Individualism and Social Safety: Opinion


Dean Rutz from the Seattle Times

Protestors in Olympia against the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Valerie Diep, Staffer

Since the coronavirus pandemic is the big raging subject over the news media, my family has spent much time discussing the issue at home. It mainly relates to the politics of all kinds—domestic, foreign, and global affairs—but the one conversation that I found most interesting was about American values. 

There were many articles and coverage about Florida, where, despite a widespread outbreak, many young Floridians took to the beaches to enjoy their spring break. The act was quite flabbergasting—did these people not care about the public, their peers, or even their families? 

It then leads to the concept of individualism, “a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount.” In the United States, we constantly read stories and tales about how one individual, through their might and courage, broke through society’s shackles, or how one individual can be powerful enough to shape the world in a better way. Many readers, including me, view these characters as ideal heroes: Katniss Everdeen, Batman, Columbus (that last one is questionable). Rarely, do we ever give credit to entire groups or organizations with no clear leadership and pay focus to the individual. These stories are inspiring and are what drives us to become better as civilians, but, as seen in Florida, that mindset can be harmful if taken the wrong way.

We were trying to understand what these beach-goers in Florida were thinking when they decided to indulge in their spring break. Some people thought that since “the government did not cancel [the festival], it should be fine.” It could also be imagined that the mindset of “we have to live life to the fullest” or “live every day like it’s your last” being justifications for endangering the population of Miami.

However, to make one thing clear, a majority of Americans do not support these groups who protest against quarantine—about a good 72 percent of the population. The issue at hand is these extreme groups themselves, not the entire populace.

You could argue that these Americans are too individualistic and selfish, not caring for society as a whole and purely focusing on their desires and pleasures. However, the issue is most likely not individualism. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, people allowed George Bush to walk past the line of rights and tap into private calls, access emails, arrest people of Pakistani, Arab, or Muslim origins without clear reasons—in short, denying civil liberties to both foreigners and citizens alike. Even for the sake of national security, there are many of us who think this is an unethical act and have strived to be more determined to protect our rights. 

We can see that, depending on the circumstance and what is at risk, Americans will defend civil liberties or national security. 

Perhaps, it is not American values that are the issue, but the inability to think thoroughly with each special case. From what we have seen, there will be individuals who prize national security, no matter if it means sacrificing the rights of the minority to protect the majority. Then, there are those who will prize freedom at all costs, even if it means giving civilians the right to hurt each other through gun violence, or in this case, not properly self-quarantining

There’s actually a special term for those who loyally adhere to their personal values: moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is a type of ethical view, where there are things that are right or wrong and no in-between. Although this may create an honorable lifestyle, to live by the rules of absolutism, it is problematic in that it paints the world black and white, where in reality the world is a spectrum. To state it shortly, moral absolutism is impractical.  

For every rule, there must be an exception, and it would be worthy of a goal to identify when these exceptions take place. This moral view is called moral objectivism, which is a less extreme form of absolutism. It still agrees that there is a moral code that everyone follows but has yet to be identified. It claims that there are some cases where it is okay to break the rules.

A special issue that we have seen in American society is that we have too much information, which is ironic to many other societies who live in oppressive regimes that try to suppress information. It is a real problem in the states, though, and it is an even bigger issue when viewers do not try to actually understand and be aware of how the media controls their thoughts. 

Going back to the coronavirus issue at hand, arguably one of the biggest issues surrounding the pandemic is the media hype. It should be our priority to understand the risks and dangers of the virus so we can protect ourselves and the people we love, but there is a difference between being informed on the situation and having all the news coverage take advantage of our fear. Although the purpose of news media is to inform citizens, they are also trying to gain profit to sustain themselves, and thus, they will cover almost anything to gain a reader’s attention. 

It should be acknowledged that keeping an open mind can be difficult, especially with the loud background noise of entertainment, social media, and hysteria; it is difficult to keep up with the latest all the time. A possible solution to this peculiar concern is to cherry-pick essential information. What would be essential information? This could include statistics from credible sources like the growth rate of COVID-19 from the CDC, or articles going over the details of a new policy designed to help families during the pandemic. 

Do you need to read ten articles about how there are rare cases of the virus resulting in a person’s skin color turning brown, or how there is a feud between New York’s governor and the president? Unless you’re specifically researching for that certain topic, it is not necessary for you to get caught up in articles that paint an incomplete picture. 

There will be times where we need to prioritize national security over individual interests, but there will be also times where we need to proactively defend our civil liberties in the face of demands for national security. There is not a single answer for all cases where we need to always defend rights or always defend security, but there is always a time to sit down and think about which values we should be prioritizing, and this always takes more effort than mindlessly clinging onto our unchanging principles.