Since that argument I have been pondering. And pondering. When I was in my all boys high school about 30 years ago, a student gave a talk to the class. It was in legal studies and they had to argue for a law that should be changed. They argued that we should be allowed to murder gay people. (Little did they know that the homosexual panic defence as it was called, virtually gave them that licence back then.) The class applauded and the teacher did nothing. I got in trouble for provoking the student who spoke when I blew them kisses as an act of juvenile trolling. It’s a story I’ve told before and it sticks with me. It affects my estimates of the world around me.
I believe that every student there wasn’t really a killer at heart. Most will have forgotten the event all together by now. Some will be leading happy lives as members of the LGBTIA community. Even the homophobes probably wont want to see gay people murdered. But such belief is not certain. All the evidence I have is my memory of that day and the few students who I have kept up with since then or met long afterwards (and they are fine). Based on that day what percentage of people would actively discriminate against same sex couples if they had a chance? Upwards of 80%. But I believe without evidence that that high an estimate would be ridiculous.
We all carry around in our heads similar sorts of estimates about our peers. The Security chief at ASIO recently said that organised right wing violence in Australia is a growing threat. But how many people are really neo-nazis in Australia? When Australia exported that shooter to New Zealand we were partly shocked that they came from here and we were partly, sadly, not shocked at all. Egg-boy spoke for the majority of us when he egged the Senator who suggested the victims of that massacre were at fault. But that Senator spoke for some people. What percentage? Go on, have a guess.
Sometimes we get to know people as reasonable, likable and intelligent and then we discover that they think gay people shouldn’t be near kids or that #Metoo is an over-reaction or that the massacres of Aboriginal Australians didn’t happen. We wonder whether our radar that tells us how many people around us think these things is on the blink. We are left suspicious that we are assuming too few people we already know are homophobic, misogynistic, racists. We think we should adjust our estimates upwards.
This has happened to me recently. I am still processing the details and while it would benefit me to write about them I am not yet ready to. Does it mean that I should dismiss my own estimates of 5-10% homophobes as an over-reaction to recent events? Does it mean that my previous low estimates of homophobia, misogyny and racism in the community around me were too low?
People who hold homophobic, misogynistic, or racist opinions aren’t even necessarily going to act in those ways. Holocaust denial doesn’t exactly equal a willingness to commit anti-Semitic violence but the two are linked. One is a stepping stone to the other. A boss that thinks #Metoo has gone too far is more likely to let their workplace become unsafe and traumatic for female employees. A community that uses the phrase gay-agenda a lot is more likely to treat a gay person with hostility. At least this is what I think. I rely on this but I don’t know this. This theory of attitudes linked to behavior builds my estimates of who is likely to act in certain ways. I hear homophobic comments from about 5% to 10% of the population so I think about that many people might discriminate against same sex couples.
This question of what percentage of people are likely to be perpetrators of horrible acts (discrimination right up to murder) is too important to answer in this haphazard anecdotal inferred way. But we just don’t have good research to turn to instead. Consider sexual harassment. Most women have experienced this. In fact I am probably being overly cautious by not just saying all women have experienced sexual harassment. Many men have experienced it too. But what percentage of people, by gender as that would be relevant, commit sexual harassment? Or have committed it at least once? We have much better statistics and research answering how many people have been victims than questions about the number of perpetrators.
More than one in 20 Australians have been physically attacked because of their race. That is a shocking statistic and comes from the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2019 the ABC Australia Talks survey found 75% of respondents thought Australia was racist. But being racist isn’t necessarily physically attacking and how many Australians did those people mean were racists? Consider a specific pragmatic question; If someone was perpetrating racist violence I think 99%, maybe 99.9% of people could be relied on to support the victim in some way (call the police, if not intervene). I think we should be shocked by anyone choosing to support the perpetrator. But I am guessing. I am not basing this on any facts.
If I was one of those one in 20 Australians who had copped an assault based on my race, guessing that most people around me aren’t like my assailant (even if they are a little bit racist) is a tough ask. Someone who hasn’t experienced such violence certainly shouldn’t be insisting upon such an attitude. It might even be that those of us who haven’t experienced such violence have a very false sense that the willingness to support such violence is rarer than it is. I don’t really know.
Christian thinking is sometimes quite pessimistic about human nature. When the traveler in the parable of the Good Samaritan lies wounded, three people pass before one stops to help. Some Christian thinkers have gone on to claim humans by default are inherently rebellious and selfish. In other places though the Bible assumes basic human goodness. “Which of you,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “would give your child a stone when they ask for bread?” Psychology offers us better tools for understanding whether people have a dominant tendency for good or ill but the answer is complex and dependent on many factors. Sometimes evil is just people fitting in with the crowd, like those high school boys who applauded that legal studies talk 30 years ago. And the crowd can go either way.
We are all guessing in the dark about how scared and how trusting we ought to be of each other. So here is what we can do; we can advertise where we stand. Returning to the original discussion which was about the Australian governments religious discrimination bill, if Churches want people to know that they have no interest in discriminating against same sex couples, stick a rainbow flag in your window. Its not novel. I'm a little over rainbows graphically speaking. But people know what the rainbow flag indicates. If you don’t want to do that don’t get all huffy if people who have experienced homophobia from churches are suspicious of you. You can’t even put a sticker up.
Likewise if a boss wants their employers to know that sexual harassment is not tolerated then this should be said. It should be said a lot. Of course words must be followed up by actions when harassment occurs but lets not assume that victims know their bosses are on the same page as them. How would they know? Likewise for schools that want Aboriginal families to know their culture will be accommodated and celebrated; stick a bloody poster up saying exactly that. No that’s not the last thing to do but its an obvious start.
You will hear online a lot of criticism of “virtue signalling” when people advertise their progressive attitudes in lieu of doing anything else for others. But virtue signalling is only that when it is fake and hypocritical and when its purpose is to make the speaker feel good even at the expense of the experiences of victims. Advertising where you stand is something valuable when it takes into account the needs of victims for reassurance. It relieves those who have the most to lose from doing some of the initial mental work of figuring out if they can count on you.
True story: I knew someone who was very white. He shaved his head because he liked having a shaved head. Then Romper Stomper, the movie about racist white skin-heads in Melbourne, came out. He noticed people were anxious around him especially anyone who looked Asian. So he bought a t-shirt that showed someone binning a swastika and bore the slogan “No Racism”. He was a very wise guy.