Rights vs. Responsibility

A protest outside the Ohio Public Safety Department on May 9, 2020. (Photo by Paul Becker via Flickr)

“We’re risking our lives to go to church,” stated the lawyer for a group of Oregon churches suing for the right to resume gathering as normal as the coronavirus pandemic continues. “If we survive, great. If we die, then we’re going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it’s on us.”

And the others they might infect in places they’ll go after church and before heaven? No room in the equation for them, apparently. (Not in heaven either, most likely.)

Maybe an ironic thank-you is owed to the man who said this; with a helpful bluntness and revealing lack of self-awareness he crystalizes all that’s wrong with the juvenile “rights” rhetoric blowing around during this pandemic. All that’s wrong with scenes like armed protesters at the Michigan capital demanding the right to return to daily life despite the threat of increasing the spread of COVID-19. Beach-lovers insisting on the right to return to the sand and surf before it’s safe. Angry shoppers asserting their right to enter stores without masks despite the risk it poses to the employees and other customers.

“My rights, my rights, my rights.”

People, I’m tired of hearing about your rights and rarely if ever a word about your, and our, responsibilities during a global health emergency (or at any other time, for that matter).

As society emerges from this current crisis, haltingly and unevenly and in fits and starts that are likely to plague us for some time to come, we need to act on what we have learned about ourselves during the ordeal—and come out better than before.

We need to institute a new age: an age of responsibility.

The immature and out-of-context fixation on “my rights” has been operative in this country for a long time, of course. But our culture of irresponsibility, as has happened with many pre-existing conditions, is being preyed on by the coronavirus and revealed in the clearest, harshest light. The pandemic is showing that a rights-obsessed society with insufficient regard for members’ mutual responsibilities is on its way to conflict, chaos, and dysfunction, as ours has been for some time. Not to mention a lot of inanity.

For me, the enduring image of the age of irresponsibility is the woman interviewed by USA Today while protesting on a closed Southern California beach that was mere days away from re-opening. She wanted to be able go there right then. “I’m either free or I’m not,” she declared.

What a perfect articulation of many citizens’ foolish idea about what it means to be free. Haven’t they learned that personal freedoms have never been absolute, and that rights must come with responsibilities if we’re going to have a well-functioning society within which to exercise our freedoms?

Yes, the Constitution. The liberties enshrined in the nation’s founding documents and traditions of law are vitally important. Secular progressives might cringe at the ways religious freedom is invoked these days—by businesses that want to deny services to certain people, by employers that vie to keep contraceptive coverage out of their employee health plans, by churches that insist on congregating (and risking further spread of a lethal virus) during a pandemic. But we must acknowledge that freedom of religion is a constitutional right and that its close cousins—freedom of conscience and freedom to be nonreligious—have served humanists and other secular people, too.

Yes, the spirit that animates today’s all-out pursuit of rights and freedoms—the spirit of personal authenticity—is one that seculars have helped legitimate and accelerate and something from which we all have benefited. Most Americans agree that to live a meaningful life we must be free to identify what we believe and value and to chart our courses accordingly. This isn’t something humans have been free to do at most times and in most places over the course of history, and it’s not something we should ever surrender.

And, yes, it’s painful to remain in lock-down isolation during our current public health crisis. We all chafe at the restrictions. We all want the economy to start recovering.

Yet despite all this, anyone with an ounce of awareness and a semblance of civics education, formal or otherwise, knows that freedom comes with contexts and limits, knows that “freedom” means nothing if your fellow citizen is “free” to do whatever he wants despite the harm it causes you. We all ought to know that “freedom” in our “free” society has never meant we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, whatever the consequences.

Clearly, we need a public education campaign drilling home what “freedom” and “rights” mean: the right to have a say in the government and to criticize that government and its policies when we think they are wrong. The freedom to travel around the country, and out of the country and back, without special permission. The freedom to choose our vocations and affiliations and memberships by our own lights and inclinations rather than government orders, and to change them when we wish. And so on.

A plea to the “I’m free or I’m not” woman in California and those who share her view: don’t trivialize freedom and rights by invoking them out of a childish frustration with not being allowed on a beach for public health reasons.

And think for a minute, please, not just about what you should be allowed to do but what you really ought to do for the sake of a reasonably well-functioning society and the many other people with whom you share it.

I’m tired of hearing about the “right” to spew racist or homophobic garbage without any consequence, the “right” to choose debunked anti-vaccination nonsense over sound science and let your unvaccinated kid spread disease at school, the “right” during a pandemic to eschew a mask because you think wearing it “would send the wrong message,” as the president reportedly told his advisers.

Citizenship requires that we think before we act and that we ask ourselves some questions. Like, whose well-being and rights will we be trampling on if we assert our supposed rights in some reckless, dangerous way?

Trump and his people are right that mask-wearing sends a message and conveys important symbolism. What they get wrong is that it sends a positive message—the message that you’re aware of the impact your behavior has on others and that you’re willing to take reasonable measures, even some you’d prefer not taking, for the sake of others’ safety and well-being.

The masks most of us are donning when we venture out these days out are almost perfect symbols of responsible citizenship. Especially in view of the fact that their main utility lies not in their ability to protect the wearer but in how they contain the germs that the wearer might otherwise spread. In other words, when I wear the mask it’s protecting others from me.

It’s been a cringe-fest for many of us during this pandemic. Following the news exposes us to a raging stream of aggressively irresponsible deeds and words from people from whom we expect more: national political leaders, pastors of certain churches, governors of certain states. While thousand and thousands of people are dying.

We must remind ourselves that the media spotlight naturally follows what’s most dramatic and outrageous. It’s reassuring to see that most of our fellow citizens “get it.” Most are willing to support and abide by physical distancing and other restrictions for the sake of containing the pandemic. Most, according to polls, back the continued limitations on in-person worship services and other large gathering where elbows rub and viruses spread. Most, thankfully, are willing to give deference to scientifically informed experts rather than MAGA troops who evaluate everything according to what they perceive as good, or not, for Trump’s precious re-election.

All this, despite the obvious encroachments on our “rights” to do as we please.

Unlike the president, innumerable officeholders at the state and municipal levels are making the tough calls and trying to do the right thing for the citizens they serve, even when it subjects them to appalling threats and reprisals.

Alas, the visibility and influence of small, intense minorities, like the one at the Michigan capitol with their high-powered rifles, pro-Trump signs, and, in a few cases, Confederate flags. Other flags have been seen that reach way back in the country’s history for their wording: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Mighty words—words that meant something rousing and compelling when they were brandished during Revolutionary War times. They are trivialized and tarnished beyond recognition when invoked to protest sensible policies aimed at protecting the body politic from a lethal virus that threatens to mow down ever-larger swaths of the population.

If there’s any “treading” happening here, it’s the treading of a disease whose death toll will double that of the Vietnam War by summer. The 83,000-plus Americans killed by COVID-19 at the time of this writing aren’t enjoying much freedom. Far more people will be fatally tread upon, with the economy probably trampled for a long time to come, if the country does not responsibly face down this challenge.

Ask not how your country is treading on you. Ask how you are treading on your country.