Monday, August 3, 2020

The Viral Truth

Sara Rushing
Associate Professor of Political Science
Montana State University, Bozeman
July 21, 2020

In the 1830s, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the United States in search of lessons about democracy that he could take back to rapidly changing France. His extensive reflections were published as Democracy in America, which remains insightful to this day. While there were many uniquely American traits and practices that impressed Tocqueville, there were also aspects of the American ethos that mystified him. For example, he observed that Americans, “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

Tocqueville perfectly captures the tendency we have in this country to see autonomy as radical independence from others; and to see freedom as “non-interference” with our pursuits. On such a conception, autonomy becomes the opposite of dependence, vulnerability, and humility, because this version of “freedom” treats the incapacity to will our way in the world all on our own as somehow humiliating. It turns out, though, that our “whole destiny” is almost never in our own hands. Does this mean we are never free? No, because there is a crucial distinction to be made between laudable self-determination, individuality, and a spirit of independence, and the atomistic individualism that many Europeans still, to this day, find mystifying about Americans.

Perhaps no contemporary moment shines light on this crucial distinction more than the debate over wearing a mask in public to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the propulsion of droplets of saliva by coughing, sneezing, singing, sighing, laughing, or talking loudly (there are a lot of ways to propel saliva, I have learned, and those little droplets can hang around in the air for a long time). Unlike wearing a seatbelt when driving, my wearing a mask primarily functions to protect other people around me. Unlike smoking bans, which do exist to protect the health of others, wearing a mask involves doing something, not refraining from something. Like many issues in America today, mask-wearing was quickly politicized and moralized. The resulting polarization has shaped up not around science or data, for the most part, but around values: solidarity versus freedom; care for others versus care for self; obedience versus resistance.

Once a debate shapes up this way, it’s very hard to dial it back. But these dichotomies are false ones, and we ought to push for a more nuanced – and useful! – way of thinking about mask-wearing. Autonomy (the quest for independence), and humility (the recognition of our human limitations and our deep interdependence with others), need not be opposed to each other, as we are taught in the Western tradition of thought (or traditions, most relevant here being liberalism and Christianity). They are two sides to one coin. As I like to think about it, autonomy needs humility, because the quest for independence is an ongoing and often fragile process, that is likely to foil us. And humility needs autonomy, because without the desire for self-determination, we may be immobilized by our inherent human and historical constraints. And we need dispositions of both humility and autonomy to navigate the complex political, social, and (as COVID-19 reminds us daily) physiological realities of interdependence. We need what I call “humility-informed-relational-autonomy.” It’s harder to say than “Freedom!”, but it says a lot more. And we can call it HIRA for short.

Why has the American conception of freedom been so thoroughly severed from the recognition of our essential vulnerability and interdependence? I would argue that, in addition to distilling freedom down to the negative liberty idea of non-interference, freedom has been reduced to a thin conception of “choice.”

Since the 1970s, the idea of “choice,” once an economic concept of amoral consumer preference (think Pepsi versus Coke), has come to define our understandings of citizenship, individuality, and freedom. Early uses of the term, particularly the abortion rights, or “pro-choice,” movement’s rallying cry, “My body, my choice,” encoded a relatively well-developed theory of bodily autonomy and gender equality as foundational for full participation in public life. Choice here was connected not merely to freedom but to justice. More recent deployments, however, function to thin freedom out. For example, the education privatization movement’s use of “school choice” to lobby for vouchers mobilizes anti-government and negative liberty rhetoric to defund public schools and support private schooling instead. For the privatization movement, participation in public goods should be voluntary. As a matter of individual right, school choice advocates argue, a person must be able to “opt out” of anything they don’t choose. Now fully bound up with the so-called culture wars that were born out of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, “choice” has become an argument for the right of corporations to not fund insurance covering birth control, for bakers to not to bake gay wedding cakes, anti-vaxxers not to immunize their children, and, now, mask-refusers to go maskless (provocatively appropriating the old feminist rallying cry of justice and equality, “My body, my choice,” for their conception of freedom).

But our bodies are profoundly porous entities, from the visceral level of the skin right down to the epigenetic switchboard, where changes are activated over our lives by exposure to environmental, psychic and other forms of trauma. We are literally and figuratively infecting each other all the time, with our infectious moods and contagious laughter, with our germs and bacteria and viruses, with our habits, with our ideas, and with our inspirational hopes and fears. Indeed, the word “inspire” actually means to breathe into.

As we look ahead to autumn 2020, and the increase of COVID cases that is likely to follow the reopening of schools and universities, bars and restaurants (not to mention the arrival of colder temperatures that will relegate many of us to life inside), we are going to need robust intellectual and ethical resources to bolster the refusal of false dichotomies and easy moralizing. Writing from Montana, I can attest to how quickly and powerfully the “self-reliance” vs. “solidarity” dichotomy can shape up, and how ineffectual it is at addressing thorny public problems. Ultimately, our freedom is best served by recognizing – not denying – our vulnerability, as humbling as that may be. My freedom depends deeply on you! And vice versa. As a driver, if I refuse to respect the constraints imposed by the yellow lines on the road, you are not free to drive safely if I’m anywhere nearby. If I claimed to be oppressed by my relegation to the right lane, or argued that I have a right to drive wherever I want, you’d rightly be incensed. Sometimes relinquishing certain choices can create greater security and self-determination for everyone.

This insight could be articulated in the language of solidarity, or in the language of mutual self-interest. I prefer to articulate it in the language of humility-informed-relational-autonomy. Like many people, I often wish that my whole destiny was in my own hands. But as an embodied human who gets colds every year, who has been in bike and car accidents, and who can’t always reach things on the top shelf at a store, I’m not deluding myself. As a woman who has given birth in a mainstream medical institution and been sexually harassed (not at once, though it happens!), I am only too aware of the limits of simply proclaiming “My body, my choice.” As a person who has spent the last few years reading texts by disability studies scholars, I fully grasp that our bodies take on meaning relationally within the world, including built environments, cultural norms, and invisible viral spread. The crucial question is how body meets world.

The rhetoric of “Freedom!” may provide cold comfort at a time when “choice” seems like the only mode of “control” in a risky world. But the viral truth is that we’re exposed and disposed to each other because we share that world. There is nothing, other than a mask, that can change the fact that I expel something like 30,000 droplets of saliva at 200 miles an hour when sneezing, and those droplets hang in the air long enough for you to inhale one of them. How might we rethink what freedom requires (and whose freedom, and to do what?) so that we are able to replace that contagion with another: the spread of the idea that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. For you, in the spirit of HIRA (perhaps the forgotten goddess of mutual vulnerability, or the anti-hero of inevitable exposure?), I’ll wear a mask. What will you choose to do?