This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The MacPherson Missive.” Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/
Each new week of 2020 is more shocking than the last. Watching this pandemic unfold will likely change us all. Nothing will be the same after this. Families will be split, friendships will be lost and trust will be even more broken than it already was.
Today as I write this, a growing number of anti-maskers are planning on gathering in downtown Calgary in violation of provincial health orders. It’s important to note that these protesters are not just against masks but any rules related to COVID-19 including physical distancing.
As one Twitter supporter put it this morning in a tweet mentioning the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw: “2000+ People will be downtown today! Cram your propaganda down your loud mouth!” Ironically, the tweeter’s handle is “Lovinstevens” and “independent journalist” whose website bio says: “Just a regular dude, who has waken up from social programming / indoctrination and has entered the spiritual state of awareness.”
Stevens and others were interviewed by the “Half Blind Hecklers” at last weekend’s rally. The Youtube video is worth watching to get a bit of an understanding of where these folks are coming from. The video includes interviews with Stevens and two of the organizers, including Artur Pawlowski. Pawlowski, the notorious anti-gay street preacher, who has been fined for organizing the protest, posted his own video of the Calgary Police Officers serving them with their tickets, calling them the “Gestapo.”
What’s interesting about the crowds showing up for these protests is the sheer variety of signs and messaging, everything from anti-vaccination to Wexit to anti-communism to pro-Trump. One thing does seem to be apparent though – it’s a convergence of aggrieved people (mostly white) who are united in their disbelief, which is defined as “the mental rejection of something as untrue.”
It turns out that belief is a tricky, two-sided coin. And a “culture of disbelief” can lead to some terrible decision-making. Studies of the global refugee crisis and legal claims for asylum have shown that legitimate refugee claims are denied due to confusion and chaos caused by rampant disbelief.
In rape cases, there’s a well-documented tendency to irrational disbelief, even though the statistics do not support the idea that rape victims are often lying. In fact, they rarely ever are lying and yet we have to create hashtags stating the painfully obvious #believeher. The patriarchy has skillfully managed disbelief to its benefit for a long time.
It may be because, suspending your disbelief is thought to create an actual strain on a person. It requires effort to embrace things like science fiction and fantasy – the bigger and wilder the story, the harder you have to work to stick with such a complex plot or premise. Suspending disbelief is the general expectation for all entertainment. There’s something to be said for the value of the arts in our lives if it helps us practice that suspension of disbelief for when we need it in real life.
Side note: On the other hand – perhaps we’ve been exercising our suspension of disbelief “muscle” a bit too much of late, as we are stuck at home watching Netflix and HBO for hours on end? (Note: My natural instinct is to be angry with them, so I’m surprising myself here with a more empathetic take.)
Maybe people’s exhaustion about COVID-19 predictions is an example of wanting to go back to disbelief. It’s a comfortable place and we don’t have to work as hard. In 1963, psychologist Melanie Klein focused on the moral nature of predictions, especially warnings of a danger. During this pandemic, we’ve been inundated with warnings of danger, some of them contradictory and always, they are changing.
According to Klein these types of moral warnings tend to evoke in others “a refusal to believe what at the same time they know to be true, and expresses the universal tendency towards denial, with denial being a potent defence against persecutory anxiety and guilt.”
This affinity to disbelief also has a connection to Greek mythology where a goddess named Cassandra was given a gift of prophecy but then Apollo cursed her by having no one ever believe her. There’s also an Abba song about Cassandra that seems kind of poignant:
Down in the street they’re all singing and shouting
Staying alive though the city is dead
Hiding their shame behind hollow laughter
While you are crying alone in your bed
So, while we anxiously watch the protesters milling about outside Calgary City Hall, it might be worth reflecting on the double-edged sword of disbelief. It does appear to be a built-in characteristic of human beings. Can we not recognize it and plan for it? I’d suggest yes, we can.
If we are asking people to suspend their natural affinity towards disbelief, we should expect that it won’t be easy. Half-hearted attempts aren’t going to work and mixed messaging from leaders, contradictory rules and guidelines are not going to fly with an audience tending towards disbelief.
So, the government has convinced itself that some spreading of COVID-19 is allowed and these allowances are made somehow to protect my “well-being?” For a bunch of small-government conservatives, they really are getting into the weeds on this one. They’ve even broken it down and decided that the wedding ceremony has no new limits but the reception is limited to 15 people. The same freedom from the limit applies to funeral ceremonies but not the receptions afterwards. These guidelines are off-the-scale difficult to understand and follow. The directives are splitting hairs so finely, no one knows what is safe or not.
Miss Cranky Pants (aka Jody MacPherson) is a professional communicator, amateur politico, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and coffee addict who gets a little testy without regular caffeine.