More and more, recently, I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite lines from movies. This one is from 1970’s Love Story, where Jennifer Cavilerri says: “I’m not talking legality, Preppie, I’m talking ethics”. And the reason I’ve been thinking about this line is that it seems to me to sum up my reaction to so much that’s going on in the world these days.
For example, there are many people who are demanding their right not to wear a mask. There are high school students in Kemptville who are hanging around in groups with no social distancing and no face masks. It may not be technically illegal to do so, but it is definitely not ethical.
More and more, it seems, people are standing on their rights, ignoring the effect on others, and neglecting to consider their responsibilities. Ethics, integrity, honour: all seem attributes that are not much in vogue. To be honest, I am really tired of hearing people complain about the restrictions imposed on us all because of the pandemic. Of course, it is not a happy situation. No-one wants it, and very few are enthusiastic about having to remain isolated, restricted and forced to deal with something they don’t really believe affects them.
I would love to be able to get back to Ireland and visit with my mother on her 96th birthday. But I can’t. I’m not allowed. We all have stories and complaints like that. But I am reminded constantly about those we call “The Greatest Generation”, those who lived through the Second World War. They had to deal with loss, danger, grief, fear, and all the other horrible results of war. And they did that for six years, not six or seven months, like we’ve had since COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Even more than that, they dealt with war after almost a decade of the Great Depression. How on earth can we yell and scream that we’ve had enough of restrictions after a few months?
Are your personal rights and freedoms really so threatened and disrupted by wearing a mask to protect your friends and neighbours from infection? Even if you don’t believe masks work, what’s the harm in keeping others from needless worry and fear? We all have rights; but we all also have responsibilities as members of a civilised community. And the fact is that, the more we emphasise our rights over our responsibilities, the less civilised our society becomes.
The pandemic has reinforced the power of conspiracy theories, converted the more gullible that the world is really being run by secret groups of Jews, celebrities and politicians who like to abduct children and drink their blood. Really? Are we that stupid? Are we that ignorant of history?
Because this is not new. These lies have been circulating for centuries, sometimes leading to the most heinous anti-Semitic atrocities. The Holocaust was built on the QAnon lies and claims, long before that nasty group existed. Think about this: if the Jews were running the world, secretly and with malice, why were they subject to such persecutions and genocide?
But that’s just one aspect of the problem. Rights and responsibilities. Integrity and honour. Losing them, we lose more than we know. There has to be such things in our world if we are not to retreat into more profound cynicism, more disillusionment with the way things are. There is real need for a renewal of faith in one another, for value to be returned to truthfulness, principle, and even sacrifice. There’s another favourite saying, this one by the Irish orator, Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. We have seen the truth of that in the U.S. Yes, I believe Trump and everything he stands for leads to evil, and his success is largely due to good men in the Republican Party doing nothing. Never has the integrity and honour of John McCain been missed so much. But even in our own country, with our own local representative in Ottawa, there has been a decision to follow cynical and divisive ways, and to ignore the hypocrisy that requires. The other newspaper in this area has recently published an article by our reporter, without crediting the Times. Not illegal, Preppie, but definitely not ethical. Metroland Media have many reporters in many regions, although their commitment to this community has practically ceased. But you would think that they could find one or two reporters of their own, instead of “borrowing” ours. Once again, honour and integrity: where have they gone?
It is my firm belief that society has come to a crisis point. It can continue on its present path to cynicism, selfishly demanding rights and privileges at the expense of others; or we can decide that we aspire to being more than that, more honourable, more caring of others, more patient in adversity. If we can pull our heads away from screens full of rumour, gossip and falsehoods, and take a look around us to see where we can help, then we have a chance of surviving this drift into meanspirited, selfish, divisiveness.
Does this sound naive and foolish? Perhaps. But we’ve seen this befall other cultures, other societies in history. It is not a pleasant record, not a place we would want to end up. But it is up to us, each of us, to do the right thing, to ask the question raised in that other famous quote: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, or community, or friends, or strangers. It’s up to us.