Should the rights of the individual supersede the good of the collective?Friday, July 30, 2021
The wisest thing to do with a fool is to encourage him to hire a hall and discourse with his fellow citizens. Nothing chills nonsense like exposure to air.
– Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government, 1908.
RECENTLY, another video showing a young man from my parish hurling expletive-laden abuse at our prime minister went viral.
He gave his name and address then challenged the prime minister to do something about the abuse. The police were ecstatic. They had been looking for the man for some time regarding another matter. Now, thanks to his video, he could be located and apprehended.
While he was in their custody the police asked for/demanded an apology to the prime minister. The apology from the now-subdued man was recorded.
Since then, assorted lawyers and others of high learning have raised objections about the young man's “rights”. I found myself at odds with a dear friend – a man of high intellect and a revered church leader in this country. I will respond to him in his “language”.
For children, the Bible has stated – and the Church has reinforced – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1) The “Good Book” also has similar instructions about governments: “Let every person be subject to governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1) Could this mean that all human authority is established by God; therefore, it demands our respect and obedience?
It may be helpful to look briefly at the prevailing condition in Jamaica – and the world – that informed this young man's tirade.
We are struggling with the worst pandemic the world has seen for more than a century. So far, some 196 million have been infected and well over 4.19 million have died. Largely because of ignorance and indiscipline, others shackled by irrational fears spawned by misinformation, people have rejected vaccinations, giving new, more aggressive variants time to develop.
Most countries have revised their protocols to keep in step with the ever-changing conditions. Many that had relaxed the use of masks have reversed this decision, and curfews have been reimposed in a desperate effort to reverse the resurgence.
This young man, we understand, had high hopes of celebrating a memorable Independence week. In his mind the prime minister had messed up his plans. Livid, he lashed out from the apparent safety of a rural and rustic community the prime minister was not likely to visit.
For me, few things are more refreshing than people stating their positions openly, confidently, and fearlessly on a particular subject. This is how improvements are identified and implemented. These discussions – free of rancour and vitriol and fired by empirical evidence – are largely responsible for positive developments in the world today.
I have been concerned, for some time, about the preoccupation with individual freedom. While this sounds good in speeches, I have watched this concept give way, slowly, to a preoccupation with personal accumulation of property and privilege – some call it greed – at the expense of the community. No one seems to have been observing that, while there are frequent celebrations of personal successes, communities have been dying.
South Korea and the United States are similar in that they are both economically successful democratic republics. But that is where the similarity ends. The stark difference is reflected in the novel coronavirus statistics for both countries. The number of COVID-19 deaths in the US is well north of 615,000. In South Korea it is less than 3,000.
For me, the main difference is that, although similar protocols were announced early in both countries, Americans were free to ignore them. In South Korea, where the welfare of the community is paramount, there were consequences. Not that there were difficulties getting citizens to obey protocols. The culture helped citizens to understand their responsibility to their neighbours.
Some bright sparks may argue that the US has a larger population (332 million) than South Korea (52 million). Well, that is true. The US does have 281 million more citizens than South Korea. So let us look at India. India has almost a billion more people than the US, yet it has more than 220,000 fewer deaths. As far back as 480 BC, Confucius said, “When law and order prevail in the land, a man may be bold in speech and bold in action; but when the land lacks law and order, though he may take bold action, he should lay restraint on his speech.” This was a more thoughtful, sobering position than that of the excitable and aggressive Euripides in The Phoenician Woman, penned a generation earlier: “But this is slavery, not to speak one's thought.”
I am sympathetic with Sir Robert Peel's position when, in a letter to Sir James Graham in December of 1841, he said, “When a country is tolerably quiet, it is better for a Government to be hard of hearing in respect of seditious language than to be very agile in prosecuting.” This seems to be the sentiment informing the position of our local legal luminaries.
At the same time, when this global battle is far from won and the cause is, in no small part, the result of “freedom” by whomever to hurl irresponsible abuse at the people tasked with finding solutions after contributing to the existing situation by flouting protocols. Something does not seem to be right. The prime minister did not ask anyone to clean his shoes or wash his car. He is listening to the experts and trying to implement their proposals to steer the country away from a dangerous, deadly demon.
If we are not yet at a place in our personal development that allows us to respect our leaders, can we, at least, respect the positions they hold? Free speech is necessary everywhere people are free. But it really does not matter if the abuse is in some small village or on a platform in Half-Way-Tree. Abuse of those in authority is less some fancy notion of free speech and more a chipping away at authority, without which no nation can survive.
The mushrooming of misinformation on social media platforms spreads faster than the delta variant of the novel coronavirus. It is generating hugely deleterious consequences on health and livelihoods.
It is times like these that working for the common good is just plain common sense.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org
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