In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes takes us back to the time he calls the “state of nature.” Key to his argument is that this state of nature without a central authority to keep humans in order would result in fighting, wars and “worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As a result, driven by the fear and dread of this chaos, argues Hobbes, humans created governments that would guarantee them certain rights in exchange for the authority of the ruler, the Leviathan. Hobbes view that society and nature as unruly necessitate that humans sacrifice some of their individual rights to a strong, central authority which is enlisted in keeping the peace. This governing arrangement is what political philosophers call the “social contract” and it means that people can live together in society in accordance certain moral and political rules of behaviour in order to avoid what Hobbes describes as the “perpetual war of every man against his neighbour.”
Since Hobbes’ and Locke’s theories of the social contract, philosophers have sought to understand why a rational individual would voluntarily consent to give up their freedom in exchange within the political order. No better time can we see how such an exchange of freedom for safety is needed today as COVID-19 threatens the lives of hundreds of millions our planets elderly and at-risk populations.
Yet many of us in the west are incapable of following the rule of law by keeping up our end of the social contract. We first learned of the severity of this coronavirus through media reports from The Guardian in February which referred to “Beijing’s draconian measures to contain outbreak” and “Italian authorities have implemented draconian measures” or more recent media reports which similarly use the term “draconian” to convey something more political over practical. After all, most virologists agree that in order to rid ourselves of COVID-19 we need to be excessively harsh and severe in how we exercise social distancing and lockdown in our communities. Is there another way of getting rid of a global pandemic that might respond to meditation circles that I simply haven’t heard about?
Indeed, all this talk of “draconian approaches” to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has forced me, now in my fifth week of lockdown, to think about why so many Asian nations have got it right and we, here in Italy, the UK and the US have got it so terribly wrong. It’s not just the “covidiots” found in abundance on social media of the newly branded “covidiots” who proudly lick supermarket shelves, toilet seats and transport poles, nor even the spring breakers in Florida. We are facing a multi-generational dismissal of the very authorities we have put into power who hold the mandate to care for the physical safety of us all. Again, our role in the social contract is to obey the rule of law and westerners are failing miserably at this task.
In the face of a global pandemic which scientists have warned us about for decades and for which the China and other east Asian countries were more prepared than after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, western media has been busy pronouncing which of these countries have “gone too far” in not respecting individual freedoms and business operations. But this is cause for those of us in western nations to ask ourselves why we deem our civil liberties more important than the physical good of all whereas the Chinese government and society understood quickly and all too well the necessity to lockdown and follow orders. A large part of the reason—along with temperature checks and fever clinics—as to why the country seems to have beaten COVID-19 so far is because east Asians know how to deal with following rules for several reasons.
First, the Chinese within China are segregated into two camps: the city and rural dweller. In places like Singapore and Taiwan many Chinese there are also migrants. In both scenarios hardship stories form the backbone of these cultures where if not the present generation’s parents, then their grandparents, suffered many economic setbacks in migrating to other geographical spaces. In this way, the collectivist mindset of Chinese culture sacrifices individual desires for the good of the whole society with the understanding that others have similarly suffered hardships. Where Thatcher maintained that “there’s no such thing as society,” Chinese society operates under the paradigm of there being little value in the individual.
Second—and coupled with the first—is the fact that the Chinese don’t like to talk about past hardships as Singapore citizen and resident, Hwee Yee Chua, explains. The Chinese prefer to focus on the future promises of wealth and happiness, maintains Chua, by following the rules in the present. For east Asians, suffering through the present is better than dwelling on the past such that when situations like SARS or COVID-19 arise the culture dictates that one must persevere with everyone expected to “eat bitterness” (吃苦). Eating bitterness is a Chinese maxim which roughly translates to “grin and bear it” or “suck it up,” choose your metaphor. Chua elaborates this concept, “It is a Chinese pathology. If you can substitute the memory of misery by just following the rules in the present to escape into the future you can go very far in denying the present.”
Hobbes was clear that we need the “terror of some power” to protect our survival, otherwise humans will not heed the law of reciprocity. Perhaps westerners also need to learn from the Chinese to eat bitterness and abandon our counterproductive reflex to flaunt our sense of self?
COVID-19 has demonstrated that selfhood at this particular point in history is tearing us apart and that we need to rely on our collective efforts in order to hit the reset button. After all, there’ll be time for toilet seat-licking from the privacy of your Instagram account when, hopefully, this is finally over.