Covid19 a community corrective to our culture of autonomous choice
In my work as a researcher, I’ve noticed the influence of some powerful personal narratives—autonomy and individualism—that form significant foundational assumptions in the way we live. Strangely enough, I actually came across a study of 78 countries over 51 years that “indicated that individualism has increased by about 12% worldwide since 1960.” However they may have quantified that, it’s interesting to me that from what we’ve seen so far, our current isolation is proving that we’re much more interconnected and reliant on the choices of others than we might want to admit.
We pursue the unity of communities while still allowing room for the diversity within them.
To clear things up at the outset, clearly autonomy and choice are important facets of normal human existence. I appreciate the freedom to choose how I live and I love much of the variety and life that people’s individualism brings to our communities, as long as the music is turned down by 10:30pm. But there are other, equally important facets to our lives, like our connection and solidarity with others: where we recognise a “collective obligation and mutual reciprocity based on feelings of social unity.” The ties of connection involve an understanding that sometimes my own choices might be limited and responsibilities increased in order to protect or respect others. We pursue the unity of communities while still allowing room for the diversity within them.
This seems to be the approach we’ve taken so far in responding to Covid-19. Living separated in our isolated bubbles is ironically not an individualistic approach, it’s a decision to stand in solidarity with those New Zealanders most vulnerable to this virus. We’re limiting our choices and living in lockdown, and we’ve seen businesses and individuals follow this approach; with supermarkets restricting priority queueing and online shopping to vulnerable people and essential workers, and with some rest home staff leaving their homes to spend lock down isolating with their residents. These people show us that solidarity requires communities, institutions, and everyday New Zealanders to sacrifice individual comfort or desires to participate in the responsibilities of community. It asks us to think beyond our bubble.
Living separated in our isolated bubbles is ironically not an individualistic approach, it’s a decision to stand in solidarity with those New Zealanders most vulnerable to this virus
Of course solidarity is not an end in and of itself, we should not pursue it blindly to the detriment of other goods and facets of life. Political and social history has shown us that going too far either way can be destructive. Extreme individualism has led to impoverished underclasses and “might is right” dictatorships, while extreme collectivism is the dominant feature of any number of ideological cults and has led to the economic and totalitarian ravages of the Soviet Union and Venezuela, to name just two. As American commentator Rod Dreher has said, “In every polity there is a necessary tension between the claims of the individual and the claims of the common. Politics is to a large degree about negotiating that tension.” A balance isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.
This has become obvious during lock down, as the costs and sacrifice required by an approach of solidarity become clear. Right now, for example, debates about the significant economic cost of this lockdown are front and centre as people lose jobs and money, and businesses try to stay afloat. These aren’t hypothetical examples anymore—lives and livelihoods are at stake. The impact of our choices on others are clearer than ever. The way we choose to act communicates a narrative about what is right, each person in our neighbourhoods either affirming or contradicting the new normal.
A balance isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.
We know that hard times reveal the true values of individuals, communities, and societies—and how well they align with the task of cultivating a sustainable, flourishing life. While focusing on ourselves, our comforts, and our interests can seem like harmless self-expression in times of plenty, the hard edge of caring only for ourselves is anathema to the community solidarity required in this moment, and in the weeks and months ahead. If there’s one thing to learn from living in isolation, it’s how much our individual choices affect our collective humanity—how connected we really are.