On Friday, my virtual residency in arts ethics with Francois Matarasso ended with a Zoom conversations with 70 or so participants. I really enjoyed it (and a gratifying number of participants said they did too). If you would like to view the video of that conversation or listen to the audio, you can find links to both on Francois’ wrap-up blog. You’ll also read there that we are planning another virtual residency and conversation in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned for more about that.
One of the questions I was asked on Friday was why I cared so much about ethics. I pled guilty to the charge that I’d given a lot of attention to how and not much to why in my writing on the subject, and was grateful for the chance to correct the omission. Mostly, I talked about prefiguration. This is the idea of living now as if we were inhabiting the world we desire to help bring about. So even though we are surrounded by social injury—racism, sexism, class prejudice and a million more—and see people treating each other as dispensable or unworthy of respect, it falls to us to behave in every realm as if we were living in a social order of universal human rights, deep democratic participation, equity, reciprocity, love, justice. If we can’t be troubled to do this until the revolution—or the messiah or the new economic order—comes, it never will. Why should it?
But it isn’t always so easy to parse the ethics of a situation. What we are seeing is two sharply opposed responses to the virus.
On the one hand, thousands of people are engaging in acts of caring that put themselves at risk to help others. Some people discount the individuals who continue to do risky jobs in hospitals, for instance, citing economic necessity more than altruism (although no matter how cynical they are, it must be admitted that frontline workers could often bring home more money on unemployment, given the temporary supplemental payment involved). But when it comes to those who volunteer to distribute food, who distribute PPE to the vulnerable, the tens of thousands of health care workers who flocked to New York in April, the volunteers for human-challenge vaccine trials—and too many others to name, such a charge cannot be made, even by the most cynical.
It is written in the Quran that “Whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men,” and in the Mishnah, “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
The only ethical dilemma for these brave and compassionate souls is whether their own well-being should be sacrificed to save others, and that is a decision these individuals must make for themselves, considering the implications for their loved ones.
The people who seem to me to be violating principles of compassion and equity often see themselves quite differently. I am thinking now of those gathering in defiance of safety orders, crowding onto beaches or staging public haircuts.
The simplest analysis tells me their choices are unethical, as they are endangering the lives of others on the grounds that their own freedom of movement supersedes such considerations. But the story is ever-so-slightly complicated by the fact that the most insistent protestors say they believe the pandemic is a hoax, and their behavior suggests they really do believe this. For example, this Texas Republican county chairwoman. They are getting lots of encouragement from #IMPOTUS and his family, including the egregious Eric’s latest deranged accusations. And it’s not just domestic. According to NPR, one in five adults in England believe this too. One-sixth of Americans rely on #IMPOTUS for COVID-19 information, and unsurprisingly, they think the pandemic has been exaggerated.
The ethics conversation I took part in via A Restless Art focused on the work of artists who collaborate with community members. But what is a public demonstration but a performative spectacle, co-created to draw attention to whatever the demonstrators wish?
I thought about the demonstrations for causes that seem more legitimate to me, the ones that inconvenience passers-by, sometimes closing down city streets, occasionally bringing ordinary life to a temporary standstill: Black Brunch; the huge inaugural Women’s March in 2017; the Critical Mass bicycle protests; and so on.
When an injustice feels urgent and imperative, disrupting business as usual feels absolutely justified to those moved to action. I’m thinking of Mario Savio’s famous 1964 speech as part of the Berkeley Free Speech movement:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
There’s a whole ‘nother debate to be had about the effectiveness of disruptive demonstration/performance strategies, about whether they move minds. But there is no question of effectiveness when their scale and persistence indicate massive sympathy for the protests (as for the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines). The whole world is watching and the statement they make cannot be ignored.
That puts a fine point on the ethics of staging “virus hoax” protests to assert freedom of assembly, and sadly, I’m afraid that point will soon come home even to some of the protestors in a corresponding rise in infections and deaths. The CDC is tracking high death rates directly traceable to church gatherings in defiance of the pandemic, and I am certain the numbers will soon tell a similar tale about demonstrators. Whether this will convince them that the hoax narrative is itself a hoax, who knows? There are still thousands of credulous people who believe that such terrible events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Parkland have been staged by “crisis actors.” I fear the terrible cruelty this generates—for example, the harassment of parents whose children were murdered in these mass shootings—will be repeated in relation to pandemic victims. #IMPOTUS is already doing it: perhaps you can imagine the emotional impact on those whose loved ones lives have been lost of his refusing to acknowledge COVID-19’s terrible toll and saying it has been exaggerated. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because are among their ranks.
So yes, the demonstrators are performing their freedom to do whatever they please in defiance of what they believe is illegitimate authority and state-sponsored repression. And yes, there is good reason to mistrust the federal government, especially with #IMPOTUS in charge. But why not mistrust the administration’s statements and actions about the economy or environment, where there is ample evidence of their lies? The pandemic protestors’ refusal to face facts doesn’t determine the validity of their actions. It is their lack of compassion for the massive suffering the pandemic has engendered. The fundamental ethical principle at stake in any such debate is the Golden Rule. Any hope of an ethical society depends on empathy, on taking in the price others are paying for your own actions, and on refraining from harming others out of the same love, caring, and compassion you desire for yourself.
It’s frightening to awaken each morning to a nation governed by those entirely lacking in this fundamental compassion, and to see their efforts to deceive others into flouting even the most basic ethical principles. I find myself hoping that their numbers and actions have been blown out of proportion by repetition through the media. If one-sixth of my fellow Americans get their pandemic news from #IMPOTUS, after all, that leaves five-sixths who haven’t been altogether lost to the resentful credulity that animates deep-state conspiracy theories. From the ranks of those five-sixths come the legions of volunteers and frontline workers who have gazed out over the pandemic landscape and opened their hearts. If we do all we can to awaken ethical awareness, they will prevail.
John Trudell, “Crazy Horse.”