From talking to them, you’d think they were undoubtedly anti-maskers, anti-social distancers, and anti-vaxxers. You’d bet good money they’d claim the Covid-19 restrictions stole their freedoms, that the government made up the crisis to gain more power, that it’s all a fraud imposed by the “elites.”
And yet: They’re not. They support the health measures and can be found defending them on Facebook and even chiding friends who give the anti-mask/distance/vax line. The reversal requires explanation.
The explanation is that they are vulnerable or love someone who’s vulnerable. I say this both because I know some of them and because they often mention their loved one. You may be fine, they’ll say to their anti-masking friends, but he’s in danger.
I don’t blame people for reversing their politics when they see the effect on people they care about. It’s natural and right to be cautious and conservative in serving those you love and for whom you’re responsible. Each of us does the same. The man who takes chances with his sick child’s life because he doesn’t like socialized medical care is a monster, not a man of principle.
In the same way, some anti-Covid-vaxxers now claim that the pharmaceutical companies manipulate the data and exaggerate the danger to make more money selling their vaccines. Big Pharma lies to make a killing. A few months ago you would have found them sharing anti-socialist memes. You would have found them cheering the dismantling of the regulatory system and businesses gaining more freedom to do business as they wanted to. That was Trump “draining the swamp.”
This second is much less justified than the first, because they’re not asking for caution in the care of loved ones but grabbing any argument to hand to support the position they’re taking no matter what. I’m not going to blame them, much. Again, each of us might do the same. And who knows, maybe some of them have learned a more sophisticated way of looking at corporate capitalism. (I doubt it, but maybe.)
On the other side of things, many lefties who automatically favor regulation, high taxation, and a very activist state in general, suddenly see the values of economic freedom when they have a business to run or have to pay more taxes than they think fair. In the college town in which I grew up, you could find the most ardently socialist professor ranting angrily because he couldn’t get permission to put up a shed on his lawn, or moving to another town to escape the taxes.
Of course it’s a matter of whose ox is gored. None of them have come independently to see a truth they didn’t see before. They saw it only with the aid of self-interest. Still, it’s a teachable moment, or should be. Now that they know they were wrong, they should think hard about why and how they can avoid being wrong in the future.
In other words, they should theorize their break with their ideological commitments. See how what they now know should change their thinking, what new assumptions they need to make and what new ideas they build on those assumptions.
Most people don’t, of course. They violate their beliefs to serve their self-interest and then return to their beliefs. It’s hard to do, and I won’t make any claim to being good at doing it. But it’s the only way we learn. And the only way to reduce political divisions. And the way, I think, a wider understanding of Catholic Social Teaching will develop in practice.
The first group, for example. If you find yourself being cautious because you care for someone, and not rejecting instructions you would otherwise reject, fit that new experience and insight into your political thinking. The experience tells you something you didn’t know. It complicates your political thinking, because the attitude you thought obvious you now know isn’t obvious.
You now know that the government might order some actions to protect people who would not be protected otherwise. It might restrict people’s freedom because it alone thinks of the effect on public institutions, like intensive care units. And it alone has the authority to try to prevent mass casualties. The freedom you once believed in proves in this case — the case you care personally about — to be a kind of social Darwinism. You may retain your suspicion of the state, but not in so simple and absolute a way.
You need to think about what this means, so you’ll know what to say and do when the same kind of problem arises in the future. Especially if it arises when you are not personally committed in a way that makes you question your ideological commitments. That is, when it’s easier to slip back into your old ideology even though you now know it’s defective.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was When Christians Lie for Jesus (Even in Defense of Life) Bad Things Happen, and his previous article for the homepage was The Guardian Columnist Without Religion Knows What He’s Missing. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
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