 12-13

Statements are uncommon because they rearrange a space in response to a lack, to a need. There must be few of them since they give the space a new order, keeping it from chaos and giving it lines to follow. If there were a profusion of statements, there wouldn’t be a cohesive space at all. This means that statements are a difficult but fruitful descriptive tool: they reveal a function as it brings about a world, but it is easy to be mistaken about them, because they are rare and elusive.

Foucault and Deleuze saw explanatory potential in detecting statements and subjecting them to critical scrutiny. They also saw power and danger, since things in worlds are trapped and released differently depending on which statements hold sway. Bodies and minds are spoken about and treated physically in different ways depending on dominant statements, such as those about good (work is holy) and evil (some sex is wicked).

In his early books, Foucault realised that in past centuries novel statements about the value of confinement and of forced work made the existence of the prison system and of types of discipline seem natural and necessary. This archaeology of historical practices is part of a critical genealogy of new statements and systems of power. Earlier texts and their worlds are part of the genealogy of our statements about, for example, confinement, disease and the moral value of work.

The statement ‘This is an emergency’ functions in a direct and rapid manner to bring together many different claims, worries, places, people, acts and judgements. It connects them through the idea of a catastrophe that changes them according to a common source: the Covid-19 pandemic emergency.

The problem of the rarity of statements is particularly deep for us, in 2020, since we have a clash of statements about emergencies: the virus emergency, the climate emergency and the looming economic emergency (risking an escalation into wars – a clash of powers emergency).

One possible solution, in distinguishing a functional statement from an illusion, might be to investigate the idea of catastrophe. Is the virus really a catastrophe like climate change? Are there many catastrophes, an interconnection of all of them, or does one of them take precedence? Is a catastrophe specifically human, or is it natural or planetary? Can there be a catastrophe, if there are no humans?

Connections made by a statement are always complex and though they might seem to be natural and necessary they are artificial and have long histories. Apparently inevitable relations could easily have been different.

‘This is an emergency’ seems to have strong links to ideas of collective action and responsibility, to the need to suspend rights and to hasty action. Those assumptions only have the appearance of necessity. It could easily be that a pressing problem should be addressed only by a few of us, that responsibility falls only to those who have reaped benefits in the past, that rights should be made stronger not weaker, and that we should take time to reflect because haste will be counter-productive in the long run.

If we want to be thoughtful and genuinely innovative about the problems we face, then signs and statements must be subjected to critical study and to the examination of multiple options, because they only give a dangerous illusion of necessity: the lure of the falsely obvious.

The possibility of explaining the coming into existence of a world through the statement ‘This is an emergency’ does not imply that it is true that there is an emergency, as verified across a set of objective measures, agreed definitions and wider narratives. It is rather that if the statement can be made to hold – if we act as if it is true – then a complex field is unified.

This unity was one of the hidden motivations of the ‘careless talk costs lives‘ campaigns during World War II, where senses of a common task, an enemy at home and mistrust of rumour were meant to draw the population together in a war effort amidst great destruction, near defeat, fear and doubt. There were, in fact, very few enemies at home, but that mattered little in achieving the goal of closing the ranks.

The effectiveness of statements at unifying a population does not imply they are moral, or have good moral consequences. The fostering of fear of the ‘enemy within’ has had terrible costs for minorities. The treacherous mistress myth, encouraged in images of careless talk, contributes to violence against women, as seen during the épuration sauvage in France after liberation.

In Scotland, following Churchill’s ‘collar the lotarrest of enemy aliens policy and rabble rousing by newspapers like the Daily Mail (as studied in Zoë Denness’s PhD thesis “A Question Which Affects our Prestige as a Nation”: the History of British Civilian Internment, 1899-1945, p 140) Edinburgh’s long-established Italian community suffered appalling losses due to riots, persecution, imprisonment, internment camps and the horror of the Arandora Star sinking.

Governments have tried hard in recent years to make, distribute and sell statements about unity, from ‘La République en Marche‘ in France, to ‘Getting Brexit Done’ in the UK, to ‘Making America Great Again’, ‘The Chinese Dream’ or ‘Good Days Are Coming’ in India. Such statements need not be as crude and vague as these rather tired examples, they can take the form of technical new deals or resolutions, such as recent statements about solidarity in EU finances through a stability and growth pact.

Given the complexity and affecting intensity of events such as a pandemic, conflict or natural catastrophe, a statement or story must balance plausibility, accessibility and emotional power. There are many ways this can be done. In the past, it has happened through simplified romantic tales; for instance, of national birth, toil and eventual victory after tragedy (the Jeanne d’Arc story, for instance).

At their best, art, literature, history, philosophy and science can contribute to sensitive and complex meaningfulness. In novels, painting, sculpture, music, theatre and cinema, through historical reviews, new philosophies and novel scientific paradigms a vacuum of meaning can be filled by more thoughtful and sensitive paths.

In the current emergency, all five of these sources of meaning from culture and the sciences are underplayed, defunded and distorted, in favour of measures said to deliver tangible impacts. But how do we know how to deliver? Impacts for whom? For how long? With what future consequences? We shall only be able to address these questions if we maintain our critical faculties, against the directness of signs.

For the Covid-19 crisis, meaning has taken on an immediate and brief form, through signs that condense the different elements of the pandemic. Signs combining simple solutions with togetherness in adversity are perhaps the best candidates for the status of statements, in Foucault’s sense.

The need for critical scepticism towards these signs comes out strongly in the deception perpetrated by the idea of togetherness. Wealth, ethnicity, location, prompt or tardy acts of government and access to healthcare are stark evidence for a lack of togetherness in who does and who doesn’t suffer the effects and economic consequences of the pandemic and why.


False claims of togetherness give meaning to and draw lines between many other signs for the pandemic. They share a tendency to directness and simplicity. Here is a sample of some of the main ones:

  • The names of the virus (‘SARS-coV-2’, ‘2019 novel coronavirus’, ‘human coronavirus 2019’, ‘the coronavirus’)
  • The names for the disease caused by the virus (‘Coronavirus disease 2019’, ‘COVID-19’, ‘2019 n-CoV acute respiratory disease’)
  • Egregious signs that attempt to alter the name (‘Chinese Virus’, ‘just the flu’, ‘minor ailment’)
  • memes, hashtags, badges and emoticons around the disease and pandemic
  • Images of the corona itself
  • Maps of the progress of the virus, disease and pandemic
  • Numbers charting the progress or retreat of the disease, such as the reproduction number, R0
  • Safety and behaviour recommendations (hand washing, social distancing, masks and confinement)
  • Signs for suggested cures and treatments
  • Signs for the particular kinds of hospitalisation, suffering and death brought by the disease
  • And other signs giving meaning to the suffering (‘Value the Health Service’, ‘Disease vs Economy’, ‘Restart Differently’, ‘Self-inflicted through our Disregard for Nature’, ‘Caused by Others’)

This dominance of simple and powerful signs carries twin risks of introducing a new kind of propaganda and leading to disillusionment with forms of mass communication (and perhaps individual communication too). The first risk is always present where signs come across as strong and natural, since they make something that is constructed seem inevitable – like the idea of the idle poor.

The second risk depends on time and place; some epochs will be more ripe for despair than others because, like ours, they were already on the way to disillusion with sources of truth and authority, with no good candidates to replace them.

The prevalent signs in the Covid-19 pandemic convey a sense of immediate truthfulness and control over subsequent actions. The naming of a disease gives the impression – truthful or not – that it is identified and understood. Similarly, numbers indicating its suppression carry the sense that it is on the way to being over and can be controlled.

This immediacy is the same direct influence sought by propaganda: to penetrate deep into minds while bypassing critical scrutiny. Without this sceptical enquiry, many signs will carry a false sense of truth and turn out to have been misleading. This happened and will continue to happen for the pandemic; for instance, when it is forgotten that numbers indicating an amount (100 new cases) are taken in abstraction from their relation to other numbers (for instance, 100 new cases in an exponential growth driven by a basic reproduction number of 3). We can be cheered by a low number and lured into a false sense of security about the unchanged potential to spread of the virus.

The 2020 pandemic has been marked by false numbers and false impressions of numbers. Fatalities were given, but governments initially missed out care homes from death counts before they turned out to be a major factor. Governments, statisticians and health professionals made overly optimistic statements about immunity, only to be disproven. The disease was directly associated with a limited set of symptoms, although later advice noted how symptoms were highly varied, not alway present and sometimes completely absent.

Irrespective of whether particular claims and pronouncements were correct or not, the approach to the pandemic would have benefitted from a higher level of critical scrutiny and understanding of signs. The problem with direct signs is that they are necessarily misleading, since they conceal the complexity of a situation and the construction to the sign itself. When we miss these factors, we are far less well-prepared for changes in the situation and less protected from errors and abuse.

Misunderstanding and deception also have a serious consequence with respect to future behaviour around signs and communication. When signs in which we have great confidence are shown to be false or untrustworthy, there is a loss of trust in even the most straightforward numbers and statements. This disbelief and behaviour based on it have been ever-present threats in controlling the pandemic.

We often think of propaganda as a deliberate act to spread damaging information for a particular purpose; for instance, propaganda against a subsection of a population, denigrated for political reasons. The ideas of deliberate and damaging make this definition too narrow.

We should define propaganda as a dominant collection of signs that restrict thought while laying claim to truth. This includes the more narrow definition, since political actors can spread such signs with the aim to make people think differently and act damagingly.

The wider definition avoids always having to find those who mean to use propaganda. It also avoids having to show the damage. When adverts consistently show shiny happy people, there isn’t always a deliberate aim to deceive, nor obvious damage, but the normalisation of shininess and happiness is damaging to thought, since that kind of superficial product-based happiness is neither widespread, nor necessarily the right aim for life, nor attainable for all.

The use of signs in the Covid-19 pandemic introduces greater risk of dangerous propaganda, where the immediacy of signs either short-circuits critical reflection and democratic scrutiny, or leads to a disillusion with all forms of communication and government – thereby opening the way to rule by force and deception.

This risk is inherent to signs, if we forget four properties of any sign:

  • Signs are always arbitrary
  • Every sign has wide and potentially powerful effects
  • Signs are always ambiguous
  • This ambiguity leads to different and competing interpretations

Signs are arbitrary in two ways. First, there is no necessary link between what they show and what they mean. ‘We are all in this together’ can mean ‘We are also quite happy to be apart’ if you consider death rates of key workers compared to the general population, or compare the pay of poorer key workers and other better protected sectors (finance and politics, for instance).

Second, signs are arbitrary constructions. Things are selected to belong in the sign; they don’t just belong there. There is no necessity to associating ‘brave’, a rainbow, key workers and the National Health Service. Other signs selected ‘hero’ rather than brave. Some left out keyworkers and there were lengthy and controversial arguments about who counted as a keyworker, to the point where the UK government had to give detailed definitions. The rainbow – a sign used in many different contexts – was included in some countries and not others, because of its association with the LGBT pride flag.

It is arbitrary to associate the NHS with bravery and heroism, not because workers were not brave, but because many other associations could have been made. The same politicians applauding workers had underfunded the service for years and, in the UK, charged migrant nurses and doctors extra for the privilege of being treated by the very service they worked for. ‘Brave’ is selected for many reasons, but it could just as well have been ‘exploited’. There is no necessity to ‘NHS-brave’; it is a political decision. A better funded service with enough protective equipment would have needed less bravery and suffered fewer deaths.

Even if a sign appears to be simple, its effects aren’t, because every sign takes place in a wide and changing structure of other signs. For instance, the apparently unambiguous good of thanking those who help us can have the effects of protecting those guilty of making the crisis worse, and of creating a moral expectation around public displays of thanks. A sign might seem simple, but it can still be a dangerous distraction or a rallying point for intolerance.

Throughout this post, I have used terms like ‘appears’ and ‘seems’ when referring to simple and direct signs. This is because signs are inherently ambiguous and their simplicity and directness are only superficial descriptions of what they look like, how they are meant to work and how they are taken.

On closer inspection, every sign must be ambiguous due to the combination of two reasons. First, since a sign is always contingent and artificial there is no necessary meaning for it. It could always have been constructed otherwise. Second, since every sign has wide and different effects, how those effects are interpreted and understood changes the meaning of the sign. Every sign is therefore ambiguous, as the meeting point of many different interpretations, none of which can claim absolute necessity.

A sign will always be open to many valid interpretations, depending on how we map its effects and what position we take on them. The makers of simple direct signs are aware of this. Everyone else should be encouraged to be as critical as the makers are knowing.

©Al Williams, May, 2020