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Masks make us all social conservatives

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Pearl Boatright, Salt Lake County fiscal coordinator, and Linda Broussard, Salt Lake County Library senior human resources coordinator, organize face mask kits at the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan on Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The last several decades haven’t been particularly hospitable to socially conservative ideas. But our current pandemic may be changing that.

From masks and distancing, to hand-washing and hand-wringing the nation has become acutely attuned to how our individual actions and public norms influence the health and well-being of others.

It’s a lesson that social conservatives have been preaching for years.

Sadly, however, it’s taken a pandemic and untold suffering for us to listen. And, irony of ironies, it’s often been the social conservative types who have taken this moment to insist on their individual freedom to go about without a mask.

And yet, this moment is vindicating many of the fundamental premises of social conservatism. For decades, personal responsibility has been the social conservative mantra.

We’re now all living it. The hour demands it. 

As the West became laxer on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, many social conservatives refused to budge. They continued to hold on to the old truth that private choices really do have public consequences.

They grasped that the negative impacts of sexual promiscuity and infidelity reached well beyond just the “consenting” adults involved. They understood that the instability of family dissolution and rotating door parental arrangements impacted patterns and bonds that remain essential to well-being. 

Like communitarians on the left, social conservatives on the right understood that humans are linked. They fly together. And the way you choose to fly can’t help but influence your neighbor’s flight patterns.

This central truth has often been buried or de-emphasized. Liberals and libertarians alike have shared a political alliance of sorts — both wanted government out of their personal business. They wanted sex without government finger wagging; they wanted marijuana without the threat of legal punishment. And they got all this and more.

But, even as Americans continue to see the value of fundamental freedoms, deep down many citizens sensed that relaxing on moral matters was a Faustian bargain. Promiscuity inevitably impacts the increasing spread of sexually transmitted diseases; studies are now showing a correlation between greater “problematic” cannabis use in states where recreational marijuana is now legal. 

When one of us moves, others must react. We ought then to move carefully and thoughtfully.

Seemingly personal choices of consenting adults can’t help but impact society. And, in the face of a pandemic, we ignore this reality at our own peril; during a moment when a decision to go to work while sick might put another life at risk, we can’t help but internalize the lessons that social conservatives have championed for so long: we’re all connected and duty-bound to one another.

When one of us moves, others must react. We ought then to move carefully and thoughtfully. 

Few phenomena are as visually arresting as the murmuration of flocking birds. Like a single, unified body, hundreds or even thousands of fowl undulate back and forth in massive, mesmerizingly unpredictable patterns. A similar display occurs in schools or shoals of fish. 

How do such natural marvels work? How do birds or fish move about as a contiguous free-flowing form?

It’s only recently that scientists have unpacked the mechanics of this mystery. Experts today explain that within a murmuration, one bird’s movements (for example a bird reacting to an approaching predator) trigger the movements from surrounding birds. In turn, their actions cause the other birds around them to react as well, and thus the collective motion cascades on and on until the whole group flows, reacts and seemingly dances in unison through the air.

To be sure, humans are not birds. And, in the United States, we cherish liberty and we respect fundamental individual rights. But, in places like Utah, we also still value the symbolism of the beehive — a nod to the reality that humans are in this together. 

We must fight the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 as one. The pandemic is handing us a sobering lesson about the perils of unmoored individualism. Nature’s tutorial has come at a daunting price.

But, we will have at least gained something, if we appreciate anew the inherent moral duties that come with our collective human condition.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.