Thursday, 17 February 2022 18:28

’Freedom convoy’ protesters’ anger is misdirected




While the "freedom convoy" started as a group of Canadian organizers, it has spurred international protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions imposed by governments.

They’re occupying Ottawa and have held rallies in cities and at borders across the country. The convoy has been opposed by counter-protests and a decision by GoFundMe shut down their call for donations — they later moved to GiveSendGo, but that money has since been frozen as well.

Read more: ‘Freedom convoy’ rolls through Ottawa encouraging the participation of Canada’s far-right

Support for the convoy has been mixed and while many are uneasy about organizers’ ties to the far-right, there are still some Canadians who are sympathetic to the protesters.

After all, many people are tired of living in a pandemic — they are frustrated by the uncertainty it brings and how the restrictions have severely impacted their livelihoods. It’s unsurprising many people are angry.

Put to good use

Philosophers have pointed out that anger can be genuinely valuable. Sometimes, it can draw attention to unjust situations or wrongful treatment that might be hidden or easily overlooked. Anger can even unite us in the face of injustice, forming a basis for political solidarity.

Although anger is often an appropriate response to mistreatment, that doesn’t mean we always identify the source of the wrong or injustice correctly.

For example, if one of your roommates steals your wallet, you might incorrectly blame it on the wrong roommate. If you get angry with the wrong roommate, you’d have grounds for being angry, but your anger would be misdirected. Although your reaction is justified (someone really did steal your wallet, and your anger is a response to that wrong), it was felt and expressed toward someone who was not actually responsible for the theft.

Misdirection often isn’t so obvious; belief systems can also contribute to misdirected anger: When people early in the pandemic called COVID-19 the "China virus," it fuelled anti-Asian hate crimes. But long histories of discrimination against East Asian people in Canada — not just this racist epithet — also made this misdirection possible.

Read more: Coronavirus: The ‘yellow peril’ revisited

The anger against vaccine mandates and other public health restrictions is also the result of misdirection enabled by belief systems that largely go unquestioned. In the case of the convoy, this anger is largely expressed using the language of "freedom" and "choice."

From the convoy protestors’ view, people should have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to be vaccinated or wear masks in public spaces, and they are angry with the government (and those supporting public health restrictions) for infringing on their freedom.

Read more: Whose freedom is the ‘freedom convoy’ fighting for? Not everyone’s

But while failures of public health and vaccine equity might be justifiable targets of anger, restrictions in the service of public health are not.

A matter of personal choice?

We can make better sense of people’s anger at current restrictions if we take a closer look at how our culture treats health and illness as matters that are primarily under an individual’s control.

Our choices about diet, exercise and medical treatment can undoubtedly affect our health outcomes. But we tend to assume that people have far more power over such outcomes than they actually do.

Most importantly, we don’t all have access to the same options for food, leisure time and medical care. There are social determinants of health that affect people’s health status beyond their individual choices.

In spite of that, we still talk about disease using the language of battle and personal victory. But what does that mean for those who lose?

When society finds it encouraging that the majority of COVID-19 deaths are among people with multiple comorbidities, society treats them as people whose lives are too difficult to protect, or implicitly blame them for not taking better care of themselves.

If our health was purely a matter of personal choice and responsibility, vaccine and mask requirements could seem unreasonably paternalistic, since they would infringe on peoples’ freedom to decide how they want to live their lives and manage their own risk.

But our health outcomes are not just a matter of personal choice — they are thoroughly bound up in the decisions of others. Someone’s individual choice to not get vaccinated puts other people’s health at risk. Those who choose to be unvaccinated can transmit COVID-19 to children who are too young for vaccines or people with multiple comorbidities, for example.

Saying that protestors’ anger is misdirected is not to say there is nothing to be angry about. But these background beliefs about the nature of health lead to them misidentifying the root of the issue.

This misdirected anger emphasizes lost freedom, when it should instead emphasize the ways we have failed to genuinely care for each other.

Authors: Audrey Yap — Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Victoria | Barrett Emerick — Associate Professor of Philosophy, St. Mary’s College of Maryland | Katie Stockdale — Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Victoria The Conversation