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  • Writer's pictureJoe

Coronavirus and epistemic vigilantism

The Coronavirus pandemic and the isolation or lockdown protocols that came along with it have given rise to good and bad behaviour. There are many examples of compassionate outreach for those people who are at the frontlines of the epidemic, e.g., people who work in health care, first responders, and people who work in the grocery and food supply chain. Rightly so, these people have earned an outpouring of compassion and respect. The pandemic has also seen an increase in bad behaviour. Some bad behaviour was predictable. For example, that instances of domestic violence would rise given that people would be confined to their homes. Other bad behaviour was not predictable, and there is one kind of bad behaviour that strikes me as particularly crass.

Governments have instituted a series of rules that citizens are expected to follow. For example, here in Connecticut, the governor has called upon its citizens to refrain from unnecessary travel and to travel only when it is necessary to pick up essential items. Perhaps the most obvious "necessary travel" is to go to the grocery store for foodstuffs and household products. In New Zealand, my residence, there are stricter rules than that. People are not to leave their homes for any reason whatsoever, other than a once-daily form of exercise and groceries or pharmaceuticals. The once-daily form of exercise must be done within one's own neighbourhood, and it cannot exceed two hours. People, for the most part, have been following the guidelines.

There are people who are not following the rules, but let's set them aside and just talk about the people who follow the guidelines. They stay home and stay safe, but choose to engage in activity permitted by local, region, state, or federal government. These people should be seen as ideal citizens not only in the eyes of the government but in one's neighbours, too.

In isolation and lockdown, people have little to do with their time other than to stay inside, and this can result in some very bad behaviour. For example, there are news reports of vigilantes watching neighbours comings-and-goings, and taking the law into their own hands by either physically or verbally assaulting assumed offenders (here) (here) (here), or contacting local authorities to report their neighbour's nefarious activities (here). The UK government, surprisingly (!), has chosen to support such vigilantism by suggesting that neighbours confront neighbours about their supposed breaches of the government lockdown (here).

Vigilantism occurs when a self-appointed person or group of persons enforces laws without legal authority. The examples cited above are good examples of vigilantism during a crisis. To my mind, what occurs before such activity is undertaken is a form of epistemic vigilantism. Basically, a person who engages in epistemic vigilantism appoints themselves as final aribter of what people should be expected to know about some particular topic, and, if a discussant demonstrates any form of ignorance about some topic, the person appoints him or herself the designee to explain how that person has misunderstood or not comprehended a very important concept around that topic. At least one particularly vile form of epistemic vigilantism is mansplaining. Generally, however, epistemic vigilantism is meant to enforce epistemic norms by imposing his/her own views on others--captured essentially by the motto: "It's my way or the highway!"

There have been innumerable instances of epistemic vigilantism on display in social media. It is the friend whose friendly advice isn't necessarily friendly advice but a dictate to follow and, if one doesn't follow it, you're not only breaking the guidelines set out by the government, you're a bad thinker and epistemically malfunctioning. Epistemic vigilantism is crass and ought to be stopped, but I'm afraid, under the current circumstances, we will see more of it occurring than less of it.

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