As the protesters enter their second week on the lawn, we should stay vigilant about how crises such as these affect our social cohesion. Photo: Stephen Parker

The endless storytelling about the small group of protesters at Parliament rejecting our collective pandemic action is causing us more harm than good. We don’t need our social conversations defined by extremism and fear.

Opinion: I always find a good storm a bit thrilling. On Saturday night we couldn’t hear the telly over the downpour on the iron roof, and my Sunday morning run meant wading through gutters that had turned into rivers and skirting slips on the hills around home. At one point on the south coast, as I struggled against the driving southerly, I did worry my head might be separated from my body by flying debris. I wasn’t the only one wringing some entertainment from this weekend. Drawing the country’s attention, fascination, derision, empathy and alarm were the people protesting and camping in that weather on Parliament’s lawn.

On Saturday night it was looking like The Gathering in the year 2000 on Takaka Hill, and by Sunday evening, the quagmire, the rain and wind, the confusion and the poo made it look pretty miserable. And it’s no fun for anyone around them either.

It’s normal that a sideshow on our Parliament’s lawn – with people so angry, upset and clearly on the edge – draws people’s attention. The people at this gathering and their ideas worry us. Their actions in some cases are scary. And the ideas and narratives that some of the people there draw on are harmful. That is real.

A plethora of pieces written about the protests highlight this concern about the harm people at these protests (and the ideas they are promoting) may be doing to our social fabric. There is fearful (and in some cases intentionally fear-inducing) speculation as to whether they represent a wider group of people than our high vaccination rates would suggest. And legitimate concerns raised that the ideas some of the people carry are harmful extremism from overseas groups.

That people would reject vaccination – a clearly effective tool in this global disaster – and put themselves and others at greater risk, believe some of the very extreme and harmful ideas, and hurt people, is alarming. We should be looking hard at doing something about this. And people are, from those in government responsible for assessing and dealing with security, to researchers studying the way these conversations are evolving online and spilling over to new people. However, is the endless storytelling in our public discourse about this small group of people rejecting our collective pandemic action causing us more harm than good? Because while this fear is legitimate, telling the story of it over and over again in public also frames our collective response to the pandemic in deficit terms.

We are drawn to the alarming and problematic but we don’t need to be defined by it

Researchers have shown how much we attend to alarming and fear-inducing stories in society. On social media, such stories spread further, faster and deeper than nearly all other stories (although stories about joy and love come a close second!). It is also just pretty interesting trying to understand the actions and thoughts of others – we are social creatures after all. However, we don’t need our social conversations to be defined by extremism and fear. In fact there is an imperative not to because then we miss the other very real story.

The significant story of this pandemic is one of collective action. Of coming together for the good of the collective, of getting on and doing the practical things. It’s been hard – for some people so, so hard – and we have not got everything right by any means, but people have tried, changes have been made. No one working on this pandemic response has wanted anything except to take care of people. Yes there are people who oppose what has been decided, that is normal in a functioning society, and we could have done better at managing that. We had no script for this, but we can learn from it for the challenges that come next.

Stories of our strength and what work help us focus on solutions

In part why we need more stories about our strengths helps us to focus on what has worked, what we did well in this pandemic and what we can learn. By framing these assets we can focus on which solutions we might have to significant collective challenges in the future, whether that is more of this pandemic, or climate change, poverty, etc.

For example, we saw the leadership of iwi and hapū on display at checkpoints; we saw that when communities were trusted to lead their vaccination conversations that they nailed it; we saw that when we used shared collective values, care for others, to talk about why we needed to go into the first lockdown, people understood and were inclined to act; and when we were able to have conversations about the complexity of the science of this pandemic, when we learned more or different things, people understood why we needed to adjust our approach. Who would have thought that we would have gone from wondering if we could get most people vaccinated to people rushing to get a booster? And what can we learn from that process? Which assets do we have in our people and our communities to build on? Telling these stories in detail matters.

Facts are not stories

To be fair, many people from politicians to researchers and community leaders have made attempts to move away from this deficit-framing of our pandemic response. Each day, people point out how many eligible people are vaccinated in his country – over 90 percent – and how high the vaccination rates are in our Māori and Pasifika communities, despite all the problems with the vaccination roll-out, or how many people got a booster today. These are valiant attempts – but they are just facts, not stories. And our brains need stories, to make patterns, to understand the world and shape how we perceive it.

For this we need more people in the media to ally themselves to asset-framing our pandemic response as well. And, boy, that is hard, because of news cycles and the structures of media companies today, but also because people in the media are human too, alarmed, fearful, and just interested in understanding how different people think and act. However, the stories people in our media tell shape how we think and see the world, they contribute to broader narratives, which themselves shape how people in the public reason about issues and the solutions we see as possible. So it is an important task to step back and ask, “Is this the narrative I want to contribute to? What wider collective benefit does it have? What solutions does it contribute to? What frame or mindset about the world does it emphasise?”. All of us writing about alarming situations or problems can ask ourselves these questions.

How do we address or talk about the very real harm though?

Not leading with problems and deficits is a moral imperative when we are looking for solutions that will make the biggest difference in this pandemic. Consider the difference in talking about the strength and resilience of disabled people in this pandemic and then moving on to discuss how this leadership has not been able to come out in its full force because of controls on the funding or lack of trust from people in funding bodies. That frames a very different way of thinking about the issues and the types of solutions people are considering than simply talking about the vulnerability of disabled people and why we must act. Similarly, talking about the many people in our communities who moved from being hesitant about vaccination to getting vaccinated, and how the experiences they had of negative health interactions, or the support and listening they found in online anti-vaccination spaces had initially contributed to unhelpful reasoning, but community leadership led them back, provides a much clearer line of sight to solutions than simply talking about the people down the rabbit hole on Parliament’s lawn.

Framing what we can do, what assets we do have as people and communities, helps us to better highlight the origin story of harms, threats and injustices and how to overcome them.

As the people in the tents enter their second week on the lawn, we should stay vigilant about how crises such as these affect our social cohesion. And we should be aware that talking about the strengths of the people who have come together in this pandemic is part of the answer to addressing those concerns.

My hopes and prayers for the people who work to maintain the lawns and grounds at Parliament … tough gig that one.

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