Last week, I wrote a column titled “Real fake news”, which consisted of seven satirical stories on topics ranging from the Beetham protests to crime statistics to pitbull attacks. Somebody posted an image of the first item, headlined “Beetham resident robbed by motorist”, on Facebook, where it got 594 likes, 1,498 shares and 190 comments. Much to my surprise, a significant number of those 190 commenters thought they were reading a genuine news story.
Now I may be biased, but I think I’m a better satirical writer than that. Even though the posted image didn’t show the column title “Fake news”, the name of the “victim” in the story was Idi Shaka Mugabe, which should have clued in clueless readers that this wasn’t a real person. The story went on to have “Shaka” declare that he was robbed by a motorist he went to rob and that “despite all his pleas and even a pretty please” the driver kept his gold chain.
So, given my high opinion of my writing skills, it seems to me that two conditions were necessary for people to believe this was a real news story. First, they had to be unfamiliar with literary devices such as irony; and, second and more importantly, they had to believe Beetham residents were both criminal and dotish. And several letters to the editor demonstrated this is indeed a widespread view.
Businessman Gregory Aboud, head of the Downturn Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA), had made a statement which focused on the various challenges facing the deprived Beetham community. Put another way, Aboud located the actions of the protesters in their circumstances. Many commenters dismissed this perspective as nonsensical, holding that people from the Beetham were inherently lawless and lazy.
So Alan Hewitt of Maraval wrote in Monday’s Express: “In life we have choices to make. Why is it these men choose the life of crime?... Many other people have slogged day and night to reach where they are. It is not impossible.” And J Nathaniel’s letter the following day asserted: “My experience is that a man is not defined by where he is born, but how he conducts himself, given the hand he is dealt.”
Hewitt and Nathaniel are probably unaware that these kinds of views have been rejected by philosophical and scientific analysis. But even a little reflection would show such opinions rest on sand. Hewitt’s unstated premise, for example, is that everyone has the same opportunities to make choices. Obviously, this is not the case. A person who is born poor, stupid and ugly will surely have fewer options in life than a person who is born into a financially secure household, whose cognitive capacities are favoured by genes and environmental stimuli, and who has naturally curly hair.
But J Nathaniel, in his turn, does “not believe it is any more unfortunate to be born and bred in Beetham than it is good fortune to be born in one of those areas where pockets are fatter and complexions fairer”. Indeed, he goes even further, saying, “I did not have the experience of being raised in Beetham. But if I did, would it have been such a great misfortune? I do not know this for a fact...” In other words, Nathaniel believes had he been born into circumstances where he was nutritionally deprived, had abusive parents and lacked marketable skills, he would still be exactly the same person.
But everything we know about the human personality says otherwise. We are all products of our genes and our environment. We have no choice in our genes and, in our formative years, we also have little or no say about our environments. This is also why the argument that many people in deprived circumstances have been successful is baseless. First of all, it is never “many”. Secondly, the minority who beat the odds invariably have some advantage – either inborn cognitive ability which facilitates academic success or a chance encounter with a mentor who helped them rise above their circumstances.
Moreover, the perspective expressed by these letter-writers is, at its core, a counsel of despair. After all, if people become criminals because they choose to do so, then preaching to them about making right choices will have little or no impact. On the other hand, if criminality is caused by external factors, then altering the environment would change the incentives which make people turn to crime. But, despite all his talk about being apolitical, don’t expect new National Security Minister Gary Griffith to interfere with the Unemployment Relief Programme.
Given all this, Hewitt and Nathaniel and others of that ilk are just as ignorant as the Beetham protesters, albeit in a different way. And, like the protesters, their beliefs and behaviour have been determined by their genes, environments and experiences. The same is true of me: the difference is I know it.