There is a lot happening right now. I’ve thought about commenting on it, but I’m a believer in forming opinions slowly with evidence rather than emotion (for a discussion of why, see my footnote – if this concerns you already, I strongly urge you to read it*). Having said that, I think I’m ready to share some thoughts, though I of course reserve the right to change my mind with new information. This is a long post, but I think the world is complex and nothing less would accurately describe my views.
I like to try and make the strongest case possible for both sides of argument (see steelmanning). I think this is just good practice, but it can sometimes get me in trouble, since I end up arguing in part against both sides of a story, even the side that I actually agree with. Oh well.
First, it would be remiss of me to start without a direct statement on the cause of the protests in USA. I believe that suffering and loss of life are tragic, and so I was naturally horrified to hear about the death of George Floyd. As best I can tell from what I’ve seen, his death was unnecessary and a gross breach of police conduct. I’m not an expert in policing, but I can feel relatively confident at this point in saying that the police seriously fucked up. Regardless of whether or not Floyd had committed a crime or had a valid reason for being detained, the response was not warranted.
Black lives matter, and I’ll try my best to do my part to create a better world for African Americans.
I know people desperately want a solution to what is happening (myself included), but the world is extremely complicated, and a solution is unlikely to be simple. There are many examples of actions taken that sound great and have the best intentions, but end up creating more harm than good. Could that be happening now? Maybe. It would be epistemically dishonest of me to pretend to have an answer to that. For what it’s worth, I’m strongly pro-non-human rights but still think there is a chance that some action ‘for the animals’ could result in more animal suffering.
I also refuse to propose a solution. This may warrant some criticism (“You say that what people are doing might not be the best way to go about it, yet you don’t even have a solution? Hypocrite!”), but I want to push back on the culture of people who aren’t domain experts claiming to have a simple solution to a complex problem.
And yet, I have a view about the solution for many things unrelated to my core expertise. Usually I arrive at these views after reading and thinking about the issue for a while. I haven’t done this for this particular issue. Maybe I should be spending more time doing this. I can’t argue with that, but I won’t propose a solution until I do.
In particular, the counter-productivity of looting in the US has been talked about a lot. This is something you could write an entire journal paper on. I won’t say much on it except to say that there are a lot of competing views. A couple of interesting things come to mind – the Boston Tea Party involved the destruction of British property by dissatisfied American colonists. To say that destruction of property is always bad as a form of protest, you’d have to accept that the Boston Tea Party was too (see the Tweets below that have been making the rounds).
Some of the looters may be doing it opportunistically, and some may be doing it as protest. But just as I accept that well intended actions don’t always have good consequences, I accept that the looting doesn’t necessarily have bad consequences. I don’t claim to have the answer, though I do note that supporters of the protests remain divided on the looting and property destruction itself.
Some are criticising those who are protesting for being hypocritical about COVID-19. Some people were seemingly concerned a few weeks ago enough to criticise those who protested about the lockdown restrictions, but think that these protests are worth the risk.
This is a pet hate of mine. Often (not always), I find that when someone disagrees with the methodology of a protest or civil disobedience, what they actually mean is that they disagree with that method being used for that thing because they disagree with the thing being advocated for. E.g. an animal rights protest in Melbourne last year was criticised for blocking traffic, yet a union protest in the same week which also blocked traffic was celebrated (broadly speaking). You just need to look at the text and headlines of the ABC News articles on both to see this discrepancy.
I like Venn diagrams like the one below because they remind us that we can hold numerous different views at the same time. This might seem obvious, but my impression is that some people will naturally trend towards agreeing with all of the propositions a particular side makes. We don’t have to, we can choose.
I’d add one more circle to this Venn diagram for now, which is ‘concern about a second wave of SARS-Cov2 is warranted’. Again, this might seem obvious, but some seem to be framing it as ‘you can only pick one’. Probably a lot of the protesters hold all five of these circles, but have decided, either consciously or subconsciously, that the risk of spreading SARS-Cov2 is worth the payoff of achieving change through the protests. It’s important to acknowledge that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect black neighbourhoods for a variety of reasons. This isn’t an argument in itself, but an important point that I don’t know people are considering enough.
I would encourage anyone who chooses to protest (for anything) to socially distance where possible while protesting (I know this is just impractical most of the time), wear a mask as a matter of priority, not protest if they are sick, and self-isolate for two weeks after the protest if possible.
For a specific example of things being complicated, I want to mention ‘Blackout Tuesday’, where people posted black squares on social media this week. This was intended as a show of solidarity and support of BLM, but there have been concerns from some in the BLM community that it had been drowning out live information (e.g. the #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM feeds) about the protests and what was happening on the ground, which was a life line for activists. Once again, no simple answer.
I hope that the systemic issues that are being questioned now do not get forgotten in the next media cycle. I hope that SARS-Cov2 is not forgotten about in this media cycle. The world sucks all year round, so let’s make sure we are always fighting for a better one.
Have I missed something? Almost certainly. There are also other related topics which I intended to write about, but felt that including them here would be distracting. I’m happy to update my views and amend anything that needs amending (that’s largely why I’m writing this). I’m happy for people to comment here or reach out to me privately.
* In January 2019, there was a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., USA. There were groups of opposing political demonstrators at the site, and a video was released of a high school student wearing a Make America Great Again hat, seemingly taunting another man. The student was lambasted on social media, being called a racist and getting sent death threats.
Later footage revealed that the initial media coverage was inaccurate, and that the students had been antagonised by another group of protesters. Suddenly, the smirking, racist student was just a student smiling awkwardly after a man came up to him and started beating a drum in his face. Do I agree with all of the students’ views? No. But I don’t think that excuses criticising them for things they didn’t even do.
From the Wikipedia article on the incident: “The news media has been criticized for how it covered the incident, specifically for their initial reporting of the story based on various social media posts without fully investigating what occurred and subsequently fueling controversy and outrage over the incident.“
Videos and photos can be powerful, but they rarely constitute viable evidence in isolation. This is why I try not to make strong judgements based on a video and initial reporting, no matter how compelling they seem.