Consider the world’s two most novel diseases. When the first, Covid-19, traversed the globe with record alacrity, people were both required by law and urged by society to “stop the spread.” Lockdowns. Remote work. Shuttered schools. Masks. Social distancing. Hospitals and nursing homes sealed off from loved ones. Mandatory vaccination.
The key to stopping Covid’s spread, we were told, was to change our behavior, and to do so cheerfully for the sake of our family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and the general public. Advertisements reminiscent of 1940s wartime exhortations to “do our part” appeared in public spaces. To ensure public health we were urged to “mask up,” to stay six feet apart, to avoid large gatherings, to test for Covid often, to isolate ourselves should we become sick.
Violations of these required new behaviors, from wearing a mask below the nose to refusing vaccination, were often met by stern judgments: “You’re killing my grandmother by your careless behavior!” A few who failed to comply suffered the far worse fate of losing their livelihoods. Individual preferences and comforts, the exhortation ran, had to yield to the health of the wider community.
In May 2022, a second disease, monkeypox, suddenly began spreading in Europe and the United States. Unlike the airborne Covid that spreads unwittingly, monkeypox is spread primarily by men who have sex with men. It could be contained, then, should men cease from such behavior.
But, unlike with Covid, the public health authorities are not asking for self-sacrifice or behavior changes from anyone to stop the spread of monkeypox. Instead, agencies such as the New York City Health Department have vacillated on rendering health guidance because, one health official explained, telling homosexual men to abstain from sex “shifts blame onto gay men for the outbreak and could lead them to view public health authorities with distrust.”
Instead, so that these at-risk men can continue to behave as they wish, vaccines have been sent deliberately to areas with high homosexual populations. No public judgment is forthcoming. The message from health authorities is clear: We will get you medicine so you can continue to do as you please.
The Washington Post went far beyond withholding judgment. It is the only outlet to declare monkeypox a pandemic. And, despite the fact that “nearly all” of New York City’s confirmed 839 cases have occurred in men who have sex with men, the Post has its own unique, counterfactual plan to fight this disease: “We must enlist the full spectrum of prevention and diagnostics to curb the spread, preclude the development of local disease reservoirs in rodents, and prevent suffering and possible death, especially in the immunocompromised, pregnant people and young children.”
How can the same society, the same government, and the same health authorities approach these two diseases so differently – mandating behavior changes for Covid, but not for monkeypox? And why such harsh judgments against those who could spread Covid accidentally but not those who could spread monkeypox knowingly?
Judgements are the products of standards, which themselves are developed from a broader worldview. Today’s worldview that has shaped the response to these two diseases has been labeled “expressive individualism,” meaning that society and laws must be structured so the individual can maximize his desires. In this view there is no truth or transcendent principles binding on all people for how we ought to live. Truth is subjective, decided by the individual and no other.
Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), provided a simpler definition of this phenomenon: it is egoism, the “consequence of that fatal decision to make a separate self the measure of value.”
The chief means of self-expression today is through one’s sexuality. Hook-ups, pornography, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and pronoun usage are all means whereby a person exercises what has been deemed most central to his essence. “In the absence of truth there is no necessity,” continues Weaver. Instead, what the most powerful individuals want becomes society’s necessity. Laws and health codes, therefore, from legalized abortion and birth control to not urging sexual abstinence to control monkeypox, must promote the individual’s licentiousness, even at the expense of public health and the common good.
We can now understand the disparate responses of the same authorities to these two diseases. Since monkeypox spreads through what has been deemed society’s chief good, there can be no calls for homosexuals to abstain from sex, despite the World Health Organization declaring it “ a global emergency .” Monkeypox may be dangerous, but not enough to cause certain individuals to change how they express themselves. We cannot judge these individuals as guilty of spreading disease either, for, under the standards of today’s secular society, they have done not something wrong, but something right.
Though the over-the-top demands for changing behavior during Covid are opposite the monkeypox approach on one level, they fit perfectly into the egoist worldview. The individual cannot do as he pleases if he is sick, so he sets up standards to ensure his health. “I will inconvenience you lest you inconvenience me by getting me sick.” A major motive for masking school children, for example, was not to so much to protect them as to protect adults from being infected by them. Condescending judgments of those violating Covid protocols served as an additional tool to keep the individual virus free.
Such maddening contradictions from government and society will continue as long as law and public policy are vehicles of the individual’s self-expression. “Nothing can be done,” laments Weaver, “until we have decided whether we are primarily interested in truth.” With that interest today as remote as Pontius Pilate’s, we need patience and grace to steel ourselves with the truth of God that transcends even these insane times – which are not about to improve anytime soon. Human error and bad judgment have always been with us, which is why Christ issued a singular command: follow Him. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
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