Readers will notice a rather excited exchange in the Letters section this week, as some correspondents dissect what they saw as a misleading, if not outright ridiculous letter in last week’s issue. This is a sign of a healthy democracy, a community involved in its affairs, and eager to debate. But much more goes on behind the scenes than makes it to the printed page.
I think we all like to see argument and discussion based on strongly held opinions which in turn are based on facts and careful thought. What is less acceptable to many is the trend which has become all too familiar, that of people claiming the most outrageous conspiracy theories based on illogical and unproven “facts”. The difficult part of all of this is to find the right balance between allowing free debate on the one hand, and closing down dangerous misinformation on the other.
In the past week, I have had to tell one letter writer that a letter would not be published because it was so misleading and lacking in any rational argument that it endangered people’s health and even their lives. I think you will all understand that this was on the subject of vaccines and masks. But it went much further than simply objecting to either of those things; it made claims against individuals and made statements that were simply wrong.
Naturally, the writer of that letter accused me of being part of the cover-up, lined up with those who were trying to enslave the entire population of the world for our own wicked aims. Even publishing the letter last week that has inspired a few replies in this issue has brought criticism. There are those who believe that anything which might encourage the gullible to believe something untrue or one-sided should not be given the oxygen of publicity. Once again, it’s hard to find the right balance sometimes. Personally, I am getting truly fed up, tired and deeply irritated by the wild conspiracies that people are promulgating everywhere. I want to get throughto them somehow and ask why they think the overwhelming majority of medical professionals would take part in a giant lie designed to enslave the rest of the world. I would like them to explain why they choose to believe a handful of crackpots with their outlandish and illogical claims, rather than the statements of educated, informed, professional and caring people.
Just as last week’s letter writer claimed that the climate is in good shape, with fewer fires and storms than in the past, there are those who believe or claim to believe that there is a worldwide plot to gain control of people’s minds by injecting them with some kind of nanites. They actually use this term coming as it does straight from science fiction, as do so many of their conspiracy elements. Don’t they think for themselves? Do they really believe that only they and a few other enlightened ones around the globe really know what’s going on, and that the rest of us are being taken for a very dangerous ride by evil and malignant forces?
Really, I despair. Groups like Qanon, clearly unbalanced individuals like the MyPillow man, or any of Trump’s acolytes seem to thrive on the free publicity of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. I have made no secret of the fact that I dislike Facebook’s enabling of these unhinged theories, but what is the proper response? Do we in the media simply (to use a favourite word of the naysayers) cancel them by refusing to print anything we don’t think is valid? Does that not end up in a system of censorship?
No, as I say, there is a real need for balance here. We cannot, as a society, take the path of refusing to cater to opposite political or social ideas to our own. There must be free and open debate, or else we will fall into an even worse trap than the nuts think we already have. It is not a matter of one thing or the other, it is a gradation, a spectrum that runs from one view to its opposite, right and left, liberal and conservative, however you want to describe it.
But, at either end, there is a school of reaction (I almost said school of thought!) that is so misleading, so dangerous, so capable of undermining our shared values, that they cannot be allowed to go unopposed.
The bottom line for me is that all views should be open to public analysis and evaluated by the community. Then we can respond with reasonable and rational argument. Ideas without factual or rational foundations will be shown for what they are in the public arena. Better that, than pushing them into the shadows where they can remain unquestioned.
I know that as a Christian, there are those who would deny me the right to talk and write about my beliefs in public. With the wrong approach to the extremists, even religious ideas could be “cancelled”, or any minority position denied the right to question. History has shown that it is the freedom to question in the public arena that allows for positive change. It is the denial of that freedom that is the first act of autocrats and fascists. We have to allow open dialogue.
That is the best approach, except for the fact that some will believe the extreme views, in spite of rational argument against them, and believe the far out conspiracies, because that is what a certain percentage of the population want to believe. There is a feeling of being on the inside, of being smart enough to see the conspiracy that no one else does, that appeals to many. Who killed JFK? Was the Moon landing faked? Is there a secret worldwide organization that really runs everything?
Man, this is not an easy thing to deal with, given how much space the conspiracy believers have to spread their ideas. But I suppose we have to trust one another to know fact from fiction, truth from lies. The problem is that we haven’t shown ourselves to be very good at knowing that. But we can work it out with respect, tolerance, and some rational thought. Too much to hope?