Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The dangers of schismogenesis: Beware of adopting a view because of the people it will upset

The problem is not so much that social media has led us to support policies on the grounds that they will "upset the right people": it's that we go on to invent principles that will justify this understandable but ultimately base instinct.

So it was fine to smile when Nigel Farage had his account closed by Coutts - he has done a great deal of damage to this country, after all.

What worried me was when people who imagined themselves on the left started defending the proposition that banks are private business with a right to act they choose within the law. With it's denial of any wider social responsibility, that sounded a very right-wing view. but no one on the left seemed to care, as long as it justified their giving Old Frogface a miserable time.

Yes, I know the Farage Affair was more complex than it first seemed, but many had taken up their positions before that became apparent.

And, only a few days ago, justified dislike of Laurence Fox led many to take up a position on whether or not one of his sons needed treatment for ADHD, when they have never met any of the people involved.

Being a cool kid, I read Cory Doctorow's Pluralistic blog, and his latest post has a lot to say about the dangers of this kind of thinking:

It's totally reasonable for non-experts to reject the conclusions of experts when the process by which those experts resolve their disagreements is obviously corrupt and irredeemably flawed. But some refusals carry higher costs – both for the refuseniks and the people around them – than my switching to bottled water when I was in Charleston.

Take vaccine denial (or "hesitancy"). Many people greeted the advent of an extremely rapid, high-tech covid vaccine with dread and mistrust. They argued that the pharma industry was dominated by corrupt, greedy corporations that routinely put their profits ahead of the public's safety, and that regulators, in Big Pharma's pocket, let them get away with mass murder.

The thing is, all that is true. Look, I've had five covid vaccinations, but not because I trust the pharma industry. I've had direct experience of how pharma sacrifices safety on greed's altar, and narrowly avoided harm myself. I have had chronic pain problems my whole life, and they've gotten worse every year. When my daughter was on the way, I decided this was going to get in the way of my ability to parent – I wanted to be able to carry her for long stretches! – and so I started aggressively pursuing the pain treatments I'd given up on many years before.

My journey led me to many specialists – physios, dieticians, rehab specialists, neurologists, surgeons – and I tried many, many therapies. Luckily, my wife had private insurance – we were in the UK then – and I could go to just about any doctor that seemed promising. That's how I found myself in the offices of a Harley Street quack, a prominent pain specialist, who had great news for me: it turned out that opioids were way safer than had previously been thought, and I could just take opioids every day and night for the rest of my life without any serious risk of addiction. It would be fine.

This sounded wrong to me. I'd lost several friends to overdoses, and watched others spiral into miserable lives as they struggled with addiction. So I "did my own research." Despite not having a background in chemistry, biology, neurology or pharmacology, I struggled through papers and read commentary and came to the conclusion that opioids weren't safe at all. Rather, corrupt billionaire pharma owners like the Sackler family had colluded with their regulators to risk the lives of millions by pushing falsified research that was finding publication in some of the most respected, peer-reviewed journals in the world.

I became an opioid denier, in other words.

I decided, based on my own research, that the experts were wrong, and that they were wrong for corrupt reasons, and that I couldn't trust their advice.

When anti-vaxxers decried the covid vaccines, they said things that were – in form at least – indistinguishable from the things I'd been saying 15 years earlier, when I decided to ignore my doctor's advice and throw away my medication on the grounds that it would probably harm me.

For me, faith in vaccines didn't come from a broad, newfound trust in the pharmaceutical system: rather, I judged that there was so much scrutiny on these new medications that it would overwhelm even pharma's ability to corruptly continue to sell a medication that they secretly knew to be harmful, as they'd done so many times before.

But many of my peers had a different take on anti-vaxxers: for these friends and colleagues, anti-vaxxers were being foolish. Surprisingly, these people I'd long felt myself in broad agreement with began to defend the pharmaceutical system and its regulators. Once they saw that anti-vaxx was a wedge issue championed by right-wing culture war shitheads, they became not just pro-vaccine, but pro-pharma.

There's a name for this phenomenon: "schismogenesis." That's when you decide how you feel about an issue based on who supports it. Think of self-described "progressives" who became cheerleaders for the America's cruel, ruthless and lawless "intelligence community" when it seemed that US spooks were bent on Trump's ouster.

The fact that the FBI didn't like Trump didn't make them allies of progressive causes. This was and is the same entity that (among other things) tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr into killing himself.

The morals you can draw from this are that politics and life are always more complicated that they are made appear on social media, and that your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad to know this phenomenon has a name, I must try to remember it. I can think of a number of issues where people have adopted un-necessarily strident positions solely on the basis of whom they will anger - two current examples might be a certain regional conflict and a terminological problem on matters of personal identity.