The greatest problem with the state of our political discourse is the degeneration of every topic of debate into a battle for ideological purity. As each side seeks the approval of their respective purity mob, the two rapidly diverge, putting an end to any hope for compromise. As we meander our way through the immediate aftermath of the initial coronavirus outbreak, compromise has never been more important. Yet, many continue to dig their heels ever deeper, as their opponents do the same, thereby shutting down the path to common progress and common solutions.
The debate surrounding how and when we should end the varying levels of lockdown across the country has been as fierce and divisive as any other subject of political discussion in recent times. Across the spectrum, people have strong opinions on when businesses should be permitted to re-open, how we should handle the potential resurgence of cases after the summer months, and what role “experts” should play when it comes to defining policy.
However, in addition to such substantive areas of debate, there are many other areas which are, frankly, acting as contextually irrelevant clogs in the arteries of constructive progress. The best example of this is the debate raging online surrounding the wearing of masks. While messaging has changed in the months since the outbreak began, the current general consensus and guidance is that masks should be worn in confined public spaces in a bid to prevent the spread “between people interacting in close proximity.”
Given that “countries that flattened the curve used masks in public,” and that transmission is possible while asymptomatic, reliable evidence suggests that masks are one of our few effective tools we have to fight this virus. In the context of the global economic shutdown, the fact that we are all able to make such comparatively small steps in the common fight against an international pandemic seems like a universal good.
Unfortunately, there are many of my fellow conservatives who see the guidance to wear masks as a direct attack on their freedom. Some argue that it’s “my body, my choice,” mimicking the equally illogical pro-abortion slogan. Some claim that masks don’t work. Some see no difference between the forced shutdown of businesses and the use of masks in public. Some even believe that masks are part of a conspiratorial attempt to “test the waters” of population control.
Whether reasonable or unreasonable, all of these viewpoints suffer from the same flaw, which is that they require the complete dismissal of the necessary partner to freedom - responsibility. Individual freedom is a fundamental pillar of American conservatism and is an ideologically revolutionary concept borne from foundational Judeo-Christian principles. However, individual freedom is not simply a shield to protect us from the fact that our actions can have a direct impact on the lives of others, and thereby impact their equally-valuable individual freedoms. Too often, “freedom” quickly mutates into a relentless libertarianism, where the protection of the claimed rights of one individual supersedes the same rights of another individual.
It should be obvious that there exists some line between the freedom of one individual and the freedom of another. After all, should someone be allowed to release fireworks in a hospital, drive at 150mph on the wrong side of a freeway, or masturbate in public (outside of San Francisco)? Most would agree with the famous quotation “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” In that case, the judgment of competing individual freedoms becomes a matter of deciding where the metaphorical “nose” begins.
This is the problem with the “my body, my choice” argument, or the claim that “if you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t go outside.” Such lazy oversimplifications intentionally dilute the complexity of the task we face. “My body, my choice” isn’t a license to ignore the potential to transmit the virus to others, and “if you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t go outside” is a callous dismissal of the harsh reality that many people will be forced to choose between their livelihood and placing themselves or their loved ones at risk. The “fist” of one individual’s freedom not to wear a mask would effectively be breaking the “nose” of someone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and yet many conservatives remain silent.
Rather than continuing this self-defeating battle of egocentric desires - whether through overzealous individualism or rampant collectivism - we should be focusing on defining an optimal set of policies that would allow the country to re-open as soon as possible while protecting those individuals who deserve to be valued and protected. Rather than scoffing, we should address the real and scientifically-supported impact our actions may have on others, and cease holding mild inconveniences on the same level as fundamental human freedoms to physical safety. When both sides demand to have their cake and eat it too, the only outcome is that both sides leave hungry.
Ask yourself this hypothetical question: Let’s say that we could end the lockdown today, with businesses opening immediately, if everyone agreed to wear masks. Not in private, or while outdoors while socially distancing. Only in confined public spaces where social distancing is difficult or impossible. Would you wear a mask?
If the answer is no due to the impact this would have on your “freedom,” then you should consider whether your pursuit of individual freedom has bled into the selfish rejection of the individual freedom of others. If individual freedom is protected over all, then the inevitable result is anarchy. Compromise is necessary for any peaceful and virtuous society. When the compromise involves accepting a mild inconvenience in return for the increased security of others you may be endangering, and you choose to reject that compromise, you are actively damaging the chances of achieving what should be our common goal: to reopen America.