Help us Hannah: If watching the sunset is wrong can it still be ‘rights’?
I was deliberating a day or 3 ago about wrongs and rights, in the covid-lockdown context. Questions emerged for me from the everyday conversations I am having with family and friends about the wrongs and rights associated with ‘lockdowns’. Coming of course from those that inhabit the world’s most locked down city. Day 233 or so as I write.
For us humans what’s the raw human drive behind the simple and increasingly common acts of: occasionally not wearing a mask or not checking in using the QR Code; occasionally sipping a cocktail or a brew outdoors; a clandestine visit to or by a much loved and missed family member; watching the sunset; being away from home after 9 PM; playing at a closed playground; traveling 6 kms rather than just 5 kms; going to the supermarket twice on one day rather than just once; exercising for say 2 hours and 10 minutes; and many other minor ‘rules breaches’ by members of the locked-down-populace?
Blatantly flouting the Rules? Wanting to be interrogated and fined by Police? Overt disregard for Authority and the Rule of Law? Pure evil and selfishness? A sudden decision to depart the mainstream citizenry and destabilise the otherwise generally stable nature of our society? Openly wanting to catch and/or spread the virus? Wanting to seed mass scale rebellion and lead the revolution against the government of the day?
To all of those questions I arrived at a resounding NO as the answer. Pick a normal distribution curve and by and large I think most would agree we are a fairly compliant and tolerant lot. I suspect therefore that 80% or more of us are doing everything being asked of us 80% or more of the time. And we are complying notwithstanding how frustrating, tiresome, inconsistent and nonsensical much of it is.
So, in our minor breaches of the rules, if we are not about pure evil and selfishness, deliberately wanting to catch the virus, or large scale rebellion and revolution, attracting fines, what then drives these modest infractions of the covid rules?
Are we feeling that the Government and Bureaucracy has breached the social contract? Quite possibly. Simply ‘over it’? By and large I think so. A shared frustration, feeling unheard, and not in control? Most certainly. Expressing this frustration (knowingly or not) in minor acts of dissent and disobedience? I am going with a resounding, YES!
But why dissent and disobedience? What is it about us humans that wires us for dissent and disobedience? In these most unusual times I went in search of an answer, primarily to help myself to understand. I share it here in the modest hope of helping others.
As is invariably the case a great ‘thinker’ will have thought about these things well before yours truly has thought about them.
I turned to Hannah Arendt (widely acknowledged as one of the seminal thinkers of the 20th century) and her thoughts on civil disobedience, dissent, moral rights and more. To be clear, Arendt’s is deep and landmark work on many aspects of social theory. My humble quest here is a cursory explanation of what might be driving us humans and our occasional non-adherence to an ever mounting bevy of covid rules. I confess to a quite liberal interpretation of Arendt’s work too.
Arendt wrote that one instance in which ‘civil disobedience arises is when citizens have become convinced that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard and acted upon.’ Her writings were of course contemplating much larger scale civil disobedience in the US in her time. I have created a small-scale parallel here. I think there’s definitely something in this rule laden covid situation about citizens being unheard by the government and the bureaucracy, bearing witness to double standards and inconsistency on a daily basis, feeling powerless in the circumstances, and being and feeling tightly and overly controlled.
Arendt writes of the human condition that consent brings with it a moral right to dissent. Pause here; a moral right to dissent. She also writes that as a citizen in the polis one has a ‘right to have rights’*. Prime for Arendt is the human faculty for exercising judgement, and the centrality of self as the agent of morality.
Rules don’t necessarily provide for the exercise of judgment. Rules usurp wisdom. Rules arguably dictate morality.
Perhaps there’s something in all of this that largely we are consenting to much that is happening, and being in the main okay about that, given the health predictions and impacts, both real and imagined. However perhaps there’s something else here also about retaining the moral ‘right to dissent’ and the moral right to exercise individual judgment albeit at the margins of the covid situation.
So, as the playground, outdoor cocktail, dip of the mask, or sunset may beckon, rules notwithstanding, maybe, just maybe there’s something going on inside you fellow citizen, knowingly or not, about power, control, innate moral rights, and your hard wired need to exercise judgment over yourself and your situation.
While your act may be technically and actually wrong insofar as it’s against the rules of the day, maybe just maybe it’s also ‘rights’.
Here’s the bigger question for me though. If watching the sunset, or taking your child to a playground, or going to work, or visiting a much loved and missed family member, or taking a sip outdoors, is based on human moral rights, can that act actually (ever) be wrong?
*The most fundamental right is the “right to have rights” — the right to belong to a community where people can act and expresses opinions and where there is some guarantee of legal protection. She also claims that the loss of such a community has the consequence of expelling a people from humanity itself.
ps “Hannah Arendt’s life-long project was to understand, to comprehend, and to do this in a way that both honestly confront the darkness of our times and the sources of illumination.” Bernstein.