COVID: We need to talk about social responsibility

Individualism is a big part of American culture, Steve Kelman notes. But it's not the only part, and leaders must encourage others.

teamwork on puzzle (alphaspirit/

The United States' terrible COVID-19 performance, sadly, is in a league only with Brazil. As is now fairly widely known, all the major European country have bent the COVID curve much more effectively than we have.

This significantly reflects a failure of our political leadership at the top. But we need to realize that it also reflects a problem at the bottom, in our culture.

Americans are famously individualistic. This is an attractive feature of our culture, which undergirds our commitment to freedom and propels us to achieve.

But the COVID crisis also reminds of the dark side of American individualism, similar to the way one-time British Mrime Minister Edward Heath referred to some egregious business behavior as the “unacceptable face of capitalism.” That dark side is a greater acceptance in the U.S. of a selfish disregard for others. It is a lower sense of social responsibility.

We have observed this throughout the crisis in the demonstrations against mask wearing, and more recently in the shocking “COVID parties,” where young people -- one of whom is infected -- get together compete to see who else present can become infected first. It has been common in the U.S. for some people to defend their “right” not to wear a mask. Last week a 30-year old who had attended such a party died of COVID.

The dark side of American individualism also translates into less responsible behavior -- not only fewer masks but less discipline about social distancing.

We have seen similar responses outside the U.S. only in rare instances. There have been occasional examples of people in the United Kingdom and Germany griping that mask orders violate individual liberty, but these expressions have been extremely unusual and almost never involved organized protests. To my knowledge, no country outside the U.S. has had COVID parties. Friends in China, including critics of the Chinese government, have asked me incredulously why there are people in the U.S. who object to wearing masks

The unacceptable face of individualism has also appeared at the top of our system, in the behavior of leaders. The last president who specifically talked about the social responsibility of individuals was George H.W. Bush, with his “thousand points of light” initiative praising volunteerism. But in 2018, before COVID, Trump stated, "Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Make America Great Again we understand. Putting America first we understand."

 Certainly it is understandable that people became frustrated by being cooped up at home. So we want to avoid any kind of hectoring tone toward our people of the kind that got Jimmy Carter into trouble with his “malaise” speech. But our political leaders should call out egregious examples of reckless disregard such as the COVID parties or defiant refusal to wear a mask in stores where it is now required.

We certainly have had leaders at the national level who gave that message. Famously John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That was a message about prioritizing social responsibility over selfishness. Many Americans responded to that call by joining the Peace Corps or participating in civil rights protests.

The good news is that social responsibility is also a part of our culture, just like selfishness. I see frequent memes and comments on my Facebook page from people who want to spread the message that wearing a mask reflects an elementary concern for others. Many have gone out of their way to volunteer and help COVID victims.

If social responsibility were not part of our culture at all, it would be much harder to get it rooted. However, when these kinds of conflicting messages exist in a culture, the job of leaders becomes to put a thumb on the side of the constructive messages and by doing that help them to take a larger role in the culture.

That’s what we need now. A president who calls on Americans to join Americacorps or any of the non-profits or religious organizations that encourage concern for others. Mayors and local leaders who are seen in public wearing masks – or who show up on a regular basis at soup kitchens or homeless shelters and help, and join in on local walks for hunger or for breast cancer. Leaders who consciously try to be role models.

Let’s bring back a thousand points of light. We need that now.

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