DRMacIver's Notebook

Maybe everyone was right all along

Maybe everyone was right all along

A common subject of mockery right now is that a lot of people are treating COVID-19 as evidence that their ideologies were right all along.

I do share a certain amount of amusement over this, but would like to suggest the following counterpoint: Actually, most of these people probably were right all along, at least in some ways.

The easy example is that people calling for greater social safety nets, medical care, etc. who are now going "Hey, you know, maybe those things would have been useful in a pandemic??" are obviously right. Those things would have been useful in a pandemic. The pandemic genuinely is providing good evidence for why people need universal basic income, and it really is a damning criticism of a lot of countries' healthcare.

Specifically what's happening here is that the pandemic is highlighting two major problems that were present all along:

  1. Many people's lives are extremely financially precarious.
  2. Healthcare, especially emergency care and infectious disease control, is a collective problem that we cannot ethically or practically rely on individuals being able to afford.

People who have built significant aspects of their ideology around these problems are in fact entirely justified in saying that the pandemic is proving them right all along, because these problems are real and major and the pandemic really is highlighting them, and there's nothing remotely surprising or controversial about pointing that out.

What I'd like to suggest though is that most other examples of people saying they've been right all along are like this too.

It's tempting to think of ideologies in terms of what proposals they make for radically restructing society, but I think it's more useful to start with what their critiques of society are. An ideology is, first and foremost, a set of problems that you care about. The proposals made by the ideology are, largely, grounded in those critiques and designed to solve those problems.

Generally critiques start from a real source of pain, and a more or less accurate understanding of the world. Sometimes that pain is one we want to consider "invalid" (e.g. it's selfish), sometimes that more or less accurate understanding of the world is less more and more less, but on the whole society is messed up in too many different ways for people to nerd about all of them, so you end up with a lot of specialist bodies of knowledge each focused on a specific critique, so it's not surprising that this results in a lot of different ideologies.

People's intuition is that all of these ideologies can't be right at the same time, and in some sense that's true, but I think it misunderstands the nature of ideological conflict. Ideologies come into conflict in (at least) two different ways:

  1. They have incompatible critiques.
  2. They have incompatible solutions.

The first absolutely happens of course - e.g. white supremacist ideologies and intersectional feminist ideologies are genuinely in conflict - but I think more often than not it's the second, and it would be perfectly plausible to synthesise the two ideologies into something workable, because what's actually happening is that they have perfectly compatible complementary critiques of society, but the solutions they proposed don't take into account the other's critiques.

It may not be obvious from the inside that this is happening, because people overidentify problems and solutions (this happens literally all the time, not just in ideological contexts), and even once you realise it's happening it may be genuinely very hard to form that synthesis, but I think until you've done the work to diagnose a conflict it can be worth assuming that this is what's happening - it makes it easier to extend empathy across ideological differences and to learn from other people's critiques of society.

Backtracking to COVID-19 this is, I think, why most people are treating it as evidence that they were right all along: Their critiques of society were, within their own values, actually pretty accurate, in ways that COVID-19 is showcasing. Society is constantly skirting the edge of disaster and COVID-19 came in and threw a spanner in the works, so a lot of the things we did to paper over issues are now fraying, and all of the problems that they were previously noticing are suddenly brought into stark relief. As a result nobody is going to go "Actually I was wrong, this thing I thought was a problem isn't a problem after all", because the thing they were critiquing is now if anything more of a problem.

As a result, the only way COVID-19 can really change your ideological stance is by convincing you that things you had previously dismissed as non-problems are actually problems they do need to care about. We see this happening with e.g. libertarians and anarchists who are going "Actually, most of my critiques are still valid, but you know this does seem something where massive central coordinated response is helpful. BTW have you noticed that the institutions for doing so are exactly as broken as we said they were?" (We're also seeing this with some privacy advocates who are about facing and going "Wait no surveillance is good actually" but I'm less impressed with those people). This is largely what I was suggesting was the good sort of ideological incompatibility: The underlying critiques are perfectly compatible, we just need to figure out how to put those together in a more productive way.

Anyway, in short, my ideological stance has always been that we can learn a lot from people with different problems and areas of knowledge than us, and that although it's not true that the "truth lies somewhere in the middle", we probably do need to synthesise things from a wide variety of ideologies and viewpoints if we want to come to a useful conclusion that works for everyone. Fortunately, COVID-19 has proven that I've been right about this all along.