Confirmation Bias, Anit-Vaxx Truckers & Supportive Housing Deniers

A satisfying part of my job has been the opportunity to talk through complex issues with groups of residents whose different outlooks have always added to the discussion. Typically, after an evening of sifting through information and weighing the pros and cons of various alternatives, we have reached consensus on a path forward. That requires a common acceptance of facts and an understanding that the task is to find the best solution – not the perfect one, because that hardly ever exists. People need to speak honestly and to listen carefully. That hasn't been so easy to do lately. Too often, public forums can't make it past the common acceptance of facts, as a small but loud segment refuses to consider any information that interferes with whatever they already thought. There's a term for this, confirmation bias, defined as "the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one's existing beliefs." Fed by social media algorithms, it has become increasingly common, sometimes as unintentional as it is dysfunctional. Anti-vaxx truckers come to mind, as the city prepares for them to descend on Toronto. Angry and misinformed, and not even remotely representative of truckers (90% of whom are vaccinated), they think their beliefs justify being massively inconsiderate and aggressive towards anyone who even passively challenges their beliefs. Some among them have spewed vile anti-Semitism. In Toronto, hospital workers – the people who've been risking their physical and emotional health to keep us safe for two years – have been advised to not be seen in medical clothing to avoid harassment. Here in Willowdale, I'm equally disturbed by the manifestation of confirmation bias related to some of the opposition to a supportive housing project that would provide small permanent homes for 59 people at the northeast corner of Willowdale and Cummer. I led off my last newsletter with the story of a 50-year-old man, grappling with his first homeless winter by pitching a tent in a local parkette a few blocks from where he might have been living if Willowdale MPP Stan Cho hadn't asked the Minister of Municipal Affairs to block approval of supportive housing at Willowdale and Cummer. (For those who missed the last newsletter on this subject, click here.) On the eve of the biggest snowstorm in decades, in the midst of a bitter cold snap, someone set fire to his tent. "Is he okay?" many asked. I spoke with him briefly this week and he confirmed that he wasn't there during the fire, is now in a shelter, and looks forward to finding somewhere more permanent to live. In response to that story, I was inundated with personal emails expressing the hope that this supportive housing would go ahead as soon as possible. Several expressed dismay that a small opposition group would try to give the impression that they spoke for them – or for Willowdale. Many copied me on letters they had written to Stan Cho, something I had hoped might cause him to re-evaluate his position. To my disappointment, he instead doubled down in a letter to the City embracing one of the more insidious false claims: that supportive housing at this location would be bad for the people who would be given a home there! "This location would fail to support those it purports to serve," he declared, going on to talk about lack of transit (it is at the intersection of two bus routes and a short walk to Yonge St.) that it is located in a "food dessert" (there are, in fact, several grocery stores within a 15-minute walk or short bus ride away) and that the area lacks support services (again incorrect). Whose fault is it that the people have continued to put forward arguments opposing this project? One posting on social media suggested it was my fault because I had failed to get these people on board. That struck me like the anti-vaxx truckers blaming Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam for their blockade. I try not to speak out against others' solutions unless I have something better to offer. What would those opposed to this project propose? Should those who find themselves homeless sleep over subway grates and in bus shelters? Get packed into a homeless shelter and spend the day riding the subway to keep warm? Set up encampments in City parks? I have no doubt, by the way, that the vast majority of Willowdale residents think that supportive housing – small apartment units with built in supports to help people improve their lives - is the best available solution we now have. This week's song comes from a young woman I first heard when a university instructor in Kentucky invited me to a small performance by one of his students. I wasn't expecting much until Amethyst Kiah opened her mouth. A few years later, she was receiving an award for this song about the bias she's had to deal with all her life.

- John