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The Bigger Problem with “COVID Conga Lines”

photograph of full subway car with half of the passengers unmasked

On December 9th, days before New York would again order the re-closing of bars and restaurants in an attempt to stem the resurgence of COVID-19 cases seemingly spread by holiday travelers, dozens of members of New York’s Whitestone Republican Club gathered together for a holiday party at a restaurant in Queens; weeks later, multiple attendees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least one partygoer has been hospitalized. Although restaurants were allowed to open at 25% capacity on the day of the party, restaurant visitors were also required to wear face masks while not eating; videos of the event — including one showing a prominent local candidate for city council happily leading a conga line — revealed that the majority of people in attendance neglected many of the public health guidelines designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In response to media coverage of its party, the Club released a statement that read, in part, “We abided by all precautions. But we are not the mask police, nor are we the social distancing police. Adults have the absolute right to make their own decisions, and clearly many chose to interact like normal humans and not paranoid zombies in hazmat suits. This is for some reason controversial to the people who believe it’s their job to tell us all what to do.”

Evoking something like “liberty” to defend the flaunting of public health regulations is, at this point, a common refrain in conversations criticizing official responses to COVID-19. According to such a perspective, the coronavirus pandemic is viewed more as a private threat to individual freedoms than a public threat to health and well-being. For various reasons (ranging from basic calculations about personal risk to outright denials of the reality of the virus as a whole), the possibility that someone could unintentionally spread the coronavirus to strangers while unmasked in public is ranked as less significant than the possibility that someone could have their personal liberties inhibited by inconvenient regulations. As some anti-mask protestors (including Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia’s fourteenth congressional district) have said: “My body, my choice,” co-opting the long-standing pro-abortion slogan to refer instead to their asserted right to keep their faces uncovered in public, without qualification.

Critics of this perspective often call it “reckless” and chastise so-called “anti-maskers” for being cavalier with their neighbors’ health; in at least one case, people have even been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for knowingly exposing passengers on a plane to COVID-19. Against this, folks might respond by downplaying the overall effect of coronavirus morbidity: as one skeptic explained in August, “I hear all the time, people are like, ‘I’d rather be safe than sorry, I don’t want to be a grandma killer.’ I’m sorry to sound so harsh — I’m laughing because grandmas and grandpas die all the time. It’s sad. But here’s the thing: It’s about blind obedience and compliance.”

At present, the United States has registered more than 20 million cases of COVID-19 and over 340,000 patients have died from the illness; while these numbers are staggering to many, others might do some simple math to conclude that over 19 million people have (or might still potentially) recover from the disease. For those who view a mortality rate of “only” 1.5% as far too low to warrant extensive governmental regulation of daily life, they might weigh the guarantee of government control against the risk of contracting a disease and measure the former as more personally threatening than the latter. (It is worth reiterating at this point that COVID-19 patients are five times more likely to die than are flu patients — the law of large numbers is particularly unhelpful when trying to think about pandemic statistics.) Even if someone knows that they might unintentionally spread the coronavirus while shopping, boarding a plane, or partying during the holidays, they might also think it’s unlikely that their accidental victim will ultimately suffer more than they might personally suffer from an uncomfortable mask.

To be clear, the risks of contracting COVID-19 are indeed serious and evidence already suggests that even cases with only mild initial symptoms might nevertheless produce drastic long-lasting effects to a patient’s pulmonary, cardiovascular, immune, nervous, or reproductive systems. But let’s imagine for a moment that none of that is true: what if the perspective described above was completely and unequivocally correct and the Whitestone Republican Club’s recommendation to “Make your own calculated decisions, don’t give in to fear or blindly obey the media and politicians, and respect the decisions of others” was really as simple and insulated as they purport it to be?

There would still be a significant problem.

In general, we take for granted that the strangers we meet when we step out of our front door are not threats to our personal well-being. Some philosophers have explained this kind of expectation as being rooted in a kind of “social contract” or agreement to behave in certain ways relative to others such that we are afforded certain protections. On such views, individuals might be thought of as having certain duties to protect the well-being of their fellow citizens in certain ways, even if those duties are personally inconvenient, because those citizens benefit in turn from the protection of others (shirking public health regulations might then be seen, on this view, as a kind of free rider problem).

However, this doesn’t clearly explain the sort of moralizing condemnation directed towards anti-maskers; why, for example, might someone in a city far from Queens care about the choices made at the Whitestone Republican Club’s holiday party? Certainly, it might seem odd for someone in, say, central Texas to expect someone else in southeast New York to uphold a kind of give-and-take contractarian social contract!

But, more than just assuming that strangers are not threats, we often suppose that our civic neighbors are, in some sense, our partners who work in tandem with us to accomplish mutually beneficial goals. Here an insight from John Dewey is helpful: in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, Dewey points out that even before we talk about the organization and regulation of states or governments, we first must identify a group of people with shared interests — what Dewey calls a “public.” After considering how any private human action can have both direct and indirect consequences, Dewey explains that “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” On this definition, many different kinds of “publics” (what others might call “communities” or “social groups”) abound, even if they lack clearly defined behavioral expectations for their members. To be a member of a public in this sense is simply to be affected by the other members of a group that you happen to be in (whether or not you consciously agreed to be a part of that group). As Dewey explains later, “The planets in a constellation would form a community if they were aware of the connection of the activities of each with those of the others and could use this knowledge to direct behavior.”

This might be why negligence in New York of public health regulations bothers people even if they are far elsewhere: that negligence is evidence that partygoers are either not “aware of the connection of the activities of each with those of the others” or they are not “us[ing] this knowledge to direct behavior.” (Given the prevalence of information about COVID-19, the latter certainly seems most likely.) That is to say, people who don’t attend to the indirect consequences of their actions are, in effect, not creating the collective “public” that we take for granted as “Americans” (even apart from any questions of governmental or legal regulations).

So, even if no one physically dies (or even gets sick) from the actions of someone ignoring public health regulations, that ignorance nevertheless damages the social fabric on which we depend for our sense of cultural cohesion that stretches from New York to Texas and beyond. (When such negligence is intentional, the social fabric is only rent deeper and more extensively). Americans often wax eloquently about unifying ideals like “E Pluribus Unum” that project an air of national solidarity, despite our interstate diversity: one of the many victims of the COVID-19 pandemic might end up being the believability of such a sentiment.

Separating the Freedom of Religion from the Right to Discriminate

photograph of Israel Folau playing rugby

This week, GoFundMe shut down the campaign of Israel Folau, a top Australian rugby player who had set up an account up in an attempt to raise Aus $3 million to take legal action against Rugby Australia for terminating his contract. Folau’s contract was terminated last month for a high-level breach of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct over his controversial social media posts. In many recent posts Folau had expressed his belief that, among others, homosexuals, adulterers, and atheists would go to hell unless they repented.

Folau is challenging his dismissal in the Fair Work Commission, arguing Rugby Australia violated his religious freedom. He is an evangelical Christian, and he claims that it is his responsibility to preach his religion. “I am… a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible,” he said. GoFundMe’s manager Nicola Britton said in a statement “as a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity.” 

The Fair Work Commission’s decision regarding Folau’s claim to have had his right to freedom of religion violated may have important ramifications for future challenges in workplaces and religious institutions both for religious people who want to exercise their right to carry out the tenets and responsibilities of their religious worship, and also for those against whom such freedoms may discriminate.

The Folau case is another iteration of an issue that has been widely problematized following Australia’s new same-sex marriage laws which came into effect in 2018; after which religious people’s concerns that they would not be allowed to refuse services to, or would be forced to teach the legitimacy of, same-sex couples led to the government conducting a review into religious freedom and to canvassing the possibility of legislating extra protections as well as instituting a commission to oversee protection of freedom of religion. 

“Unfortunately, GoFundMe has buckled to demands against the freedom of Australians to donate to his cause,” a spokesman for Folau said. “There appears to be a continuing campaign of discrimination against Israel and his supporters.”

Following GoFundMe’s closing of Folau’s funding campaign, he has received a $100,000 donation from the Australian Christian lobby. ACL managing director, Martyn Iles said “They [quiet Australians] feel the pinch of political correctness and the erosion of their basic freedoms.” Setting aside the point that Folau is anything but a ‘quiet Australian’, the salient point in these responses by Folau and his supporters is that they portray him as a victim of discrimination whose freedoms are being eroded. 

Freedom is at the core of many of our ethical principles and moral and political values. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the general assembly in 1948, specifies many types of freedom – such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion – that are enshrined as universal moral rights. 

These liberties serve as the fundamental lynchpin of democracy. In the Folau case, more than one fundamental democratic principle is at stake, and they appear to be at odds with one another. The first is the right to believe in, practice, and undertake religious activities. This right is enshrined in Article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR), to which Australia was an original signatory. The second is the right to freedom from discrimination, and according to Article 18 governments can limit religious freedom if it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Either those principles clash because they are fundamentally incompatible, or they clash in practice because of disagreements about how to apply them. This therefore raises the question of what exactly freedom of religion entails, and whether it includes the right to discriminate against those who do not share such beliefs. In short: how far does a person’s right of religious expression extend? 

The limitations placed on freedom of religion in Article 18(3) of the ICCPR provide an essential qualification on the capacity of one right to disproportionately impinge upon the exercise of other rights. Any concessions for freedom of religion must be balanced against rights to equality and non-discrimination. Freedom of religion is a right designed to protect religious persons from discrimination, it is not a free pass to allow the religiously-sanctioned discrimination against others, and those who try to co-opt it as such are being disingenuous. 

In a statement in defense of his claim that his religious freedom was being violated, Israel Folau said: “What makes our country so wonderful is that we have such a diverse community made up of so many different cultures and values.” It is hard to read this remark as anything other than stunning hypocrisy, given that his mission appears to be nothing short of homogenization of the culture into a salvific vision of Christianity.

It is also worth remembering that freedom of religion is not traditionally a core tenet of the Christian religion – a fact to which the centuries of zealous missionary efforts to convert non-Christians the world over is testament. Freedom of religion, as enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18, is a core secular principle. It is only when laws are no longer determined by religious beliefs that people’s freedom to worship in their own way becomes possible.

Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?

photo of animal pelts on a table.

It is easy to forget that our choices as consumers have significant consequences beyond satisfying our material needs or desires.  Many of us make purchasing choices with little regard for how those choices affect other people, non-human animals, or the environment.  In many cases, the stakes are tragically high. One proposal worth consideration, then, is that certain purchasing options should simply be off the table or should, at a minimum, be highly regulated.  

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What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?

The European Union’s highest court has recently ruled that companies are allowed to ban hijabs in their workplaces. It is a response to two cases: Samora Achbita, a woman working for a company in Belgium, was fired over her refusal to take off her veil at work; Asma Bougnani was likewise fired by a company in France, for the same reasons.

This is yet another battle in the long hijab wars that have been fought in Europe over the last 20 years. As usual, there is a political aligning on this issue: the far right welcomes such bans, the multicultural left vehemently opposes them, and the rest of the parties are either undecided, or simply confused, about their stand.

Continue reading “What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?”