Brownstone » Brownstone Institute Articles » Why Are So Many Choosing a Life in a Cage? ~ Dr. Julie Ponesse

Why Are So Many Choosing a Life in a Cage? ~ Dr. Julie Ponesse


Dr. Julie Ponesse is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on  22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

Thank you for the introduction, thank you to The Democracy Fund, thank you to Charles McVey for providing a  space in which we can share ideas openly and freely.

I am deeply honoured to be here and I am so grateful for your gracious welcome; grace is in short supply these days and we need to foster it where we can. 

Today, I have an old Armenian folktale to tell you. It’s a story that my daughter loves to hear and it goes like this…

There is a fox who stole some milk from an old woman. She punished him by cutting off his tail. He looks funny without his tail and so all his friends laugh at him. He begs the old woman to sew his tail back on but she will only do so if he gives her back the milk that he stole. But the milk is gone so he goes to a cow and asks for her milk to repay the old woman, but the cow will only give him her milk if the fox brings her some grass, and the field will only give up its grass if he brings it some water … and so the story goes…

Two interesting things about this story: 

First, the fox can only get what he wants if he first does what someone else asks of him.

Second, the fox goes to such great lengths to get his tail back not because of any inherent value it offers him (e.g. because it helps him to swat flies or stay warm at night) but because his tail has great social value. He wants to fit in; without it, he says, ”all my friends will laugh at me.”

Is the fox acting freely?

Maybe. But the decisions he makes about his life, how he determines what is good for him, and how to get it are heavily influenced by what he thinks others demand and expect of him.

How free is the fox, do you think? Does his dilemma resonate with you? 

How free do you feel? Raise your hand up if you felt more free 2 years ago? How about 10 years ago?

You might be familiar with the infamous photo from 1936 of the lone man standing with arms crossed as hundreds around him hold up their arms in salute and allegiance to the Nazi party.

Every year, at the start of my ethics class, I would show this picture and ask my students “which of these people do you think you would be?” 

Depending on the year, somewhere between 80 and 85% of the class said they would certainly be the lone, dissenting man with his arms crossed.

But, actual psychological studies show that not even 10% of us are likely to be that man.

These studies tell us that our dominant moral strategy is actually compliance.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review study, for example, asked subjects “What would you do if someone cut in front of you in line?”

Most said they would promptly and politely ask the person to go to the back of the line.

How many do you think actually spoke up? When researchers ran the experiment, only 1 in 25 actually did so. The rest were either too lazy to be bothered, or too afraid of what others would say or do.

Compliance reigned once again on Nov. 11 of this year in an engineering class at Western when a student was arrested for failing to comply with the university’s vaccine mandate.

What was surprising to me was not that the student was arrested but that an entire classroom of students, his peers and perhaps friends, sat silently by doing nothing, including the person who thought to record a video of the arrest.

If you were in that class, what do you think would you have done?

Today, we face substantial rewards for compliance; if we comply with the government’s pandemic response measures (masking, distancing, lockdowns, and now the ever-increasing and nebulous vaccine rollout), we are granted the conditional privilege of reentrance into society; and the penalties for failing to comply? being bullied, shamed, excluded, cancelled, even fined or arrested.

Last time I was here, I had a number of questions. I still do:

Why do our PM, public health officials, and even the electronic sign above the highway on my way here tonight claim that vaccination is a necessary defence against COVID-19 when the Director of the CDC, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, Israel’s Director of Public Health, and even Dr. Fauci have all stated that the COVID vaccines do not, cannot, prevent transmission?

Why are the doubly vaccinated granted free access to public spaces when, as a recent study in The Lancet (2nd only to the New England Journal of Medicine) showed, at day 15, vaccine effectiveness waned as much as 92%; and at day 211, NO effectiveness whatsoever could be detected?

Why, after Dr. Fauci admitted that the vaccines don’t work quite as well as they thought they would, are we now led to believe that the less well something works, the more we should take it?

Why does Health Canada continue to ignore the early outpatient treatment protocols when they are being used by brave Canadian physicians every day with a success rate that should embarrass Drs Tam and Moore?

When will it cease to be reasonable, or possible, to call this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”? When they are only 10% of the population? 6% 1%? a fraction of a %?

Is this a “moving goalpost,” or a nonexistent one?

Why are we about to vaccinate 5 year olds when the vaccines give them at most a 1% absolute risk reduction and when there is NO effective monitoring system to track adverse events?

Would it surprise you to hear that this question doesn’t come from some ‘fringe,’ extremist group, as our PM likes to say, but from Dr. Peter Doshi, senior editor of the British Medical Journal?

And, as Christine Anderson of the European Parliament recently said, “In the entire history of mankind there has never been a political elite sincerely concerned about the wellbeing of regular people. What makes any of us think that it is different now?”

We find ourselves not just in a state of scientific confusion:

We are a confused, terrified, morally exhausted, demoralized nation.

We have lost our moral compass and, with it, the moral and civic virtues on which we have built our health care system, our legal system, and our democracy. 

We have been instructed by our leaders to hate, divide, shame and dismiss… and we are excelling at these things superbly. This is now what it means to be Canadian.

Who could have predicted that we could be so easily persuaded to turn our lives upside down, to fear everyone + everything, to isolate ourselves for months, now almost 2 years?

Well, while the novel vaccines are being rolled out, another experiment is being run every day with each one of us as trial participants.

Do you remember the ad that depicted COVID-19 as a green cloud, spreading noxiously over the buttons in an elevator?

Well, that ad and many others like it were created by the Privy Council’s behavioural insights team, charmingly called the ’nudge’ unit, to track and influence our behaviour.

The words we hear every day from our public health officials are a little less organic, less extemporaneous than they might seem; they are the highly calculated results of reams of behavioural data that is being collected about everything from our levels of fear of covid to what is so insultingly referred to as “vaccine hesitancy.” 

Remember those behavioural psychology experiments I told you about earlier? The top minds in behavioural psychology now work for our government and they use all of their studies, all of their knowledge to manipulate our natural critical thought. Our mental instincts. That which makes us human. They are dehumanizing us one billboard message at a time.

So, I’ll ask it again, “how free do you feel”? How free are we?

Are you familiar with “The Life of Pi” novel? Its author talks about the trade-off involved with living in a zoo. In the zoo you are well fed and have everything you need to live safely and comfortably without constantly fearing for your life, but you are caged; in the wild, you are cold, hungry, and constantly afraid of being someone else’s meal. But you are perfectly free. Which would you rather be: fed or free

Why does it seem that so many today are choosing the life in the cage? 

Talking about rights these days seems to either fall on deaf ears or be dismissed as irrelevant… or even selfish. There is a frightening majority in this country that simply doesn’t believe that anything that truly matters is being lost.

Have we decided that a life of comfort, security and conformity — if that is even possible — is worth the price of freedom?

How can you rally a people to stand up for their rights when they don’t think their rights are slipping away?

What use is there in trying to emancipate someone who doesn’t realize she is not truly free?

What if you’re blind to the cage that has been erected around you? What if you helped to build it?

I am going to get personal and serious for a minute

To be honest, I wish I wasn’t here with you tonight. I wish we lived in a world in which we didn’t need to gather to talk about how our country is unrecognizable, and how we are at risk of losing our rights and freedoms forever.

I wish we lived in a world in which I could be at home with my daughter, reading her the story about the fox and tucking her safely in bed not, worrying about whether or not I will be able to keep her safe over the coming months.

I wish we were here to celebrate our successes as the nation that used to be the envy of the world.

But I don’t think we live in that world right now and I’m not sure we’ve lived there for some time.

If what we have seen to date continues, when the vaccines are rolled out for 5-11 yr olds, there are children reading stories and getting tucked into bed right now who won’t live to see their next birthdays.

For my part, I will fight every day for a world in which this isn’t something we need to worry about.

In which our children need to fear only what is truly fearful.

In which they can live like children and not like little adults carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Let’s not make our mistakes their burdens.

Let’s not frame their lives with the uncertainties that we could have better managed.

Let’s not saddle them with the consequences of our own complacency.

Let’s give our children their childhoods back.

IF we could only see what we’ve lost and where it’s taking us 

IF we could just realize that it’s better to have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned

IF we could allow each other more grace than shame 

If, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
   Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
   And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

Kipling wrote these words in 1895 for his only son, killed in action just 6 weeks after his 18th birthday

But they could just as easily have been written for us today

We face a challenge of unfathomable and inestimable proportions.

Personally, I am terrified most moments of every day.

The parents in the room will most likely understand that.

But I won’t become a victim of that terror; and I won’t be terrorized.

Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is moving ahead through fear, in spite of fear.

Look for a minute at the person sitting in front of you, the person sitting to your left and your right, look at me.

We are your citizens, the people you’ve built a country with, the people that will be affected by what you do today.

We are not each other’s enemies and we are not alone; 

And we don’t need to comply or agree about everything to have a functioning democracy.

A choir in which everyone sings the same part is never as beautiful as the one in which people sing different, but complementary, parts; the beauty and unity in that harmony is unmatchable.

A society in which we respect each other’s differences is a true democracy.

And that democracy is just beyond our fingertips….we just have to reach out and grab it. 

As John F Kennedy said, “the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Let’s not be like the fox. Let’s cross our arms. Speak up. Refuse to comply. Ask questions. Dismantle the cage. 

What we need to be free again, to get our country back, is already inside each of us

It’s time to choose courage! (In spite of fear!) 

Will you join me?

“If not us, then who?
In the words of Hillel the Elder, “If not now, then when?” 

Thank you

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  • Julie Ponesse

    Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

    View all posts

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