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Amid all the chaos spurred by the COIV-19 outbreak, the deterioration of civility seems inevitable. People are being reduced to quarreling and fight over toilet paper. Conflicts over cases of bottled waters and other forms of provisions are becoming more prevalent. Such emergencies have the proclivity to bring out the worst in people. Similar occurrences aren’t relegated to this one instance. Look no further than the looting that transpired during Hurricane Katrina. The line between civilization and lawless chaos is razor-thin. All it takes is one natural disaster or national emergency to shift incentives away from cooperation to antisocial behavior.

 

Social Psychology has a litany of various theories to help explain the descent into pillaging and violence. Describing the psychological mechanisms driving mob behavior does explain the behavioral element of such actions. However, it fails to address the deeper moral questions of the “temporary” erosion of civility. It is reasonable to question whether this loosening of societal standards would be temporary if the precipitating circumstances remained. This question can only be indulged with pure conjecture. I would be so bold to suggest that the circumstantial decay of social standards serves as an indictment on the Enlightenment.

 

I am not addressing concepts of the Enlightenment but the intellectual movement of the whole. It was the thinkers of this era that lead us from the barbarism of the dark ages to the relative calm of modernity. To avoid falling into the trap of the Whig interpretation of history, the Enlightenment did not nullify classical philosophy. Rather expanded upon it. The Enlightenment is what orientated the Western world towards poverty rights and the rights of the individual. Neither can be validated in a climate of wanton destruction and disregard for your neighbor. In times of panic, we revert to our fight-or-flight reflect negating reason, principles, and decorum. Reducing our behavior to that of Neanderthals. Fear is antithetical to reason. Making it caustic to the clear thinking required to respond in a civilized manner. Causing us to plummet to the mentality of primitive man.

 

Many may see this phenomenon of “disaster panic” as a temporary rejection of Enlightenment ideals. I would argue otherwise. I would contend that many people never acquainted with the moral considerations or etiquette required for civility. There are a lot of people that behave rudely even under regular circumstances. Compound their incentives for boorish deportment with fear, society unravels rapidly. Which makes it reasonable to question whether the Hobbesian conception of human nature is true. It appears as if the rule of law is what typically constrains transgressions such as assault and looting. It should be noted that in the instance of the present crisis that this isn’t necessarily true. In most municipalities throughout the United States, law enforcement agencies are still operating. The fear of punishment can be ruled out as a constraint on antisocial behavior. But such behavior demonstrates a deep-seated lack of respect for property and fellow person.  Vandalism and theft demonstrate a lack of respect for property rights. Violence and confrontation displaying a lack of respect for our fellow person. Behavior falling short of the movement inspiring liberal values. The precepts that helped levitate Europe out of the squalor and pestilence of intellectual and physical serfdom.

 

What enforces mutual respect of person and property are informal social norms. Once panic sets in the strength of these norms are greatly reduced. It isn’t true respect, but rather an overt avoidance of opprobrium from our peers. Which does not demonstrate a true comprehension of person-hood or natural rights. Rather punishment avoidance. Merely an informal form of punishment evasion. An individual possessing a true understanding of natural rights would be able to reason why it is wrong to punch someone over a pallet of toilet paper. Not abstaining from such an action due to the consequences of legal or social punishment. Classical thinkers tended to believe that action in of itself wasn’t righteous unless the intention of the action was also righteous.  While we are veering slightly from the thought of the Enlightenment there is still quite a bit of truth here. If respect for person and property is not instilled in us on an intellectual and moral level it will not remain resolute. When the comfort and security of modernity frays so will our courtesy and civility. Then comes the downfall into a primitive mindset.  Hence, why I question if humans ever really adopted or even understood the ideals of the Enlightenment. Because if we did we would be able to better manage our savage urge to pursue self-preservation. If so, we would be reduced bludgeoning one another over toilet paper.  Then again, such conduct has been evident over so much less. Such as a $5.00 toaster on Black Friday. This leads me to postulate that we do not even a time of crisis to witness such regressions.

 

3 thoughts on “COVID-19 and The Rejection of Civility

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