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The first chapter of your Open To Debate texts covers the topic of negative and positive freedom. Here is an interesting article dealing with this topic in the context of responses to the Coronavirus epidemic. At the end of the article are two questions to which you may respond for a possible 5 extra credit assignment points. You must also thoughtfully respond to two fellow students for the opportunity to earn full credit.“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Spitting On Other People”Masha GreenMay 26, 2020Late last week, a video compilation started making the rounds, showing customers in public places of business—Costco, Walmart, a Red Lobster—refusing to wear masks or to observe social distancing, and, when called out on their negligence, demonstratively coughing and even spitting on the mostly low-wage employees who were trying to enforce basic safety guidelines. These are the images of the current culture war, fought and framed, like other American culture wars, around conflicting ideas of freedom. “I woke up in a free country,” a disgruntled Costco customer says. “What freedom is being sacrificed by wearing a mask?” a Twitter user asks. “The freedom to not wear a fucking mask,” another responds.Political theorists have long made a distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom, or, as the social psychologist Erich Fromm put it, “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint, the sort of freedom that teen-agers demand when they want you to stop telling them what to do. This is also the sort of freedom Americans most often mean when we talk about freedom: individual liberty.Positive freedom is the freedom not from others but with others; one might call it social and political freedom. In a classic lecture, titled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth-century British thinker, said that the “positive” sense of liberty comes to light if we try to answer the question not “What am I free to do or be?” but “By whom am I ruled?” or “Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?” The connection between democracy and individual liberty is a good deal more tenuous than it seemed to many advocates of both. The desire to be governed by myself, or, at any rate, to participate in the process by which my life is to be controlled, may be as deep a wish as that of a free area for action, and perhaps historically older. But it is not a desire for the same thing.Positive freedom, Berlin said, is the freedom to be intentional: “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not.”Berlin was not arguing that one concept of freedom is better than the other. A student of Russia, he was keenly aware that tyrannies can be built on ideologies of a greater good, and that extreme oppression can be propped up with rhetoric of freedom. But seeing freedom as merely the absence of coercion, he thought, was insufficient. His argument was that the two concepts of freedom have to coexist, even if sometimes they collide.Wearing a mask can be seen as an act of positive freedom: the choice of a conscious member of society. It is difficult to consider enforced mask-wearing as a form of unfreedom, for even the individual-liberty fundamentalism of John Stuart Mill drew a line at actions that can harm others—one person’s freedom can end where another’s safety begins. To claim that being compelled to wear a mask is a violation of one’s liberty is to reject either the premise that wearing one can protect others or the humanity of those who are being endangered. Anti-lockdown protesters and mask resisters routinely misrepresent or misinterpret the risks of coronavirus transmission. When they cough and spit on others, they dehumanize those who might dare to tell them what to do.The long-term effects of living our social lives at a distance, with half of our faces covered, are profound, and the threat we as a society are facing—the number of people who have died, and will die, and the economic devastation wreaked alongside the deaths—is hard to overstate. Because the stakes are so high, mask-wearing and social distancing have to be embraced as a common project, an undertaking in positive freedom, and not merely a curtailment of individual liberty. But, for that to happen, we need to be able to speak about common cause—a way of speaking that seems nearly extinct in American politics. In a speech last Friday, the Republican governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, nearly came to tears as he tried to convince the residents of his state that wearing a mask was not an irrational act or a sign of belonging to the Democratic Party. “If somebody wants to wear a mask, there should be no mask-shaming,” he pleaded. “The first thing that somebody ought to assume is that they’re doing it because they’ve got people in their life that they love and that they’re trying to take care of.” New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has released a P.S.A. in which he frames mask-wearing as an act of respect for others, as a statement and a sacrifice but not an empowering act. “This mask says, I respect the nurses and the doctors who killed themselves through this virus to save other people,” Cuomo’s message begins. New York State ran a contest for thirty-second video ads to promote the use of masks. Of the five finalists, only one frames mask-wearing as collective rather than individual action.For a sense of common cause to appear, there has to be a sense of us: a community that is facing a threat and mounting a response. But we have vastly different experiences of the pandemic and vastly different expectations of the government. The anti-mask people in the viral videos are all white, and, it appears, all or most of them live in suburbs or exurbs. They seem to see mask-wearing as a kind of tyrannical virtue-signalling; they expect to be served and assume they are safe, both from the virus and from facing any consequences for flouting the rules or physically harming others. In my neighborhood, in Harlem, which is one of the hardest-hit areas of New York City, common cause is a scarce commodity for starkly different reasons. Here the city’s guidelines are enforced by police officers who started by aggressively arresting people for failing to social-distance, and who now pull up to gaggles of mostly maskless teen-agers to try to get them to disperse. The police cruiser’s flashing-blue display of a social-distancing message taps into a long-familiar experience of over-policing that has little to do with keeping the neighborhood residents safe.The real threat to freedom in the pandemic is not the threat to individual liberty; it is the threat to positive freedom, the freedom to be a community, a society, a polis. The screaming arguments about masks and lockdowns serve as a distraction from that much more difficult question, and from a sacrifice that is made much too lightly, as when Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, said earlier this month that demonstrations in the city would be broken up by the police even if protesters are observing social-distancing guidelines. Twice in the weeks leading up to those remarks, police had stopped protests by L.G.B.T.Q. activists against Samaritan’s Purse, an explicitly anti-gay organization that ran a field hospital in Central Park in April.Two weekends ago, the protesters were back in Central Park, marking the departure of the field hospital. A couple dozen people stood at least six feet apart. Several held a rainbow-flag banner, narrow and very long, to enable holding it while maintaining social distancing. Whenever someone approached the protest, one of the marshals would say, “You are welcome to join. Please wear your mask and maintain at least six feet distance.” One of the people on the lawn, the lawyer and longtime activist Bill Dobbs, regarded the protest with sadness even as he participated. “To have serious resistance, you have to have a meeting of the minds,” he told me. “And, for that, you have to have people in one room.”In our public space, one person continues to claim the freedom to be in a room with others. The President, as is his talent, succeeds in shifting our attention from that which is truly remarkable—the spectacle of him speaking with others, meeting new people, travelling—to an absurd game of suspense: Will he or won’t he wear a mask? His supporters, meanwhile, succeed in shifting our attention from considering the essential question of freedom during the pandemic—the question of how to forge and maintain common cause—to thinking about the freedom to spit on others.Questions for Consideration:The Covid-19 pandemic has raised challenging questions about the balance between protecting personal liberty and promoting the collective good. We are now in a situation where expressing normally morally acceptable personal freedoms (such as mixing freely with others, pursuing everyday activities, not wearing a face mask) can contribute to creating catastrophic threats to the wellbeing of others. How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise-rightful activities to lower the risk very serious harms to others?
This should give us pause when we consider a much larger catastrophe that currently — and increasingly — challenges humanity: climate change. Driving a gas-fueled truck instead of an electric sedan, kicking the air conditioning on high, flying thousands of miles for work or vacation: all these are pleasurable and convenient activities that people think they have a right to enjoy. But as with COVID-19, they increase the risk that others will be harmed, except that the others are even further away in time and space, and largely invisible to those contributing to the harms. Likewise, the most vulnerable will disproportionately include communities of color, the impoverished and the very old. So, if voluntary compliance is elusive when considering relatively immediate threats to relatively close others, there is little hope that voluntary compliance is going to be successful when considering (what at least appears to be) relatively distant threats to distant others. Our failures to address COVID-19 should be a warning to us we turn our attention to climate change. How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise-rightful activities in an effort to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change?
Requirements: .doc file | Discussion | 1 pages, Double spaced