Getting Past Polarities: “How Should We Reopen?”

This recent Thomas Edsall piece got me thinking, and reflecting on what we have seen emerging over the question that might roughly be phrased as: How should we reopen society?

This is a question that turns on things that are held deeply valuable. It is not suited to a binary approach. Most news articles do portray it as binary, but they use differing poles. Edsall’s examination suggests one polarity (“safetyism” (addressed below) vs. economic security). And a recent New York Times editorial suggests another polarity (economic security vs. civil liberties).

By looking carefully at the various lines of thinking expressed in these binaries, I think we can see three emerging emphases. I know others may have other ways of laying things out, but this is what I am seeing.

    • We should do everything we can to protect vulnerable people and therefore stay home and confined until we know that everyone can be safe. (The thing held most deeply valuable here is care for others and that people be treated fairly: it is not fair that the vulnerable are at such risk) (Note that this is a way of describing the “safetyism” Edsall refers to in terms of things held valuable.)
    • We should move as rapidly as possible to rebuild the economy. (Here, what is held most deeply valuable is collective security: the economic pain is spreading too broadly and our society is at risk)
    • We should allow people to make their own decisions. (Held valuable: ability to chart my own course.)

Each of the above are in direct tension with the other two and also has a strong set of downsides. Think of a triangle with equally divergent corners, rather than a spectrum with a middle to be found.

The question How should we reopen society? will evolve into a different questions as the reopening progresses. And on a particular community level it may have more resonance: How should we reopen our congregation? is compatible with the same set of options, but may be easier to talk about since it is immediate and concrete.

(It is also possible to look at a more expressly economic name for the problem, as safety worries recede: How should we rebuild the economy?)

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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