U- Turns And The Masks Of Empathy


For Government in recent times , justification for policy change has been a new public demand for action; particular this has been the preferred when potentially unpopular by if enacted decree. So it was not Science but the Premier League decision that symbolised Civil Society acting first; before the State. The end to mass gatherings in Britain in March , was ensured by the decision of the main proletarian sport to announce closedown Meanwhile horse racing, the “sport of kings”staggered on for a week on past the Cheltenham Gold Cup to its last moment - before that too was closed for business. Now it is the masks of mutual protection that represent the latest public led occasion for a “U-turn by demand”.

The word mutual is essential, because in this case the principle of reciprocity fuses ethical behaviour with ones chance of survival.’ Ill unilaterally mask-up to protect you whether you reciprocate or not. The admonition “Do as you would be done by” has a moral even scriptural ring to it – hardly within the lexicon of neo-liberalism. Yet in the metaphor of the masks enlightened self interest is based on empathetic self denial. The principle ,of protection of life and health, is applied by harnessing enlightened empathy for a public good . It replaces any doctrine of speedy mass infection, to gain rapid herd immunity , incidentally eliminating tens of thousands of the unproductive ,and a quick return to a more profitable “normal” . Both approaches are pragmatic but for different goals. From Hobbes to Cummings only immediate self interest was deemed a reliable motivation for behaviour .By harnessing Individual production to the wealth of the few and an inegalitarian trickle down- and as a result it, a national advance . In that frame, avoiding infecting others – even our near and dear – by blocking our viral spluttering’s would check that outcome. In any case in case it could d never appeal to the base instinct of the herd. And masks would be difficult to enforce even in a Wuhan style lockdown with road blocks, penalties, and big brother apps. Both views accepted as laudable that Civil Society needs to avoid draconian suspension of freedom i; the question is how to win through voluntarism ?

There is a long tradition of public spiritedness and collective mutuality in relationships- these exist in many different kinds of society. In ours ,the obvious examples are community institutions and facilities, not least Public Libraries; the wearing of masks may not indicate a revival of community ethics or public responsibility, but given the need for behavioural change that would be hoped for . There are even analogies in international relationships; confidence building through reciprocal initiatives – even unilateral ones have parallels in mutual reciprocity by example. But there is no guarantee -and the hoped for transaction is ,not always consummated of course. Indeed it is based on the oxymoron: self-interested altruism. The sacrifice is not great; wearing an uncomfortable face covering for a limited time to block toxic projectiles is hardly martyrdom. Public spiritedness invokes such reciprocity –but it does not guarantee it. Some will still deface library books, even spit at front line care workers. We can recall attempts to encourage respectful lavatorial hygiene; not impose it by fines as with non-smoking . In Uni-sex toilets “Gentlemen(!) “ were urged to “,lift the seats”. In all we were encouraged to leave toilets “as we would wish others to find them” Recent solidarity suggests that masks make equally rudimentary demands - and sense.

In exploring a role for social ethics in human behaviour there is room for the concept of enlightened reciprocity in transactions,; they are both learned and natural recognition of a common fate. A global pandemic ,Like climate change encourages such recognition ; we should have our masks ready- even if we may have to learn to smile with our eyes. !

Nigel Youngs book “Postnational Memory,Peace and War; Making Pasts Beyond Borders” was published by Routledge in December 2019

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

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