Marching through Glasgow last Saturday afternoon with several hundred other Yes folk I got my first real sighting of the anti-vaxxer, anti-lockdown, anti-[what do you have?] mob. What a dubious treat that was! I think the march – organised and very effectively managed by Scottish Independence Movement(SIM) – had got as far as Saltmarket or thereabouts when we were brought to a halt as numerous Police Scotland officers ran up the street ahead of us. Evidently, there had been an ‘incident’ on the route of the march and the police were taking no chances. Police Scotland has, I think, mostly worked well with Yes march organisers and there has never been any serious trouble at any of these events.
Not, I suspect, unconnected with the law enforcement activity, it was at this point the anti-this-and-that mob made its appearance coming towards us. It was apparent;y not a sanctioned demonstration or Police Scotland would have known about it in advance and would have coordinated with SIM to avoid a clash. Whatever the background what we saw was the rag-tag rabble of reactionaries, religionists, conspiracy theorists and science-denying flat-earthers shepherded by the police onto the pavement on the opposite side of the road. Suffice it to say that we Yes folk were not greeted amicably by our fellow demonstrators. In fact, the hostility was open, bitter and snarling.
Most of those on the SIM side of the street responded to this hostility as Yes folk are prone to do from long habit and custom. We either ignored the hostiles completely or smiled and waved so the even more hostile media might be denied images they could use as per editor Neil Mackay’s infamous ‘confrontation’ picture in the now defunct Sunday Herald.
My own reaction to the mob across the street might be characterised as perplexed amazement tinged with disgust. Reading the semi-literate, barely coherent, handwritten and in many cases ludicrously overlong messages on the crudely cobbled-together placards it occurred to me that if Scotland was actually under the heel of a regime such as they portrayed then we could expect momentarily the arrival armed, armoured and gas-masked ‘riot police’ swinging cudgels and firing off CS gas grenades hither and thither as well as willy and nilly. Did such a repressive regime exist in reality, the streets of Glasgow might shortly be running with the tears and blood of these mad martyrs.
Here in the real world the worst horror these loonies were subjected to was a mild scolding from a Glesca polis. The worst injury attending paramedics had to treat was bruised dignity. Although had those paramedics been trained to deal with psychological disorders they’d have been sorely pressed indeed. Credit where it’s due. The presence of those anti-lockdown demonstrators afforded me the rare opportunity of being able to credibly claim that I might be the sanest person on the street. Although that’s not really saying much.
Later, I encountered the remnants of the anti-sensible precautions against disease brigade at the top of Buchanan Street. A small crowd was gathered around the steps listening to assorted nutter screeching incomprehensible gibberish through an inadequate PA system. The audience must have known these speeches by heart because as far as I could tell, they were cheering, booing and clapping in all the appropriate places.
As I hurried past – to the limited extent that a burst of speed was an option having just walked up Buchanan Street after marching across the centre of Glasgow – I was accosted by a young woman pressing me to take a copy of the newspaper-like material she was distributing. Taken slightly by surprised I enquired perhaps more brusquely than I might what the fuck this was. Referring to the thing she was waving in my face while reciting some incantation that appeared to involve the not-unreasonable advice that I wake up and open my eyes and various other idiomatic expressions connoting improved awareness. As she wasted her over-rehearsed spiel on me I glanced at the ‘newspaper’ sufficiently to take in a masthead that proclaimed something about ‘light’; which given the context I took to mean ‘enlightenment’. Which in turn and given the same context I took to mean abandoning the rational understanding of our world built up over the few centuries of the age of science and the appreciation of our society developed over decades of direct observation in favour of mediaeval superstition and an all-enveloping conspiracy theory which explained absolutely everything that ever happens anywhere as part of a massive plot intended to stop this young woman offering me the gift of knowledge of this conspiracy. And incidentally to prevent her succumbing to disease.
Given the context, and as I had not yet fallen prey to this young woman’s evangelising on behalf of primitive ignorance, I immediately identified the bloody great bluebottle flapping about in the ointment of her worldview. If this conspiracy was intended to make obedient automatons of all of us then it had very evidently failed. Had the plot succeeded to even the smallest degree, then this young woman would not be bawling at me in the street like a Jehovah’s Witness on laboratory-grade amphetamine. She’d be tucked away in some institution for the re-education of defective automatons. But there she was, boldly defying her own ‘logic’.
All of this happened in a matter of a few seconds. Taking in the situation less immediately than I would like to pretend, I responded to the young woman’s offer by suggesting with my now characteristic curmudgeonly curtness that she fuck off. Without waiting to see if she had taken my suggestion on board, I turned on my heel and strode off in the general direction of the bus station in quest of tranquil sanity.
I slightly wish I’d taken that ‘newspaper’ if only because I would then be able to pad out this article with a few choice quotes. But I didn’t. So I’ll just have to use my own words.
That these anti-vaxxers are deranged is hardly in question. Viruses and other pathogens are real. We have a good scientific understand of how these behave in human populations. It is but a short step from this scientific understanding combined with direct experience to the precautions required to prevent the spread and mitigate the effects of these pathogens. Somehow, some people get lost on that short journey and wind up in some invented dystopia where pathogens do the bidding of our wannabe masters. All those participating in protests against the state’s mostly rational response to a public health threat are afflicted with a derangement.. A derangement which seems to spread much like a viral disease. The madness is everywhere.
Much, perhaps all, of this general derangement infecting society stems, I think, from an effort to explain. We all do it all the time. Human beings are innately predisposed to seek explanations. The human mind/brain is a massive pattern-recognition device. Patterns promise explanations. Explanations have the potential to improve the accuracy of the mental maps by which we navigate our lives. But sometimes the potential of explanations is not realised. Sometimes the explanations are fallacious. Sometimes the patterns discerned by the mind/brain don’t fulfil their promise. Sometimes those patterns too are fallacious. So dedicated is the mind/brain to finding patterns that betimes it will invent patterns that don’t actually exist. It will discover connection that aren’t really there but are conjured by the mind/brain in its urgent need to explain and map the physical and social environment of its host organism. The person, as it is more commonly known.
Readers will immediately see how those phantom connections and illusory patterns relate to the particular derangement that afflicts the conspiracy theorist. But these failures of our pattern detection systems may partly account for many other psychological disorders. But that is beyond the scope of both this article and my expertise.
Our mind/brain is not evolved to explain and map the increasingly populous and complex societies in which large parts of humanity find themselves immersed. Evolution by natural selection does not seek perfection and only creates it, if ever, by accident. Evolution operates on the basis of ‘best guess’ and good enough’. It proceeds not according to any plan, but as a perpetual stream of best guesses and solutions that work well enough that they don’t significantly reduce the capacity of host organism to make best guesses and implement solutions that get the job done even if they are by the standards of rational design clumsy and inefficient.
An analogous process goes on in the mind/brain. Unless there is a pattern that is immediately apparent, and sometimes even if there is – the mind/brain applies itself to finding the connections which will make a pattern. The basic process is identical in all mind/brains. The differences arise from how the mind/brain is equipped to perform its pattern recognition function. It depends on what has been learned and experienced. Crucially, it is also strongly influenced by pre-existing patterns. If the mind/brain has found an explanation that is good enough for the host organism even if wrong by any objective assessment it will use that explanation to shape subsequent explanations. The aggregate of those pre-existing explanations constitute the host organism’s worldview. Once that worldview is formed new explanations will ‘want’ to fit. They will tend to conform to dominant worldview.
If an individual is inclined by their worldview to explain things in terms of a conspiracy, the mind/brain will find or form the appropriate connections. The mind/brain is, remember, a product of evolution by natural selection. It is not perfect. It is just good enough. Perhaps barely good enough. It does not operate at 100% efficiency of anywhere near it. It evolved to cope with an existence that beat to the pulse of the seasons, with a society numbering no more than 200 individuals, probably a lot fewer. The mind/brain evolved in a world that was relatively easy to explain. Even the fallacious explanation were simpler, being no more complicated than the demands of existence required. If the stars were explained as the spirits of the dead then this did no great harm in a society which had no practical use for the stars.
Consider how the demands on the mind/brain evolved for all but the last few moments of existence to cope with such simplicity must increase in the environment it now inhabits. An environment where the number of things demanding explanation is effectively infinite. An environment where fallacious explanations can be deadly. Putting the primitive mind/brain in the modern world and expecting it to cope is akin to putting a bonobo in a cotillion and expecting it to abide by an etiquette which deprecates the quick shag as a form of greeting and social bonding.
The mind/brains of anti-vaxxers and their ilk are exerting themselves to explain a world in which pandemics have been made inevitable using only the limited resources at their disposal and a worldview that predisposes them to connect not necessarily related events in such a way as to form a conspiratorial pattern.
If there were only two kinds of people in the world they would be those who seek explanations which fit the systematically mutable matrix of existing knowledge and those who are gifted explanations by their perception of the world. Of course, there aren’t only two kinds of people in the world. It’s vastly more complicated than that. That’s the problem.
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