So let’s see. There is a competitive logic. Whoever is best prepared and works the hardest wins and everybody else loses. Fair is fair. You knew that when you signed up for the race.
And then there is a communitarian logic. We’re all in this together. It’s going to take all of us to achieve this goal (often a wartime slogan) or to ward off this threat.
Both of these work when they are evoked in an era that is appropriate to them. But you wouldn’t think they would work at the same time with the same people, would you? Or that you could cycle back and forth quickly between one kind of appeal and the other?
And the problem is worse than that, really, because the “life as a competition” theme, because it has so many losers, has to be policed all the time. What if the losers don’t like being losers AND they have the means to do something about it?
Let’s take a simple example. Poor people rely on public parks disproportionately. If the city is trying to keep some distance between the citizens, closing the places where they congregate is a very sensible thing to do. And that rationale for it is ready to hand: “We’re all in this together.”
Imagine now that COVID-19 is around and that the consequences of noncompliance are not just unauthorized people in the parks, but a geometrically expanding bubble of disease and death? As a poor person who spends a lot of time in public space, just what motivation do I have to comply? Were we “all in it together” yesterday when I had to go to the bathroom and there were none available because they were all reserved for people who had money to spend? Were we all in it together then my cell phone battery was exhausted and no one would share an electrical outlet? Were we all in it together when I tried to ride a bus, just to be somewhere warm and dry for a little while and the driver threw me off because I had not bought a ticket?
Those did not feel like “all in it together” experiences. And now I have an illness that I could inflict not just on THEM, the people who are denying me and ordering me around, but on THEM, the people who are posting notices that we are all in this together. There just might be something that felt very good about that?
I’ve had it up to here with the communal logic when in fact I am not treated as a member of the community. I am treated like a “customer” who has no way to buy anything. I am treated that way in offices large and small, public and private. And I’m angry about it. And now you want me to wear a mask (I don’t have one) and to stay six feel apart (really hard on the bus) and wash my hands frequently (in what?).
I don’t think so. I can’t think why I suddenly owe you the debt of common citizenship (the communitarian presupposition) when you have treated me exclusively as a customer who cannot consume and as an undesirable who is asked only to “move along.”
So I don’t think I will. I think I will defy their hypocritical demands and spread my infection among others like myself. I would like to spread it among the professional class, but I don’t have much access to them, so I will just spread it among the people I do live with.
And when I get really sick, having infected God knows how many of my neighbors, they will have to take me into a hospital and treat me at public expense. So I win.
Ugly isn’t it? Maybe we really can’t shift rationales back and forth as efficiently as we once could.