In defence of compassion, conscience and civil disagreement

In defence of compassion, conscience and civil disagreement

By Rachael Wong

Some would argue that thanks to ‘cancel culture’ and the curious notion that a differing view is synonymous with stupidity and/or hate, the art of disagreement has been dead for some time. But if it were possible to send it even deeper into its grave, the Covid-19 pandemic has done just that.

Over the weekend (which also marked World Mental Health Day), 32-year-old Sydney-sider, former Bachelorette and Home and Away actress Sam Frost, posted an emotional video on Instagram calling for compassion, kindness and empathy at a time when discourse around the pandemic has been increasingly characterised by nastiness and division, arguably fuelled by both mainstream media and the government.

Frost shared that she hadn’t received a Covid vaccine, alluding to health reasons, saying that there are many different reasons people aren’t getting vaccinated. However, she said the “segregation” between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t and the “harsh judgement” directed at the latter had caused her to feel “less of a human” and “too scared to talk”, making it “a really hard time to be in society right now”.

She tearfully raised concerns about the impact on people’s mental health as a result – including her own, which she said she was struggling with – emphasising the need to look after mental health during this time, especially as restrictions lift in NSW for those who are fully vaccinated.

You’d think with our culture’s current focus on the importance of mental health, empowering women, individual autonomy, and values like tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity, a raw and vulnerable Frost would have been shown support and extended the very compassion, kindness and empathy she was pleading for. Instead, the same people who preach mental health awareness, feminism, ‘my body, my choice’, and ‘progressive values’, jumped on her like a virtual pack of wolves. Why? Because she dared to share a view that was different.

In other words, they validated the exact fears Frost expressed in her video about the demonising of those who have decided not to get vaccinated.

Social media commentators – amplified by mainstream media – were quick to call her a “privileged white woman” who had no right to use the term “segregation” because of its ties to historic racial discrimination (though similar language was recently used by a Fair Work Commission deputy president), and accused her of selfishly putting the lives of those unable to get vaccinated at risk, victimising herself, spreading misinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment, and using her platform irresponsibly. Following the backlash, Frost deactivated her account.

One of those leading the pack was Love Island host and social media influencer Abbie Chatfield, who provoked her Instagram followers to troll and bully Frost by posting:

“So brave to “come out” as putting yourself as an individual above your community because you listen to misinformation. Another reality star bites the dust.”

Unfortunately, women tearing down other women is an ugly phenomenon that continues to persist despite feminist notions of equality, freedom, empowerment and the so-called “sisterhood”.

The cruel responses that followed on Chatfield’s post mocked Frost for being “brave”, expressed hopes that her character on Home and Away would be “killed off” and that she would lose her job, and included personal attacks like, “never thought she was that bright anyway”, “she doesn’t seem so worried about getting botox”, “whatever I’ve never liked Sam Frost”. 

Others – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – jumped to Frost’s defence, calling out Chatfield and her followers for stoking hate and division and bullying Frost, arguing that Frost is entitled to her own opinion and choice about her health decisions, raising concerns that the nasty trolling would only add to her mental health struggles and pointing out that people shouldn’t be so quick to judge without knowing what another person is going through. Many expressed disbelief at the comments from Chatfield, who holds herself out as an advocate for mental health and has been the victim of bullying herself. 

What kind of message does this send to young women who want to share a contrary opinion? “Shut up or you will be publicly shamed and attacked”. And since when did bullying and ridiculing a woman who is clearly fragile and distressed become acceptable? Oh, that’s right, when the mob doesn’t like what she has to say. Especially if she’s “white” and “privileged” because a woman has no right to speak or suffer if she has money, status and fair skin.

Just last month, a Wall Street Journal investigation looked at Instagram’s negative impact on young women’s mental health, including correlations between anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Such revelations come as no surprise. The amount of trolling and abuse of people on this platform (and elsewhere) who have expressed views on Covid which differ from the mainstream has been nauseating.

A friend of mine publicly posted her decision not to get vaccinated on social media. She had people swarm her business accounts telling her they wished she would die from Covid or to kill herself (this friend had been suicidal in the past). She is not alone in the vicious sentiments she received. Have we already forgotten about Charlotte Dawson?

But what of the claims that Frost’s decision not to get vaccinated is selfish – in that she is putting herself before the vulnerable in our community and dangerously spreading misinformation by saying there are many reasons people aren’t getting vaccinated – and that this needs to be called out?

First, if you want to “call someone out”, it can be done in a way that isn’t nasty and condescending. In fact, respectful disagreement is always better received. It prompts openness to differing viewpoints, and creates an environment where two people are more likely to develop empathy and understanding for the other’s position, whether or not they still disagree. 

If Frost’s decision not to get vaccinated was because she thought, “stuff the immunocompromised, those unable to get the jab and frontline workers, I don’t give a damn about a stressed hospital system, ‘my body, my choice’”, then we could reasonably say she was being selfish. But what if that wasn’t her line of thinking (and it’s highly unlikely that it was)? How would we know what her motivations are, let alone the strength or validity of her arguments, unless we allow her to speak them and have a debate on their merits or otherwise?

Resorting to personal attacks and ‘cancelling’ someone because they express a view that we disagree with are not the hallmarks of a society dedicated to free speech, which is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. A free exchange of ideas – without fear of reprisal – allows different perspectives to be robustly challenged, with the truth more likely to emerge, be understood and accepted (something we could do with more of when it comes to political debate and public policy making in this country). In contrast, shaming someone is more likely to reinforce flawed ideas or drive them underground.

The reality is, there is an immense amount of information and misinformation flying around when it comes to the pandemic, but the resulting confusion should provoke compassion and a desire to promote understanding, not contempt and division. Women – who have arguably been hit hardest by the negative economic impacts of Covid among others – should, in particular, be kind to one another during this time. You never know what another person is struggling with or how they have come to their genuinely held beliefs about the right course of action with regards to Covid vaccines, or indeed anything else. You may not agree with them, but they, like all of us, are entitled to freely exercise and follow their own conscience – in truth, that entitlement is a fundamental human right. 

They say that crises bring out the best and the worst in people. The unfortunate reality is that our current culture was already the perfect breeding ground to amplify the nastiness, hypocrisy, and disdain for disagreement already present in our public discourse. The division and at times flagrant loss of humanity is perhaps the worst thing to come out of this whole sorry saga, far worse than any illness or pandemic.

And yet, there is hope. Hope in those who have stood in solidarity with Frost and against her bullies. Hope in those who renounce the public shaming and tearing down of a vulnerable woman, but try to express their disagreement with her in a way that shows understanding and compassion. Hope in the fact that, rather than acting out of selfishness, the majority – including Sam Frost – are sincerely trying their best to make the right decisions during this incredibly difficult time.

Published in The Spectator on 14 October 2021.

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