Who Gets To Be Wrong?
Something has been bothering me lately. It seems that as far as many journalists, government officials, and common netizens are concerned, you’re allowed to make a heap of noise about something and disrupt society so long as you happen to be correct in your underlying beliefs. Black Lives Matter protests are correct that things could be better for black people, so they get to take it to the streets. Anti-lockdown protestors?
Here’s what Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius had to say:
The tinfoil hat wearing brigade are alive and well out there in our community and they are taking every opportunity to leverage the current situation to serve their own ridiculous notions about so-called sovereign citizens, about constitutional issues about how 5G is going to kill your grandkids,…
It’s just crazy, it’s batshit crazy nonsense. People need to wake up to themselves because the wider community is awake to you and you need to stop it…
The very hard work of the vast majority who have been complying by and large with these restrictions will be undone by a small and selfish minority of foolish people who would wilfully further expose us to the deadly virus…
No one has the human right to infect other people and place the entire Victorian community at risk.
Contrast that to his statement in June about the Black Lives Matter protests:
We absolutely understand the sentiment and the anger that lies behind that, and we’re very keen to support community here in giving voice to their concerns…
protestors are able to lawfully exercise their right to protest…
It would indeed be a tragedy if people of good faith and intent coming together to give voice to protest do so in a way which causes our elderly and most vulnerable to be exposed to the coronavirus…
So two months ago protestors are able to lawfully exercise their right to protest but now no one has the human right to place the entire Victorian community at risk? It’s not as if the fact that we’re now in stage four lockdown means it’s all of a sudden more dangerous to protest, especially given that the headcount will be orders of magnitude less than what we’ve seen from BLM.
I also find it telling that the recent arrest of a pregnant woman (an event acknowledged by Cornelius as ‘bad optics’) for organising a peaceful anti-lockdown protest came with the charge of ‘incitement’. I have never heard the term ‘incitement’ used alone like that before. Incitement of what? Incitement of violence is the one we’re all familiar with, and probably the one people assume when the term is used in isolation. But nobody wants to say ‘incitement of protest’.
My beef here has nothing to do with ‘the right to protest’. For all I know both BLM protests and anti-lockdown protests should be shut down. For all I know neither should. I don’t think speaking in terms of ‘rights’ does us much good when two different ‘rights’ — the right to life and the right to protest — are butting heads. The right to protest is certainly not inviolable. It’s not hard to think of a protest where no police commissioner in their right mind would allow it, pandemic or otherwise. What if there was a group of people who thought the threat of nuclear bombs was a conspiratorial hoax, and they were going to prove it in a protest by detonating a home-made nuke in the expectation that nothing would happen, in the middle of the CBD? It doesn’t matter how sincere those protestors beliefs are, the risk simply cannot be borne by society.
But even in a hypothetical as insane and unlikely as that, it still grinds my gears to think that you would dismiss those people’s sincere beliefs as selfish or malevolent. The conversation should be ‘I believe that you believe what you’re saying is true, and I respect you for wanting to protest it, but I think it’s batshit insane so given the risks I’m not going to let you hold this protest, and if I’m wrong then I’ll happily resign’. Why is that so hard?
I could make the argument that the government might itself be wrong and that it would be a miscarriage of justice to deny protests that turned out to be on the right side of history (civil rights movement anyone?). But that argument has already been made. I want to make a stronger argument, where we can (however presumptuously) assume the government is right and the protestors are wrong.
My point is this: Too easily we ascribe negative moral traits (selfishness, narcissism, malevolence, callousness) to people just because they happen to be wrong about something. Am I the only person who finds that fucked up? Take any one of these ‘batshit insane’ propositions and ask yourself, if you yourself really believed it was true, and you were trying to protest about it, would it be selfish? If you were willing to risk being arrested to protest that lockdown laws are excessive and cause more death from suicide than there would otherwise be from coronavirus, that seems quite selfless to me, even admirable. But that’s right, they’re wrong which means they couldn’t possibly have sincere and well-meaning reasons to protest.
I see this laziness play out every day: somebody isn’t willing to spend five seconds thinking about what it might be like inside another person’s head with their beliefs, so they dismiss them as quacks, racists, tin-foil hats wearers, lunatics. It’s funny how as a society we’ve all learnt not to judge others based on immutable traits like height, weight, or attractiveness, because those traits are outside people’s control; yet we still haven’t learnt not to judge others on their beliefs, which, though mutable, are just as involuntary.
In modern society, why would anybody in their right mind want beliefs that go against the mainstream? If your beliefs align with consensus, you won’t need to worry about what you post on the internet. You won’t need to worry about whether your beliefs will jeopardise your career. You won’t need to worry about whether your beliefs will cost you friendships.
But we live in a world where we don’t get to choose our beliefs, any more than we get to choose our height. Some people have the intellectual means of refining their beliefs over time, but others don’t. Some people have friends spanning the political spectrum, others live in a bubble. Why ascribe negative intent? Who gains from that?
Left wingers who dismiss right wingers as brainwashed quacks when they are clearly acting in good faith remind me of meat eaters who say ‘How do you know when somebody’s a vegan? Don’t worry they’ll tell you’. I’ve had to have this conversation with people before: Yes there are plenty of vegans who are just bullies who want to boss you around and make you feel bad, but they are the minority, and even if there was only a single vegan who was in fact acting in good faith, you still should not generalise the whole group. Whether the vegans are actually right in their conviction makes no difference.
Remember gay marriage debates? Anybody who came out against gay marriage was vilified as a bigot, no matter their justification. Greens MP Adam Brandt described other MPs supporting traditional marriage as ‘bigots scraping the bottom of the barrel’. That always confused me when articles like this opposed gay marriage, where the author himself was gay.
I worked for a fairly politically active retail chain in 2015 when the US legalised gay marriage. I remember walking into the store and seeing that the TV’s were all displaying the same thing: ‘Love Wins’. Our morning debriefing started with the celebration that gay marriage had been legalised (in another country). I remember thinking: it’s great that gay marriage is legalised, and shameful that this has been framed as love against hate. I feel the urge to label this as a disingenuous power play by the business, but that’s the very urge I’m arguing we should resist. They probably genuinely believed that it was a matter of love vs hate.
I remember in school when I believed that pro-lifers were all misogynist because bodily autonomy trumps the right to life. I’m sure there are some pro-lifers who really are just using the belief as a vessel to smuggle in a hatred of all women. But if you think that’s all pro-lifers, you might have more in common with the conspiracy theorists than you thought. It takes about ten seconds to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who equates abortion to murder and understand their viewpoint, even if you think they’re wrong.
And what if I’m wrong? What if anti-lockdown protestors really are selfish and just want their jobs back, elderly people be damned? What if people who opposed gay marriage in 2015 really just hated gays, and pro-lifers just hate women? And for the right-wingers reading, what if BLM protestors just hate whites?
It doesn’t matter. If somebody presents themselves as sincere and well-meaning, take their word for it until you see actual evidence to the contrary. Them believing something that you disagree with is not evidence. Them having failed to dig as deep into the research literature as you is not evidence. You can dismiss them as stupid, or lazy, or sheltered, but do not ascribe insincerity, malevolence, or selfishness to people who simply hold a belief and want to communicate that belief.
Maybe it’s all an elaborate trick and the person really is disingenuous. Why should that change your conduct? Are you going to persuade anybody from the other side to cross the isle and accept your viewpoint by demonising them? Or are you just going to fuel further polarisation, scaring everybody with an unpopular opinion away from voicing it, until the time comes when the consensus belief which is wrong and nobody wants to risk setting it right.