It doesn’t matter where you stand on COVID, you’re getting labelled nowadays. If you’re on one side, you’re being labelled by the other side. Or if you, like most people, stand somewhere in the middle, there are a growing number on the periphery who are eager to rope you over to their side and slap a label on your back.
People who wear masks are being labelled as ‘living in fear.’ People who stay at home and follow the rules ‘don’t care about their freedom.’ Or, on the other side, people who oppose the lockdown ‘don’t care about people dying.’ People who raise awareness about an alternative point of view to the mainstream’s are denounced as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and mocked.
These are four of the most persistent labels being attached to people now. And they’re all borne out of a lack of respect and an inability to hold a point of view while also respecting someone else’s.
In the blue corner
In the blue corner, you have people who abide by all the rules of the lockdown, follow everything the government tells them and are urging others to do the same. They are sheeple who believe everything the government tells them and naively place great trust in the government, institutions and other power brokers. They do not question authority in the least.
The above profile fits a small minority of the population, yet it’s a caricature that the red side likes to paint of anyone who shares even some of these views.
People on the blue side are speaking up about the need to stay at home and follow the rules, so the infection isn’t spread any further. They’re pointing out some very useful facts that we need to think about: health care workers and other essential workers are putting their health on the line to work for us. We owe it to them to reduce their load so that they don’t get sick.
They espouse the notion that we should social distance because it’ll help flatten the curve, take the strain off the health care system and give us all a better chance of survival. They want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
They send out the message that even if you’re immune to COVID or are in a low-risk group, you should still follow the rules. If you get infected, you can pass that infection on to someone in a high-risk group who could then die from it.
The majority also believe that a vaccine is the best solution to this mess, and if one were to become available, they would jump at the chance to take it. They feel a vaccine would be safe and would be the best solution.
Most people subscribe to at least some of these messages, and most would agree they are useful messages to share. But if they just shared messages like that and stopped there, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The problem is that many blues disrespect the reds or fail to understand that different people have different values that don’t align with their own.
In the worst cases, they feel that their comfortably held worldview is threatened, so they attack the reds and bluntly label them ‘conspiracy theorists,’ or resort to name-calling.
In the red corner
In the red corner are paranoid libertarian conspiracy theorists who completely distrust the government and are calling them out for abusing their power. They think the entire COVID thing is a made-up fantasy that powerful interests in society are either orchestrating or taking advantage of for their own gain.
The above extreme again applies to few people, yet it’s a view many people in the blue corner like to ascribe to people with beliefs that differ from their own.
The most common view the red group is trying to espouse is that abuses of power are happening now with COVID, and they’re trying to bring attention to the loss of freedom that could result if we don’t raise our cognizance and take action. They may not have done a lot of research into a topic, and don’t have all the answers, but they feel it’s important enough that they should raise awareness, since we need to put more thought into it.
The beat of their drum has grown louder in recent weeks, as the tech overlords (namely Facebook and Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube) impose censorship on their posts, which so many people in the blue camp are quick to brush off as ‘conspiracy theories.’ They speak up about the dangers of censorship and the negative impact it has on democracy, and the attack on personal freedoms and privacy issues.
Those in the red corner are committed to showing people how we’re living in a power vacuum, where governments have much more power and much less oversight today. Since COVID dominates so much of people’s thinking (and the media), governments believe they can get away with enacting unpopular laws without much opposition, because people can’t even form a protest in lockdown. Similarly, police are abusing their power by fining people thousands of dollars for going jogging, without the courts being open for them to challenge those abuses.
The narrative being told by people on the red side speaks to a number of truths that lie hidden in what’s called ‘conspiracy theory.’ It can be helpful to share this knowledge and stay aware of what’s going on, so we don’t let powerful interests grab more and more power while we’re confined to our homes and powerless to protest.
Caught in the middle
The reality is that most people stand somewhere in the middle of the ring—mostly law-abiding citizens who are following the rules of the lockdown by staying inside and wearing masks where necessary. They don’t stay inside because they enjoy pissing away their freedom. And they don’t wear masks because they are scared … they do these things because they feel they’re the right things to do.
At the same time, they don’t fully trust the government or other powerful interests, because they’ve seen too many abuses of power to believe everything they’re told. Or perhaps they’ve read something that sounds like a conspiracy theory, but they just don’t have the time or care enough to research it further. However, they keep an open mind to the possibility of it being the truth.
What’s being lost by many today is the fact that people have differing views. Yet, there are also people firmly planted on one side who totally see the validity of the other side and respect it.
Polarization begets more polarization
The problem is that our society has been marching towards opposite poles for so many years now, that when an issue comes up that’s particularly divisive—such as COVID—people are quick to think that if you wear a mask, you must be living in fear, don’t care about your freedom and want the government to take care of you with their new vaccine. Or the polar opposite, that if you don’t want to get vaccinated (if a vaccine even comes available), you’re a conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxer who doesn’t have any trust in the government.
If you’re in one camp, you have to think everything people in that camp think. That’s false reasoning, as only a small number of people subscribe to all the thoughts of whatever camp they consider themselves to be in.
Extreme thinking has been growing in recent years, as we become a more divided society. Where in the past, there was one person in each camp and 98 in between, now there are five in each camp and 90 in between. And those 10 are emboldened as their numbers grow. As they gain more numbers, they grow louder and suck more of the middle onto their side. They’re quick to disrespect others’ views, and they’re growing less tolerant of any views that aren’t their own, to the point at which they’ll disrespect others and resort to name-calling.
What we end up with is a society that just keeps on growing its polar opposites and has a shrinking middle. A society that’s quick to adopt a warfare mentality of ‘us vs. them.’
Questioning with openness and respect
What we need is a lot more respect and a lot more openness. If someone chooses to wear a mask or stand 2 metres away, we need to respect that. We can’t encroach on their space while thinking that by doing so, it’ll make them believe this is all a made-up fantasy and that they’ll be safe to go maskless.
And the opposite: if someone chooses NOT to wear a mask, we need to respect that, too. As long as they’re maintaining their distance and practicing basic courtesies like not sneezing or coughing on people, they should have the freedom not to wear a mask.
It has been a common sight during the lockdown to see people scream at others for not wearing a mask, but for what? No one can prove definitively that they’re infected, and even if they were, the chances of them passing the virus on by not wearing a mask are slim (assuming they’re practicing basic courtesy, of course).
Whenever anyone ventures outside, they immediately assume the risk of being in public: the chance of getting hit by a car, robbed at gunpoint or struck by lightning. Post-COVID, that risk now includes the threat of picking up the virus.
If someone chooses to believe the mainstream narrative and place full trust in their institutions and power brokers, then so be it. That’s their choice and that should be respected. At the same time, people who choose to believe in an alternative viewpoint are allowed to, and that should also be respected.
Unless someone can prove for certain that the government and those who wield power in this world do not have their best interests in mind, or that they do indeed have their best interests in mind, this will remain a contested point.
In defense of their belief in the goodness of government, people in the blue corner could argue that most democratic governments provide well enough for society’s needs and that, for the most part, their citizens live good lives. They could also say that since we elect our governments to conceivably represent our interests, we determine our own fate (or, if choosing not to vote, we at least could vote). They could argue that other powerful interests in society (like Facebook and Google) provide a lot of good to society, and that they provide that good as a result of the network effect, which necessitates a concentration of power in their hands.
On the opposite side of the ring, team red could point out that there are great inequalities of power and wealth (even in democratic societies) that have corrupted society, and that it’s not good enough to just have things running ‘well enough.’ Legitimate abuses of power are happening, and as power concentrates more in the hands of the few, those abuses of power are growing. No one can prove that they’re wrong for questioning the status quo, because these abuses are happening.
If they choose to believe in conspiracy theories, it would be folly to discount their point of view, because history has proven that many conspiracy ‘theories’ turn out to be fact (here are just 29 conspiracy facts). Just because something is a theory today, doesn’t mean it couldn’t become fact tomorrow. Or even if it’s an unprovable theory, it could become a generally accepted one—like the theory of evolution. It’s important to expose these theories for the good of society, so that we become aware and don’t let abuses of power happen in the future.
If someone is spreading fake news, then that should be questioned. Just the same on the other side: if someone spreads the latest report from the government or another source that spreads the ‘official’ news about COVID as truth, yet there’s no way to prove it’s true, then that too needs to be questioned.
We must question everything. A strong and healthy democracy is built on strong and healthy debate. Just as we need opposition parties in government to keep power from corroding, the same can be said for the media and society at large.
With that privilege comes the responsibility to show respect. A lack of respect leads people to shut down or view the other as an enemy, and this only leads to more disrespect. Between confirmation bias (being more open to believing things that confirm your beliefs) and cognitive dissonance (opposing something because it’s uncomfortable to believe it), our minds have mechanisms to filter our world that make it easier for us to go about our day. We have to be aware of that. And if we can’t, it’s also fine to just keep silent. There’s no need to speak up about everything and try to stay informed on everything. It’s just not possible.
A well-informed society that’s open to ideas on all sides of the spectrum isn’t just kinder and more harmonious, it’s a wise society that will progress. Our differences of opinion are just that—differences. From black to white, we come in as many shades and colours as there are people on this planet.
From liberal to conservative, political affiliation is more about picking and choosing what to believe based on each issue. From introvert to extrovert, we have a variety of personalities, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
We’re all different and that’s what makes the world interesting. Let’s try embracing that for a change.
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