Dilemma: The Power (and Danger) of Belief

Today I took a break from work to have coffee with a friend. I headed towards our usual – a coffee place across the road from Parliament – and along the way I walked over a number of messages written in chalk on the footpath: “Ban 1080” they said. Fine, I thought. People protest stuff all the time in this manner in Wellington.

Then I reached the coffee shop. Across the road, covering the footpath outside Parliament and its front fence, is a collage of more chalk-written messages about 1080 poison. Some of them say things like:

“Poisoning our meat, milk, and honey.”

“Killing our children.”

“Hitler would be proud of you, Jacinda.”

It seems to me there has been a real surge recently in loud, misinformed individuals being given a platform to spread their evidence-less and often harmful misinformation to others.

I read an opinion piece the other day on a national media website that compared the historical interactions between Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Toa to that of Māori and Pākehā. The author’s point was that Pākehā are vilified for the actions of their ancestors that prejudiced Māori, yet Ngāti Toa isn’t held to the same level of account for its conquering of Ngāti Kuia. The author conveniently missed a pretty fundamental difference that renders the analogy between the two scenarios inaccurate – a little old thing called Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I’ve seen Don Brash regularly invited to national media outlets to discuss te reo Māori – something he has no expertise in whatsoever yet actively attempts to silence despite his apparent status as a martyr for free speech.

And now I’m seeing claims about 1080 and its supposed catastrophic effects on the environment littering my Facebook feed. People sharing graphic photos of blood-soaked dead kiwi, claiming that 1080 somehow physically mauled them to death. Parliament covered in declarations that 1080 is poisoning our kai, killing more native birds than it saves, leaving animals to die a slow, painful death.

None of these statements ever seem to be accompanied by any evidence to support them, yet they are presented by those pushing the agenda as fact. And, most frightening of all, they are being read as fact.

And seriously, comparing our Prime Minister to Adolf Hitler?

The reality is we will never be able to prevent those who are loud and uninformed from having a platform to spread their misinformation. The rise of social media makes it possible for anyone to shout their views to the world and be heard. The media itself will push anything that gets them clicks. And many would argue we shouldn’t prevent that. No matter how uninformed, lacking in evidence, and ill-intentioned someone’s views are, the general principle is that everyone deserves the right to express them – the right to free speech.

I’m not writing this to argue that point.

I’m writing this because I feel the need to remind my friends and whānau – and whoever else will listen – that when so much misinformation is out there, it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure that, whenever we choose to throw our resolve, our strength, and our good intentions behind a cause, we must be sure we understand why.

Too often we seem to see something on social media and that alone is enough to convince us of its worthiness to fight for it. We are too easily swayed by loud voices, charismatic voices, people who seem to know what they are talking about because they are talking about it at all.

1080 is killing bees? Ask yourself: what evidence is that based on?

Te reo Māori is a dying language? Don’t take Don Brash’s word for it: dig out a study from a reputable source and read the findings for yourself.

I’m not an expert on either of these topics. There’s not a lot I would claim to be an expert on. But that’s why I don’t take anyone at their word alone. I rely on those people who are experts, who have carried out the relevant study, who have proven by virtue of their qualifications that they are able to speak with authority on an issue. And even once I’ve listened to those experts, I still weigh up as many of the facts that I have been able to gather, and then I decide where I stand. I go with my heart only once I’ve satisfied my head.

This is what I am asking of those who listen to me from my platform:

Be critical. Think for yourself. Question everything. Question me and my views too!

By all means, believe in something. Everyone should. It gives our lives meaning and purpose. Belief, when acted upon, is so powerful.

Which is why we mustn’t waste that power or misuse it. When people unwittingly mobilise to act on something destructive – like fear – it leads to things like Trump.

This is the same fearmongering I saw written on the walls of Parliament today.

And I just thought we have to be better than that.

We have to question what we see and come to our own conclusions, and when we do choose to put our belief behind something, we have to do that in a way that effects meaningful change.

If you really care about protecting our native manu and ngahere, instead of writing harmful messages on the footpath why don’t you spend that time possum trapping instead? Or helping DOC relocate native birds?

Before you post an opinion piece on Stuff, why don’t you ensure your argument is logical, well-supported by evidence, and historically accurate?

Before you share something on social media, why not take a second to check the counter views and then decide if you still stand by it?

Please be open-minded, whānau. Make sure whatever you do choose to believe in is worthy of that power.

[Featured Image photo credit – Nga Manu]

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