This afternoon, reading a book written long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, I stumbled across a 60-year old quote that was so extraordinarily relevant to today’s situation it made me gasp.
I’d already been toying with blogging about the anti-quarantine protests that have been popping up around the country, inspired in part by a Facebook fiend’s wise comment about how to react to them (more about that in moment).
Most people I know are incensed that these protests are not only wrong-headed, scientifically, but have a strong chance of producing clusters of new cases that could extend the need for quarantine, endanger health workers, produce needless deaths, and do unnecessary damage to the economy.
Let me be very clear: I agree with that assessment. I also understand the temptation to call the protesters a bunch of names, much as I’m sure they are calling me and my friends libtards, or worse.
Then I read this quote, from Martin Luther King, Jr., reported by Robert Coles in his 1993 book The Call of Service (slightly condensed to avoid tl:dr)
“A big danger is the temptation to follow the people we are opposing. They call us names, so we call them names. Our names may be names that have a sociological or psychological veneer; but they are names, nonetheless—’ignorant,’ or ‘brainwashed,’ or ‘duped’ or ‘hysterical.’ I urge you to think of them as that—as categories; and I remind you that in many people called segregationists, there are other things going on in their lives: this person or that person, standing here or there may also be other things—kind to neighbors and family, helpful and good-spirited at work.
“You all know, I think, what I’m trying to say—that we must try not to end up with stereotypes of those we oppose, even as they slip us into their stereotypes. Let us not do to ourselves as others do to us: try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category—the virtuous ones as against the evil ones, or the decent ones as against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated as against the ignorant. There is the danger: the ‘us’ or ‘them’ mentality takes hold, and we begin to run the risk of joining rank with the very people we are opposing.”
Talk about words for our times, especially when we remember just exactly what King was working to oppose.
Which brings me back to my Facebook friend. He’s fellow science fiction writer Don Sakers, who is also a regular at Analog. Here, also slightly condensed to avoid tl:dr, is his comment.
I have to say three things about the reopen the economy protesters:
1. Their message is wrong, factually and morally.
2. They are human beings who are very scared. They’re out of work, have no money to pay their bills, and have no idea when things will get better. They’re stuck at home dealing with all the anxieties that you are. Just like you, they are angry that their government and their society have failed them. They’re lonely, they’re frightened, they feel helpless.
The situation and their feelings are making them act crazy. Can you relate? Have YOU acted crazy lately?
How about some compassion, some understanding, some forgiveness? How about…dare I say it…some empathy?
3. Their message is factually and morally wrong.
A few years ago, I wrote a guest editorial for Analog expounding on this issue at greater length. Tomorrow, I’ll see if I can hunt it up and post it here. But I can already tell you the tl:dr version. We have to get out of our silos and understand how the people we want to demonize actually think.
This does not mean we have to meekly submit to things we believe are wrong. But it does mean we must do as King urged, and realize that our opponents are also human, and that none of us is perfect.
Otherwise, we fall prey to the same danger King warned about, all the way back in the civil rights era.