Woke up in a good mood which lasted all of the twenty minutes before I glanced at Twitter.
One of the constant nuisances of writing “professionally” is that it opens you up to a different kind of reader. A blog is just me sitting here. Once an article makes it to a bigger website, however, you move from being perceived as being yourself to being perceived as being part of some greater whole.
So, for example, I’ve written a piece about risk for Reaction Weekend. In it, I touch on a few of my favourite subjects, such as the nature of determinism… That is, a universe where the laws are so constant that we know what it coming next. Risk is the stuff of computer models and, as our models get better, we have a better sense of what will happen. So, the example I give, people knowing there was “a bad flu going around” was a very different world to knowing that “20% of people will need hospital treatment if they catch it”. It changes the way we behave.
Thinking through my argument on Thursday, I found myself softening in some of my responses to bigger issues, such as face masks. It’s not that I think masks are any less important (wear your damn mask!) and that the science isn’t strong (undeniable, imho) but I also remembered that, like arguments about obesity, these arguments are about hugely complex creatures. Each of us have complicated back stories and reverse engineering “risk” to understand why people do what they do doesn’t properly explain who we are.
Let me put that another way: simply calling people idiots is far too reductive if you want to engage with the world in an intelligent and compassionate way.
I think I was particularly touched by a story I’d read in which a woman had been vilely abused on a train for taking off her mask to speak to her sister who was deaf and needed to see her lips to understand what she was saying. The temptation is to say that this was a one off and to argue that everybody else is simply “dumb”. But is it as simple as that?
Well, yes, I suppose it is but this is really the super-duper right-wing kneejerk response, that we are all masters of our destiny and we must take full responsibility for our actions. But if that’s true, it’s only true up to a point. Byron – who I’m thinking a lot more about in recent days – believed in predestination. He thought we were damned from the moment we were born. He considered this in largely religious terms but even me, a confirmed atheist, tends to agree.
You aren’t born at point A and free will alone doesn’t deposit you at Point B by the time you’re X years old. Nobody is born free. We are the products of our DNA, our class, our culture, our family’s wealth, as well as which way we were lying in the womb and the terrifying degree of luck involved in childbirth, such as not having the umbilical cord wrapped around your damn neck. The Right want us to embrace risk so the state don’t aren’t held responsible. The Left want to strip us of agency because we can’t be trusted to tie our own shoelaces. It’s easy to succumb to both positions (this is fundamentally what the culture was is about) when, really, humans are both at the same time. We always navigate a course between the two extremes: sometimes taking chances and sometimes doing what the state advises. What’s more, these decisions are never simple. In any two similar situations, we can reach different conclusions. Our attitude to risk changes all the time and thank the non-existent God that it does. It makes our species brimming with diversity. Evolutionary we follow the pack because the pack offers us safety but it’s also important that we don’t all follow the pack. That way, if the pack was wrong, there’s still others able to carry our generic material going forward.
All that is a long winded way of saying something I think I argued better in my piece. It took a good few hours to write/think about, choosing my words really carefully because I wanted to strike this balance between the two positions.
So, of course, the first thing I read this morning is a comment from somebody who hadn’t read the piece but accused me of being on the right and a defender of selfishness.
That puts me in such a foul mood.
Not just because it assumed I’m something that I’m not. It again makes the point I was making in the article: that the modern world strips us of our native complexity. This person he was address was not “me” but some stupidly reductive version of myself, no longer full of the doubts and confusions that makes up my inner monologue. It refuses to acknowledge the version of me that, like most people, is struggling through life trying to make sense of things. It divorces me from my compassion and – just as important – my will to compassion. Essentially, they just called me a selfish arsehole because he saw the headline, a snipper, a picture, and the source, and because he couldn’t be bothered reading the piece. It’s the same as that person insulting the deaf girl for taking off her mask, the people who insult the obese because they think they’re just greedy, as well as every other kind of dumbass discrimination that pollutes the world. It just wants me to shout: “Being wrong and messy and misguided and, yes, even dumb, are the default human position. Learn some fucking humility!”