No more excuses! Forced into isolation by the pandemic, we now have the time and space to “to think what we are doing,” as Hannah Arendt long ago urged.
Arendt, perhaps the foremost political philosopher of the 20th century, observed that in the past we didn’t have to think: “tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral options of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves…”
However, nowadays, she wrote, its a free-for-all, with no guard rails on how we should act. “Adrift in a world in which everything and anything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.”1
Today, many different worlds exist, depending on which lens we look through.
One lens, promoted by the medical and health professionals, sees our first duty is to protect our community, the body politic. Under this view, individuals should be willing to forego certain liberties during a deadly pandemic, like self-isolating and wearing masks, to safeguard the greater whole. That’s one view of reality, in step with most religions.
Another lens revolves around the idea that the world is a dangerous place, like a cage fight with no rules, where only the fittest individuals survive. Proponents of this view believe that’s the way it should be, with little or no government restraint.
During the pandemic, some proponents of this second view have suggested sacrificing some of us in order to achieve herd immunity, a term from veterinary practice, meaning letting a disease play out throughout the herd without intervention. The end result is that the weakest are culled from the herd, leaving only the fittest.
I hope most would agree that there’s a fundamental distinction between how we should treat human beings and animals bred for slaughter.
On top of that, the odds are unfairly stacked against us. The massive income inequality that exists today would, to a large extent, determine who would pay the ultimate price: The losers would include minorities and the poor without access to adequate healthcare; the elderly, who have compromised immune systems; and working people, first responders, and essential workers in nursing homes, grocery stores, factories.
Meanwhile, the more well-to-do can work safely at home or self-isolate at their secluded, second homes. Defining herd immunity in terms of who is the most affluent is an insult to us all. On top of that, the toll would be catastrophic: Johns Hopkins estimates, without any mitigation, the price for herd immunity in the U.S. could be an additional 500,000 deaths.
Finally, I want to present Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher, Buddhist, and general systems theorist, who sees the world through a different lens, similar in many ways to that of the medical and religious communities, but with a modern touch.
She uses the human brain as an analogy for explaining systems thinking and how it contrasts with other approaches. She points out that human brain cells would die if they tried to compete to gain “power over” neighboring cells. Instead, to be effective, nerve cells must ensure maximum flow between cells to communicate and form collaborative networks.
According to her, in microcosm, that is how life works. Natural scientists now understand that what appears to be separate entities are interacting currents of matter, energy, and information.
Using a poetic metaphor, she says, “we are flames that keep our shape by burning, by the act of combustion—matter in and matter out…So action isn’t a burden…It is something we are.”2
Why is that important? Because if action defines who we are—if we are bright, burning flames by our very nature—then we are meant to be engaged, vibrant actors in life, not couch potatoes dozing through the evening news.
As political polarization inches closer to civil insurrection in these times of Covid-19, we need to heed Hannah Arendt’s warning about the imminent danger we face. And be empowered by Joanna’s call for action.
Do we want to insist on unfettered individual freedom during this pandemic, unwittingly advancing the interests of the strongest and richest against the rest of us? Or do we want to come together as a united community for the greater good of us all?