Selfishness, selfishness, selfishness. The word has enjoyed an unfortunate vogue throughout 2020 and will likely continue to hog the limelight for much of this year too. Given the unpleasant circumstances we face, it seems only natural that people should keep an eye out for those who are greedy and callous. Behaving such a way in the best of times is hardly an admirable trait but it’s positively egregious when so many are facing such dire straits. However, selfishness is a complicated beast and I feel its usage represents not a desire to mute the endless wants of our egos but something more cynical, something more tribal, something which reeks of the vindictive selfishness that it supposedly repudiates.
By now it’s cliche, the people who publicly decry an activity the loudest and pound their podiums the hardest are the ones caught doing the very thing they denounce behind closed doors. Sleaze scandals of the 1990’s involving Conservative MP’s provided a grisly backdrop to the ‘back to basics’ messaging of the government. Similarly, Evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, whose church railed against gay marriage, was accused and later admitted to procuring methamphetamine and male prostitutes. Flash forward to now, politicians and television presenters have led the charge against the ‘selfish’ masses, and already, the facade is beginning to collapse.
Beth Rigby claimed that by ignoring the rules Cummings could “threaten public health”, shaming him for clinging to his office. But guidelines and public health didn’t stop her from being part of Kay Burley’s infamous rule-breaking birthday bash. Recently Piers Morgan, who has conducted himself with the smug air of a jumped-up schoolboy hall monitor, called for people to “make compromises” and make do with a “virtual” Christmas, thereby losing the first chance many had to legally see their families again in months. Yet strangely he too seemed to forget his own advice when he jetted off on a decidedly not-so-virtual aeroplane to make some compromises at the beaches of Antigua.
And these are simply the people who were blatant enough to get caught. How much this happens when nobody is around to see is impossible to guess. Still, while the image of the duplicitous and frenzied coronavirus inquisitor is compelling enough to make one reconsider exactly who is being truly selfish, I believe it unfair and cynical to tar all who call out coronavirus ‘selfishness’ with the same brush. Undoubtedly, there are people who apply criticism sincerely and keep consistent in private with the rules they advocate for in public. What of their use of the word ‘selfish’? Surely people who have remained so pious in such difficult times are unquestionably admirable and have every right to slam those who would selfishly endanger public health?
Obvious instinct would lead one to agreeing with the above sentiment but, as I wrote at the start, selfishness is a complicated beast. It’s easy to think of a person not wearing a mask on the bus as being obviously selfish for breaking the rules but it’s much more difficult for us to think ourselves selfish for trying to enforce conformity upon someone else (regardless of their situation), for reasons that usually relate to our own comfort and security. Selfishness doesn’t begin and end at taking more than your fair share, it’s also the expectation that others tolerate going without for your own sake. Calling for strict rules might not seem to be selfish so long as you personally follow them, but it certainly isn’t selfless if you do so from a position where you know said rules won’t impact you as seriously as they do others.
However, the problems with the way the word ‘selfish’ is used go far deeper than considerations of hypocrisy. It’s not just people who have been propped up off the back of the crusade against so-called selfishness but also a system, a set of rules, and restrictions that just over a year ago we would consider hostile and alien to our very way of life. The demonization of those who would even criticise current approaches as selfish monsters directly responsible for the deaths of others is something that will have negative repercussions that reverberate far beyond current circumstances. To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic is serious and deadly, every life lost is unbearably tragic, and the desire to do something about it is entirely laudable.
Nonetheless, to allow life and liberty, which people over history have spilt centuries worth of blood to erect and cultivate, to be extinguished in one fell swoop is tragic in a way that is hard to quantify or articulate. It is not selfish to find this state of affairs ghastly (even if one ultimately decides it is necessary), it is not heroic to blindly follow edicts and deafen yourself to the objections of detractors. This is not a call to disobey all rules, burn down the churches and throw away your medication, rather it is a plea, a desperate one, to reinject critical thinking to our discourse. This cannot be done with the looming specter of ‘selfishness’ in the background. For whom honestly believes that someone, once stripped down to their base economic essence, could articulate a case against a regime of truth, to convince a mass of people sickened by grief and terrified of further tragedy? Such an arrangement inevitably leads to one of two outcomes: apathetic submission to whatever those in power place upon you, or continuous thanatotic outrage that your freedoms have not yet been fully subjugated.
So, what moral path is there left? Is it possible to keep one’s critical faculties while at the same time not abandoning adherence to some set of rules? In order to answer this, I will have to return to discussion about selfishness.
Unlike many, I am not of the belief that any and all action is ultimately self-serving and therefore selfish. There is something we are all capable of which allows selflessness without damaging our individual character… Tolerance. Genuine tolerance allows us to see others doing things we do not understand, do not agree with, do not like, yet allows us to still remember the personhood of the one doing it. Tragically, very few genuinely embody the concept, despite its mass adoption as a popular buzzword. Usually, it is either made meaningless by dilution, with people only being ‘tolerant’ of things they already approve of, or it is made egregious by expansion, with people expected not to merely tolerate but entirely abandon their personhood in blind adulation.
It is through personal morality, embodied by the self, combined with tolerance that we may keep critical faculties, adhere to a consistent set of rules, and avoid lapses into selfishness. Indeed, contrary to popular sentiment, I would go as far to say that one cannot have proper tolerance without the elements self-required to formulate a strong personal moral code, for tolerance is that acceptance of that which you disapprove. If you have no way of determining what you approve or disapprove of, it is impossible to form the distinction necessary for toleration. Nonetheless, this still isn’t selfish, for doing this neither gives you any undue advantage, nor does it confer unfair disadvantage on anyone else. Tolerance is the acceptance of action that you personally cannot rationally consider yourself doing, it is entirely outside the sort of rationalising calculation of gains and losses that make selfishness possible.
Too easily is the personal aspect of morality forgotten. For all rules you make are based on your experience, thus they are naturally most suited to you, as an individual, they may do well for others but whether or not they take them up is their own decision. We must respect this in times of pandemic, in times of panic, and in times of peace, to judge a person not on what in their moral character differs from ours, but why they differ and to peacefully hear them out, in a way that retains their personhood. Once we lose this, we lose all that we hold dear and it will be an uphill struggle to get it back.