Humanity’s ability to produce wonders, like space rockets, constitutions and vegan coffees, is the product of specialisation and cooperation. Yuval Noah Harari brilliantly argues in his book Sapiens, that our sharing of a collective narrative exploded our social groups from a ceiling of around 150 people (the Dunbar Number), to encompass everything from multi-national companies to nation states of millions of strangers acting in concert to produce modern marvels. And nowhere is this cultural evolution perhaps quite so impressively “humanistic” as our celebration of the rights of the individual. Consider what it has taken for this walking, talking ape to produce a document like the Bill of Rights. It is extraordinary. But there is a very real tension between the needs of a society and the rights of the individual.
Cultures like those of the USA and UK, where there is an almost pathological fetishizing of the individual, have fostered a delusion: that individual rights are not dependent on social infrastructure. It is a paradox. Individual rights are granted by society’s interdependent cooperative systems; from the smallest transactions, to the highest courts, from democracy to health care. To retain and enjoy these individual rights requires the individual to be a functioning part of the collective social eco-system. It is a tug of war held in balance between the granting of the right (to believe, to choose) and the responsibility (to the social order and collective system that maintains this framework of trust and understanding). Let me start with a flippant example: the Flat Earth Society. If you choose to belong to this group and spread its manifesto, well that’s a choice, right? But what of the consequences? Surely you have to put down your mobile phone? How can you make use of the technology that relies on the stable orbit of satellites around the Earth to spread this professed idea? Why should you benefit, and even profit, from the technology and infrastructure that patently reveals your belief as utter hogwash? Is there not a responsibility to align your beliefs with the way the world in fact operates? My sense is that if we required flat earthers to hand in their mobile phones and GPS devices, they might take a closer look at what it takes to keep believing the Earth is flat. So I guess the question is: does exercising the right to believe in this concept require one to act as if the idea is indeed true? And if not, then what does it say about the belief itself?
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn me into conversations that have left me feeling like there is a mass delusion around how society actually operates on some more pressing and serious questions. For example, do you have the right to choose whether to wear a mask or to social distance? Or, do you have the right to choose not to be vaccinated? In these discussions the idea has been floated that it is an individual’s choice as to how careful they are in dealing with Covid-19 and that, rather fatalistically, if the worst were to happen then so be it. But you see, it’s not that simple. Your hospitalisation and possible death requires huge investments of time, money and energy that create a ripple effect well beyond the individual. So should an individual’s right to choose include the right to gamble those resources? It comes back to the question above: do you have to act in concert with the beliefs you profess to have? For example, if you do not believe that COVID-19 is serious (or even real), do you waive your right to medical care should you develop a serious case of the disease? Surely you can’t expect the NHS or your medical care provider to step in if you have flaunted the very health precautions they insist are necessary? There is a reason the saying goes, “the courage of your convictions” because acting according to your beliefs has real consequences that must be weighed against the needs of the very system that supports “your right to choose”.
The mistake is drawing an equivalence between questions that feel similar in nature to these. For example, do you have the right to refuse treatment for cancer? Or, do you have the right to identify as a different gender? When we look at our right to choose who we are, and take action on those decisions, it seems like the mask or vaccination questions might fall into the same family. My body, my choice. But the litmus test is to see if your right could actively create clear and present danger (and I don’t mean hurt feelings or beliefs) to the lives of others or if it has consequences that burden resources beyond your own. If it does, then what responsibilities do you have to factor in when exercising that right (and subsequent behaviour)?
This is not an argument to say that “the system” should not be constantly challenged and evolving, but to acknowledge the responsibility that comes from being granted rights at all. So let’s swing to the other extreme of this equation of rights equating to responsibilities.
The right to free speech is perhaps one of the most fundamental of modern Western democracies, and it is generally only curtailed when the speech can actually be proven to cause harm. However, as the definition of harm starts to include people’s feelings and mental states we see that the right to speak freely is fast disappearing from all sorts of platforms. Cancel culture has taken the concept of responsibility for the words you use, and extended it to include all people’s feelings and opinions, and most pernicious of all, without taking into account either the context, intent or even timeframe of the words themselves. The scales now tip wildly to the other extreme. Even using a word in the context of educating on the harm it can cause is considered an attack, or even more unbelievably, when actually teaching a language course and using a foreign language. Take for example Prof Patton of the University of Southern California who was removed from his position for explaining the use of the Chinese phrase na-ge which, it so happens, can sound like the N-word. Making a sound that is mistaken for another word, even when it is patently explained what the use and meaning is, still got the man his marching orders. This is insanity, and in fact tyranny. Must the Chinese language be vetted by those who speak English for sound-alikes? Where is the intent, the context or even the purpose of destroying lives and careers where no harm but misunderstanding has actually occurred? It boggles the mind.
We live in an age where the luxury of choice is taken for granted. If we wish to undermine this uniquely human privilege, then the lazy flexing of rights without reciprocating the appropriate measure of responsibility will see us lose the battle to bad ideas.