Don’t over infer

This week despite natural disasters and rumours of war in other parts of the world, the UK news has continued to be dominated by the Downing Street parties with Sue Gray providing a much truncated version of her report whilst we await the police investigation.  A few people have tried to excuse or justify the prime minister and government officials that appear to be implicated, however there is little mood for that.  The general mood is more of absolute horror and revulsion that whilst the Government subjected us to these rules, they themselves thought they were above the law.

Society is therefore divided between those who are angry at Downing Street for breaking laws that were necessary and those who are angry at them for making and breaking unnecessary rules .

The first group obeyed the rules in order to save lives and so they see the moral culpability here not merely that laws were broken, not only that they hypocritically broke their own rules but further that the behaviour of those there was dangerous, putting lives at risk.

On the other hand, there are those who consider the Government’s behaviour despicable, evil even (I’ve seen at least one tweet to that effect), hypocritically, morally wrong. However, these people don’t think that the rule breaking put lives at risk. This group is made up of those who either at the time or since have come to the conclusion that the laws were always authoritarian and unnecessary.  We could from this perspective have got through the pandemic without social distancing, bans on hospital visits, stay at home orders etc.  The argument here is that the government caused harm not by breaking its rules but by continuing to enforce rules that they knew full well weren’t sustainable. The result was that untold suffering was caused as people suffered physically, emotionally, economically and socially from the pandemic.

I’m now seeing some people make the following inference.

The reason that the Government kept such egregious measures in place for so long, despite the human cost was that they weren’t keeping the rules themselves and so were shielded from the impact. If they had kept their own rules, they would have known how terrible the cost and removed them sooner.

I can understand the sentiment well. In fact, I get both reactions.  The culture described in Sue Gray’s report suggests a cavalier attitude to rules, a carelessness to the impact of behaviour on others and a sense of entitled exceptionalism.  Let that be a challenge and a warning to each of us that we guard our own hearts against such attitudes. It is shocking when you have yourself been through deep pain and had to make sacrificial decisions to hear about how the rule makers were behaving.

However, I think that in the second case, there has been an over inference beyond what we can reasonably infer from what we now know.  The response seems to rely on the following assumptions.

  1. That the rules were not necessary and played no meaningful part in the battle against COVID
  2. That the government knew this.  They considered the rules pointless and that’s why they ignored them. 
  3. That therefore we might conclude that the government had other (potentially more sinister) motives for introducing lockdown measures.

In effect, we see confirmation bias here because those assumptions have been the long stated assessment of a body of opinion within politics and within the church.  The suggestion then is that those people were right all along.  Yet, for all sorts of reasons, I don’t think that we can presume those assumptions proven. That is to infer too much. Here is why.

First of all because the inference seems to rest on either one or both of two further assumptions.

  1. That the behaviour of those who attended Downing Street parties reflects the attitudes and behaviour of all, or at least the vast majority in government (both civil servants and government ministers).
  2. That the behaviour we know about reflects a complete disregard for all COVID restrictions.

Neither of them can be presumed though can they?  Just because we know that government ministers and MPs at different times have broken laws including speeding, drink driving, fraud, assault etc, we do not presume that all MPS, government ministers and civil servants have broken the same laws. 

Furthermore, nor do we presume that someone who has broken one law at one given time will consistently be breaking all laws. That’s not how people tend to function. Indeed, we know from the pandemic that there were plenty of people who sought to comply with the restrictions but didn’t wholly comply at 100% all of the time. 

We know that there were people who were caught, warned or even fined for doing things that the police considered in breach of regulations. We also know that when this happened, there were plenty of law abiding citizens who thought that the fines were unfair.  I remember a lot of support for two young ladies who got in their cars, drove to a beauty spot, saw the police there, still chose to park up and were surprised when the police considered this in breach of the rules at the time.  My view then was that they were clearly outside of the spirit and guidance of the restrictions but a lot of people engaged in what I considered special pleading.

Yet, I would not assume that because of couple of people thought “it’s pushing the boundaries, but we might just about get away with it” that as well as going for meet ups in the Peak District they were also packing hundreds of people into their houses, running illegal raves and wilfully infecting people with COVID. No, I suspect that 95% of the time they complied with the measures to the best of their ability.

So, is it unreasonable to assume that the Downing Street staff didn’t in fact completely disregard the measures? Isn’t it more likely that the people involved experienced the pandemic in the same way that many of the rest of us did? They may well have been through the experience of waiting at home whilst loved ones went into ICU on their own. They may well have had to cancel all kinds of meet ups. They too will have been missing a normal trip to the shops, a visit to the pub and a meal out at a restaurant.  They too saw holidays cancelled.

There’s the point because that’s how the temptation gets in. That’s how we tend to excuse ourselves. We tell ourselves that this is an exceptional one off circumstance. We convince ourselves that it’s okay, not because we are completely above the rules but because we are generally law abiding people who can therefore be trusted to make reasonable judgements about where the exemptions are.

It’s more likely that the group of people who convinced themselves it would be okay to take a few bottles into the garden for drinks went through a thought process along the lines of

  1. We’ve been so careful and so cautious.  We’ve kept all the rules even though it has been costly.
  2. Because we’ve been so careful, it means we should be okay. It’s unlikely that anyo of us have got COVID and even more unlikely that we will pass it on.
  3. We are in an exceptional situation as government officials having to come into work.
  4. It’s not really a party is it? It is more of a work thing.  The rules don’t really count here.

Now, that’s not to say that some people weren’t shielded from the worst effects of the NPIs.  I believe and I think this is backed up by evidence that the impact of lockdown fell disproportionately in the vulnerable and the poor. Indeed, many of us if we are honest were shielded and less affected by the worst impact of lockdown. If you had a spare room that could be turned into a home office, a back garden for meeting five other people and good quality internet links. If you didn’t live alone but had family with you, if you were degree level educated and had time through furlough to home school your kids, then yes to a certain degree you were shielded from the worst costs of lockdown in a way that many other people weren’t.

However, I don’t think we can infer that the rules remained in place because government ministers were not subject to the rules.  That is to draw conclusions not backed up by evidence.

What we can see is the way that all of us can be tempted into sin and justify or excuse it.  The challenge to each of us from #partygate is about our propensity to this.  We are reminded again that the solution to sin is not legalism which leads to excuse making but true justification which comes from the Gospel.

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