I, for one, am fed up with watching inequity, stupidity and bigotry, and walking by because it’s ‘uncomfortable’ to say or do anything. So today, I’m going to write about why it’s not OK to let politicians, organisations, and individuals get away with actions that directly or indirectly harm others. I’m also the first to admit that there is a substantial amount of irony in writing about how actions speak louder than words. Today is not so much a ‘call to arms’ as a ‘hang on a minute, what the hell are we doing?’.
Let me start with a story. My practice is very close to a day clinic that provides abortions. I often walk past the front of the building where, invariably, a group of religious nutters hold ‘prayer vigils’. Well, they call them ‘prayer vigils’, but that appears to be a euphemism for ‘accosting vulnerable people and confronting them in an unpleasant manner to push a religious viewpoint’. They choose to wear offensive, provocative t-shirts with slogans like “Abortion is murder”, and “Stop killing children”. I’ve already written about why I don’t respect faith (read here) and I find this sort of protest abhorrent – to my mind confronting people who are psychologically vulnerable, upset or who have made a very personal choice regarding their own bodies, is a form of psychological violence. No one has the right to harm another in pursuit of their beliefs, no matter (or especially) how strongly those convictions are held*.
Anyway, for over a year, I’ve walked past these ‘protestors’ and done nothing. I’ve thought about it, but (probably like you) I’ve always felt uncomfortable with confrontation of any sort. The other day I chose to stop and talk with one of them (why is is that the anti-abortion movement seems to attract older men?), not because I expected to change his mind, but because I wanted to make it clear to him that he wasn’t welcome and that I felt that he was doing harm. Of course, my argument didn’t go over well. In fact, it was immediately turned around and I was attacked for not having done my ‘research’ – yes, I was actually criticised when I mentioned that I had studied psychological trauma, by a guy who clearly had no idea about the psychology of violence. His faith had him convinced that he was doing ‘good’ and he was horrified to hear himself described as a fundamentalist. More irony here: his fundamentalism made him immune to the idea that his actions might be harmful, the direct opposite of his professed intention.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible, short of some sort of major personal catastrophe, to change the minds of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists do not, by definition, think about alternatives. Pluralism, the acceptance that there are multiple viewpoints, requires the ability to think rationally, to evaluate various arguments, and to make decisions regarding action based on sound reasoning. Fundamentalism simply requires faith, which in itself is an act of intellectual laziness. I’m happy to be thoroughly contentious in claiming that fundamentalists, religious or otherwise, aren’t the brightest amongst us. Researchers have demonstrated that people who are more likely to be religious and conservative, are also likely to have had less education and possess lower intelligence. Thus, one of the most effective cures for fundamentalism is a thorough, wide-ranging education (including higher education). Sadly, the inability to hear or be swayed by intelligent argument or incontrovertible evidence makes these people substantially more dangerous; it’s really hard to get them to change, and they’re more likely to commit acts of violence (intentional or indirect) in support of their beliefs.
Here’s the good news. Fundamentalists are, for the most part, the minority. They just have big mouths. We tend to assume that, when people make a big fuss, or take direct action, that they must have a lot of supporters. This is, however, a common cognitive error. In fact, it’s just that the ‘strength’ of their beliefs makes it more likely that they will engage in behaviour that is difficult for the rest of us (i.e., stuff that makes us uncomfortable). Moreover, because most of us get uncomfortable with any sort of confrontation, we don’t tend to stand up to the actions of these minorities, meaning that their message often gets across without opposition (and therefore attracts attention, gaining a wider audience). Thus, if fundamentalists are relatively small in number but are more comfortable about making noise, it’s not necessarily important to change their minds (because that’s probably never going to happen); instead, we can stand up and make our own noise that shows that their actions are not the welcome, not acceptable, and not unopposed.
There’s a problem here though. In the modern world, it’s not just fundamentalists who get away with crap. Sadly, those we elect to ‘represent’ us often act in unacceptable ways, frequently at the behest of multinational organisations who have become psychopathic (read here). As a result, the vulnerable suffer. I want to explore the concept of vulnerability in a future blog (an exploration of ethics – hopefully next time) but, for now, I mean any person, animal, system or ecosystem, who/that is incapable of standing up for themselves in the face of abuse, violence or indifference.
It is not my intention for this article to descend into a rant, nor to push any form of political agenda. Far from it. Instead, I want to pursue a single, clear notion: when we are confronted with bigotry, violence, fundamentalism, or actions that result in harm (whether the result of ignorance, stupidity, greed or an ‘agenda’), if we don’t say or do something we’re passively complicit. We all walk by (literally or figuratively) every day of our comfortable lives. And we do so for two, very human reasons. The first is fear. We are naturally afraid that, if we confront others who are acting inappropriately, that we will suffer in some way (even if it’s just a feeling of anxiety). In many situations, it’s appropriate to listen to this sensation. Putting ourselves in direct harm, or acting in a way that inflames a situation (e.g., opposing violence with violence) seldom does any ‘good’. The second reason we fail to act is called the ‘bystander effect’. It’s a well documented behaviour, identified by social psychologists, that predicts whether people will come to the aid of others (or take action). Put simply, the more people who are present when an act is committed, the less likely we are to act, a process called role diffusion. When others are around, it’s much easier for us to assume that someone else will help and that we are, therefore, not culpable. Although this predicts directly, whether someone will receive help in a crowded street, in the modern world it has a larger effect. Because we feel so connected to those around us (the effects of modern communication), it’s easy to assume that any problem is someone else’s and that, even if you want to act, “someone else will probably do it”. It makes it really easy to look away. When we combine the bystander effect with our natural fear of confrontation, we get a recipe (and an explanation) for our daily inaction. It’s much easier to look the other way, even when what we see affects us deeply.
This malaise can, potentially, explain the apathy that has become endemic in the Western world. Instead of taking action when we see injustice, we either ignore it, pretend it’s not happening (so we don’t have to do anything), or whinge about it (the great Australian/British/American pastime). Worse, we’re often not even aware of it because mainstream media has become anything but objective and independent.
So what’s the alternative? I recognise that I’ve been just as complicit as anyone. I live a comfortable life and I (naturally) feel uncomfortable when I’m placed (or place myself) in situations that might threaten that sense of comfort and equilibrium. I would like to say that I’m going to take a universal stand from this point on, but that’s unlikely to happen. Instead, I’m going to make an effort, whenever the situation arises, to consider an alternative action to my default inaction. Specifically, I’m going to confront the anti-abortionists every time I walk past them on my way to and from work (instead of just walking past). I will do so realising that it won’t change their attitudes, but in the hope that it will show them and, more importantly, other bystanders, that their actions are not acceptable, and that just because people don’t say anything against them, their actions are not unopposed. But I’m also going to try to do more. For instance, I will not accept the actions of our ‘leaders’ that are incompatible with their mandate, and I will attempt to act in opposition.
How do we speak out and, or take action? First, we need to know what to speak out against. This is easier (or harder because it’s in your face) when you see it on the street. It’s not easy when you don’t know what’s happening. So, for starters, boycott the main newspapers (in Australia or the UK, anything that’s owned by Murdoch) and news channels, and seek out less biased sources. The BBC is a great start (also try The Register). Second, attempt to challenge your ingrained political stance. It’s not just about tribalism (our natural instinct to seek out a ‘tribe’ of people who share our viewpoints) – the stakes are too high for that. Instead, look at what your favoured political party stands for and ask yourself if that’s actually what’s important to you. When you vote, don’t vote for the incumbents. Explore the options among the minorities and encourage their candidates to avoid passing their preferences to the major parties. If enough people vote with a conscience, instead of out of apathy or ennui, the major parties will be required to pay attention. Last, take appropriate action (i.e., action that won’t make things worse, and that never descends into physical or psychological violence) where and when you can. Stand up at a local level (do you even know who your local councillor is, let alone your MP?). Fourth, listen to opposing viewpoints and attempt to understand whether they have merit. Work hard to make your decisions based on analysis of the various viewpoints rather than your biases and traditional opinions. This will help you be a pluralist instead of a fundamentalist!
And finally, stop whinging about how the country is going to crap, and go and do something…
* Yes, I’m aware of the anti-abortionists’ arguments regarding the rights of the unborn. I’m afraid that in this instance I need to take a utilitarian viewpoint combined with a compassionate one. That is, the availability of abortion provides the best outcome for both the mother and for society at large, and often for the unwanted unborn child. In this case, the wellbeing of the fully formed, functioning human (the mother), and of society and the planet at large, outweighs those of the collection of embryonic cells. And, of course, this view is contentious.