The lockdown horror stories are beginning again. Just as with the last lockdown we are now getting the stories of people innocently going out t exercise and being hit with heflt fines by jobs-worth police. Here’s the latest example.
Now I’m probably a bit of the odd one out in my response here. These story has been ceased up on by Christian leaders and other commentators to highlight the problems of creeping authoritarianism and a police service that is unfairly imposing penalties when people are just trying to understand unclear guidance.
I am unusual because on the one hand, I am sceptical of the current lockdown arrangements just as I was sceptical the first time around. It’s not that I think COVID is a myth, it’s that I think there may have been more affective ways to respond and I am concerned at it’s harmful side affects. I also am often frustrated at the examples of bad drafting of laws and yes some things can be unclear.
However, when it comes to these stories I’m not inclined to jump on the band wagon to condemn the police. I think it is obvious that the aim of the law is to impose some strict measures. The default position, the law itself is that we are not to leave home. However, some exceptions are provided. Now, it is obvious that we should aim to stay as close to the law as possible and not push these exceptions to see how far we can go.
This is a little comparable to a situation Jesus faced in the Bible incidentally. A few lawyerly types come up to him and say “Hey Jesus, the law isn’t very clear on when we should get divorced?what do you reckon.” Jesus responds to the effect of “You are playing games aren’t you. The law is that you are not to get divorced. God however has given you some exceptions in his mercy. Don’t push the boundaries.” (I paraphrase a little but I think you will get the point).
The reasonable person, whether or not they agree with lockdown understands that one aim of the lockdown is to keep people off the street so that policing by exception is possible. The police don’t want to be stopping anyone and everyone who is about in their cars. They want to be able to spot where someone is acting outside of the rules and quickly double check if there is an exception such as an emergency or because the person is a key worker on the way to work.
So three things strike me. The first is that we can choose to either interpret the rules in such a way as to push the boundaries. I can see it as how best to interpret things in order to make life as easy as possible for me. Or I can think about how I act in a way that provides best protection for others against the virus and helps front line workers including the police to do their job.
Secondly Christian leaders of all people should be wise to how these stories work. We have been given a story that is meant to sound ludicrous. It is told in a way to sound as ridiculous as possible. We are meant to conclude that the police were unfair and the COVID rules were stupid. You see, people tell the story they want us to hear. And the story we are meant to hear is the one from the perspective of the two women fined for breaking the law. It’s funny isn’t it that in our rush to defend justice and the rule of law, no-one has said “could we just hear the version of events from the police officers at the incident.” Thewy are judged and condemned by the court of public opinion without a fair hearing, without a proper trial.
Now, I didn’t get into trouble much at school as a kid but I did have to write lines a few times and I don’t remember arriving home and saying “mum, I was caught bang to rights by my teacher. She was actually quite lenient with me and you really should punish me further.” That’s not how human nature works. We tell the story that puts us in the best light. We seek to justify ourselves. Similarly, in Christian circles you will often meet people who will tell you about how they were hard done by and unfairly treated by this or that church or church leader. Yet, we know that there is often another side to the story. This does not mean that they weren’t treated unfairly but I know of examples where someone has gone round telling how they were unfairly treated and driven out when the church in fact had done everything to love them and care for them.
So, the story we have been told is about these poor innocent young ladies off for a walk together in line with the guidelines having travelled a short distance locally. They happened to have picked up some take away coffees to help them keep exercising on a cold day. Now, I’m not convinced anyone really buys that! You see another version of the story is that two women wanted to meet up as is their custom for a coffee and natter at Costa. Of course the coffee shop is closed but they knew a nice scenic area and so they travelled from Leicestershire North to Derbyshire, picked up a takeaway version of their weekly latte and had a good catch up. As it happens, I get that. I wish I could meet up with some people. I think some of the lockdown rules are pesky. If there was a means of meeting my mum and dad at a halfway location I would be sore tempted to chance it. But notice here that this version of the story puts things in a completely different perspective. What are the police to do in such a case?
Linked to this and my final point is how this story highlights our tendency to implicit bias. We make assumptions based on the race, gender, class and location of the people in the story. Supposing that we change a few of those things. Rather than a couple of women out and about in Derbyshire, it’s two men who have driven across from Handsworth to West Smethwick Park bang in the middle of the West Midlands conurbation, one deprived area to another. Imagine that instead of cups of coffee, they were carrying baseball bats “We thought we could play a bit of bat and ball to keep in training for when we can play again officer with them. Now, be honest, do you think that the media would be picking up this story as being about heavy handed police picking on two innocent lads out to do some exercise. The reality id of course that young men in our inner cities are stopped and treated with suspicion every day and the press and Christian leaders have absolutely nothing to say about that.
Implicit bias is when we have pretty much identical circumstances and an identical plotline but we read the situation differently because the players are different. Of course, it is possible that the two women were genuinely off for some exercise just as the guys with baseball bats may equally have been at the park to have a word with a third party and make sure that third party towed the line in future. The point is that our bias trains us to assume a story which may or may not be true.
I remain convinced that there are better ways to respond to COVID and will keep arguing for them but we all need to be careful that in our rush to make our point we don’t just rely on any story we think fits our narrative.