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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Apples & Oranges

Comparing apples to oranges is a rhetorical ploy that seems to be quite common these days. Here’s a typical example recently posted on a social media site: “I’m an American, I will not be forced to wear anything.” You’ve probably read or heard similar expressions of late. The chain of illogic goes as follows: I am American citizen, therefore I enjoy certain rights—ones that I selectively associate with doing as I please, even if doing as I please is selfish, harmful to others, or even self-destructive. This as a selective association in the same way that apples and oranges can be compared. They are both fruit. I might have said they both have seeds, or skin or are roughly spherical, but the comparisons are rather useless; they are fundamentally different despite any allusion to the contrary.

Comparing these two is what logicians would call a false equivalence. In the example I gave the speaker suggests that being an American endows us with certain rights but ignores the responsibilities that come with the assertion of those individual rights. Rights never come at the expense of others.

Those who protest actions taken by state governments or businesses to protect public health as violations of their personal freedom fail to regard or dismiss both the letter and the spirit that engendered the formation of this country. They are not unlike those who wrap themselves in a cloak of religious totalitarianism. Both forms of extremism rest on the same selective interpretation of the principles which led to formation of their ideologies. To be clear, there are real violations of freedom in our country and we should protest abuse of power by those in law enforcement and in seats of political power at every level when their actions are intended to suppress the rights and freedom of any group--be it for racial, religious or any other reason.

We might ask from where these principles arise. Not as some might suggest from a Constitution or from a Bible—though both embrace and support them. Rather, they rest on morality—or if you prefer, our innate understanding of our responsibilities to one another—without which law, and social structure cannot endure. As higher beings we have evolved elaborated descriptions of morality, both as abstractions and as archetypes, but we need not look any further than to nature to observe that all forms of life have evolved behaviors predicated on the preservation of the whole and those behaviors include self-sacrificing actions in some cases.

Please note that I am not suggesting that all life is moral. Animals prey upon each other, just as humans do. They are territorial as we are, capable of being selfish, and not to anthropomorphize there are outlier individuals among most species that exhibit what we might describe as sociopathic behavior. But within most species we can plainly see that from birth there is both an innate and subsequently learned behavior that we humans have elevated among the nobler attributes of our kind. The herd, the flock take care of their young, typically protect their weak, and protect the whole from both predators and rogue individuals in their midst. If life were not so marvelously designed it would have long ago ceased to exist.

I said earlier that morality does not require religion or law but I want to be clear that both help guide and codify our rights and our responsibilities to one another, especially when it may be unclear. We know intuitively that harming others is wrong, but we may not always know or agree on what constitutes harm or at what point our rights take precedence over others’. So, when protestors exercise their right to disagree with actions, they consider an abridgement of their individual freedom they are both acknowledging the fundamental principle at hand even if some misguidedly ignore it. That principle –as codified by our Constitution guards our right to protest, our freedom of thought, speech and gathering. At the same time, it safeguards all of us by stipulating that the exercise of that freedom must not infringe on our collective safety, collective liberty or pursuit of happiness.

In much the same way, the biblical commandments can be seen as injunctions designed to protect mankind as a whole by instilling in us an organizing principle; the love of others, in a true equivalency to ourselves. It is this very principle, one embraced by almost all religions, that is cast aside by intolerant individuals when they elect to construe the behavior of others that does not comport with their beliefs as sinful and therefore punishable.

To be quite clear, I have no quarrel with those who peaceably protest quarantine or wearing of masks, and certainly not racial injustice. But those who bring weapons to such protests with the intent to intimidate others’, those who block routes to hospitals, threaten health care workers, badger or threaten those peacefully demonstrating their support for the rights, freedom and safety of others are undeserving of either our respect or our sympathy.

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