SDARJ comments on individual rights and civic responsibility

August 24, 2021

“You can’t tell me what to do!”  “You’re trying to take away my freedom.”  “That’s an attack on my individual rights.”  “It’s my choice.  It has nothing to do with you; it’s all about me.”

Me, me, mine, I, I, I.  

And so, here we are once again in the midst of a COVID surge, spreading with alarming rapidity because of the new variant.  Yet, even as states are experiencing more new cases, more deaths, a large swath of people continues to refuse to be vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.  Being told to do so is an attack on individual rights and personal freedom, they argue.  At this point, with our country so painfully polarized, even a request is taken as an affront.

The protection of individual rights is written into our country’s Bill of Rights.  This protection is not just a right, however; it is more fundamentally a privilege of being a citizen of this country, one denied more people in the world than offered.  With that privilege comes another tenet of being an American, and that is our civic responsibility, our responsibility to our community, even one as large as the community of the United States.  And that responsibility means working for the common good, not just for our own.  

Ironically, perhaps, masks have always been about the other person’s safety, not our own.  The point of mask wearing is to protect others around us, not to take something away from us.  Indeed, as in many situations, guarding other’s safety leads to guarding our own.  If we all wore masks, the transmission of COVID would be dramatically lessened.  If everyone who can got inoculated, cases of COVID would diminish even more.  There would be fewer deaths. 

Yet, according to naysayers, our right to personal choice reigns supreme.  So, let’s take this self-choice, no government interference, to its farthest limits - anything goes as long as I choose it.  It’s not hard to imagine the chaos that would result.  Indeed, even the gods of religions understood that human beings aren’t as unselfish, as careful, as caring as we might like to think we are.  Hence the 10 Commandments, Islam’s Quran and Hadith rules, Buddhism’s Five Precepts, the disregarding of any of which leads to punishment.  Likewise, there are rules that govern our society: laws as seemingly mundane as obeying traffic regulations or wearing seatbelts, or laws as critical as not stealing from, assaulting or killing another.  Both religious and civic laws are there to protect us from ourselves and each other.  They put a limit to individual choice in favor of the responsibility we all have toward others.

However, and to our detriment, too many people have forsaken that responsibility as our country has become more and more enmeshed in the terrible politicization of everything, including, it appears, morality.  COVID is not political.  It infects and kills anyone, young and old, and invades all communities, especially the underserved communities.  We have always had the ability to curb its vicious spread, if only we could muster the collective will. 

Had we all worn masks to begin with, we would have done much to halt the rate of infection that has led to over 650,000 deaths.  Yet, we have lost sight of that horrific number and of humanity as we surrender ourselves to political rage and hate.  Refusal to get vaccinated at this point is akin to a sentence for all. 

Our leaders are begging all of us to become vaccinated because they want to see the end of the surge of this disease, not because they want to take away our individual rights.  They are begging us not to make this life-and-death crisis about a political point or victory. 

They are asking us to serve our better angels and to think of others.  If the federal government eventually issues mandates, it is because it is forced to by our intransigence, our unwillingness to accept that there is a balance between individual rights and civic responsibility. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of having an official mandate to do the right thing, we could all do that right thing because of our sense of responsibility and care for others, for the common good?

Sara Ford is writing for the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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