Authorship and Authority

Authorship and Authority (Consider the Source)

            ‘Arguments from authority are worthless’, declares Carl Sagan, as he famously defined science near the end of the epic Cosmos (1981). This is surely an element of any research field, where there is not only always the next experiment and the next, but as well, the sense that our knowledge, however cumulative, is always both partial in the sense of being incomplete, as well as in that second, deeper sense of being biased. We are not only children of our own times and no other, we are also subject, as mortal beings, to the degradation of memory and the flight of fantasy. Beyond all of this local flavor, reality is, its ‘realismus’, itself subject to change given cosmic evolution. What once were constants have been shown to be relative and discursively, we cannot be certain that it is our own history that is at least a partial source of the enduring mysteries we encounter when we do inquire into the universe at large. The most obvious such link is that diverse antique civilizations and their moralities appeared to endure, almost timelessly, and thus in their worldviews, corresponding to their perduring quality as understood from the point of view of each short generation of mortal denizens, their ideas about the cosmos were also timeless. In a word, the politics of humanity spills historically into the human understanding of nature.

            Sagan was himself an authority in both astronomy and physics, and he was a decent interpreter of history and culture as well. In spite of his credo, he too was a moralist, and in spite of the framework of his chief vocation which he correctly outlined in what remains the most watched documentary series of all time, he too mustered arguments ‘from authority’ from time to time, no less than in defining the merits of science as the ‘best tool’ humanity possessed. It is of more than passing interest that Max Weber, arguably the greatest authority  and expert on society of all time cautioned us against relying upon expertise for any serious decision in or about that same society. What are we then to make of major figures who seem to bely, or even outright deny, their authority in matters we have already ceded to them? This is more than a question of modesty in the face of the vastness of cosmos and the daunting diversity of even our own species, parochial as it must be against the wider backdrop of indefinite infinity. To my mind, it seems more about the sense that when one does in fact dig into the human conversation, things quickly become more complex then one might have bargained for.

            Which in turn begets the question of authorship as source. It is not so much that certain persons are not entitled to their opinions unbridled and unlimited, and thoughts remain yet free in at least the sense of being able to have one or the other pending one’s imagination and education. Rather, it is the recent ability for anyone to create his own venue, especially one digital, to broadcast such opinions far and wide and begin to construct his own authority out of that which is in fact mere authorship. Examples are, regrettably, far too abundant to enumerate, from misogynist bigots who happen to have Super Bowl rings, to anti-communist journalists who imagine they are experts in dialectical materialism, to Jewish comedians who are suddenly political scientists and experts in the history of the Levant. But by far the most dangerous authors who imagine they also have authority in some more profound sense are the many politicians who, because they wield power but that without non-legal authority, deliberately and diligently confuse serious discourse for mere politics. Here, names would be superfluous, because almost all politicians, whose very reason of being is to pander to any and all those who might vote for them – or, in anti-democratic conditions, support them either through their silence or their willingness to engage in precipitous conflicts upon their leader’s behalf – engage in the calculated conflation of authority and authorship. A fashionable favorite is that ‘parents know what is best for their children’, and apparently, everyone else’s as well. Teachers and mass media, the usual rivals to parental authority, have come more and more under fire, consistent with the parent-pandering craze – though with nothing else regarding the actual confluence of youth, anxiety, and hopelessness – and the ease of which targets can align against two fronts with which we are either generally suspicious – media sells things to us and little more – or have some resentment against – we all recall our poor teachers and perhaps too much so.

            But teaching is, for one, a vocation, a trade, and a profession requiring training and expertise as well as the wisdom of experience, cliché as that sounds. Stating that ‘education should be returned to parents’ is much the same as saying that ‘gas-fitting should be returned to the parents’, or that ‘hydroelectric dam-building should be returned to the parents’, and so on. So far, I have yet to hear that my own vocation, philosophy, should be ‘once again’ a parental purview, but then such parents, who would certainly be incapable of even the slightest musings in that direction, would also likely baulk at the very idea. Not quite sincerely, however, as parenting, seen as a Gestalt of mentorship, guidance, resource allocation and even love, for goodness sakes, would certainly include much moralizing if never any real thinking of any note. Yet in spite of all of this faddish and hypocritical nonsense about ‘parent’s rights’, the wider question of expertise and authority remains. And when major authorities suggest that arguments from authority are either worthless – as they are in the experimental sciences – or to be taken with a grain of salt – as those emanating from the behavioral sciences – then, with some irony, we feel we must take such statements seriously.

            I have chosen the two most important cautions that have appeared in discourse during the course of the twentieth century. Yet more well-known ones, such as Einstein’s ‘God does not play dice with the universe’ – Hawking reminded us decades later that he himself took ‘God’ to mean the same thing he understood Einstein to mean by it;  the whole of cosmic forces as known to us and not as some inveterately anti-gambling moralizer – are statements of scientific position in the wider history of ideas. For Einstein, arguing against some of the more outlandish implications of the quantum theory at the time, this was simply his non-scientific way of refuting another such position, or at least, exhorting caution about it. But Hawking himself went further than this when he warned of extraterrestrial contact and the annihilation of the human species; this was an opinion uttered by a physicist who was anthropomorphizing alien morality; and as such one with absolutely no basis nor scientific evidence behind it. Hawking had made the mistake of playing on his bona fide authority in other areas; he  was, in a word, borrowing status from himself.

            When any discursive figure does this, no matter their contributions to other fields, they immediately fall from authority into mere authorship. Unfortunately, many of the rest of us do not at once make that vital distinction, or do not care to. Perhaps one is a Hawking ‘fan’, seeing the scientist in the same way as one holds any other kind of celebrity to heart. In this, we are being as dishonest as is the figure in question being disingenuous. How then to resist both the unguarded abrogance of the expert who is too-enamored of his own authority to remember its limits, often severe, as well as our own penchant for adulation which is born of, and borne on, the sense that this or that figure really is smart and thus anything he says must have some merit to it? One can begin to reverse this troubling trend by looking at oneself and those around us.

            My father was a structural engineer and ended his career as the chief building inspector for the City of Victoria. He was a master carpenter and a decent renderer of still life and nautical scenes in oils and watercolors as well as an expert model-builder. He played golf and hockey until his mid-70s, winning his club championship at age 73 with a handicap of 10. He knew little of culture and nothing of thought, he had been propagandized during the war and as a veteran he remained so until his death. His surpassing weakness was that he rarely spoke of things he actually knew a great deal about, and yet would borrow from this tacit status – of which almost none were aware in any case – to issue declarations of the most ignorant sort upon almost any other subject. These were not stated as opinions but rather as if they had some factual basis, or, at the very least, the weight of ‘wisdom’ behind them. He was, as a parent, typically sound for the younger set, typically incompetent for those older. For his generational demographic, he was amazingly progressive and enlightened, as was my mother. As I have before japed, both my parents were philistines but they were not barbarians. My father was no discursive figure and never would be, but he nonetheless represents the commonplace error of mistaking one’s personal experience for actual knowledge. This almost-universal human error is grievous enough in itself – most of us find, as we live on, that our experience is itself often found wanting after all – but that this selfsame error is deliberately targeted by politicians as the best way to manipulate franchise is nothing less than a patent evil.

            My father’s only son is a philosopher. But he is not a cognitive philosopher, or ‘philosopher of mind’, as this once wholly archaic designation has recently made a comeback, he is not an analytic philosopher of language, an epistemologist, an ancient scholar or a medievalist, he his not a philosopher of science nor a Marxist, nor is he by any stretch a logician. And so I do not, even within the genres of my own painstakingly studied vocation, assert any serious claims adhering to any of these departments and have never done so. The stuff I do know something about – phenomenology, hermeneutics, ethics, aesthetics, critical theory, education and existentialism, religion – casts a broad enough net for any thinker to never want in topic or subject. Far beyond this, I do not spout off about gas-fitting, hydroelectricity, or even parenting for that matter – I have consulted as an ethicist for many families over the years and always explain to them that I am expert in human relations in the abstract and not a ‘parenting’ expert, whatever that last might mean – in order to maintain my serious game and nascent name within the wider conversation which is our shared species legacy. And though it may be the case that those lives deemed outside of circles meritorious are all the more likely, through ressentiment, to try to gain access to them through a combination of outright fraud and feigned ignorance as to their truer motives, it falls to the rest of us to exercise a more existential and ethical version of the caveat emptor in their face. Otherwise, we risk becoming as the politician alone, who, as a darling dapper doyenne of the system within which he must work, is compelled to become a huckster, a shyster, a conniver, a narcissist. Each of us has each of these and others within our breast, so this is not a matter of directing our disdain afar. Rather, it is more simply a matter of learning how to recognize the authorship-limitations of what we know today as who we are right now, and thence perhaps coming to a better understanding of the authority-limits of what we can know as a human being and thence as a species entire.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, religion, aesthetics, and health as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Customer is Always Wrong

The Customer is Always Wrong

            Ever since the turn of the century it has been the basic weakness of bourgeois education that it has been the education of the educated class, building a wall of separation against the working class and losing the spiritual horizon for the universal problem of work. (Lowith, 1991:282 [1939]).

                The distrust of expertise is built into the psyche of Protestant consciousness, and from the very beginning of the Reformation. Ritualism, the purview of the Catholic Church, was mistrusted as a manner of manipulation. Holding services in the vernacular was an attempt by the sectarians to reach out to the uneducated ‘classes’ – back then, almost everyone – and thereby return them to both the community of light and wisdom but also to exercise the suasion of soteriological doctrine much more directly. It was, perhaps ironically, the act of the expert to communicate his expertise to the layperson so that the latter could once again begin to trust the former’s authority. From the church to the school, by the first third of the nineteenth century, we see a similar attempt at communication. Before the advent of the child-saving movement – the first in a lengthy and still active lineage of ‘bored housewives’ benevolent associations; a contemporary irony is that the latter day inventions of this lineage are out to ban books and preserve physical punishment of children, both odd ways of ‘saving’ them – there was no conflict between education for different classes. The children of the working class were simply not to be educated at all. That this was altered by mid-century should not necessarily tell us that the history of our universal school system, given birth c.1850 and carrying on today mostly by its own inertia, is or was ever fully democratic in its ideals, let alone its practices.

            The introduction of the illiterate classes into the classroom had the general effect of dumbing down the curricula, making them more accessible or even worldly. A similar though more minor seismic tremor was felt when cognitively challenged children were added to the already heady mix perhaps some thirty years ago. The response to this universalizing education was that wealth promptly excerpted its own children from that same system. Seen by the casual viewer as a ‘choice’ which parents ‘ought’ to have, the private school system or versions thereof called ‘charter’ or yet parochial schools is fundamentally anti-democratic and indeed to be so was ever its clearest intent. Wealth does not desire to mix with poverty, either in material or in ‘spirit’. The ‘bourgeois’ education of which Lowith speaks is itself the scion of the new wealth of the post-1789 age, that is, our own. Modernity is rife with the tension between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality, and this around the globe, within every culture, and often enough even animating the interior of the individual person, who knows not whether to will only himself or to help others gain a semblance of human freedom.

            And though the charter schools are sometimes created and thus delineated by ethnicity or even religion, the vast majority of them place themselves aloof to the public system by virtue of wealth alone. Indeed, in the enclave schools, families which are not as wealthy can count on growing their wealth through participating in the limited marriage pool, which is the chief principle of the private system: keep wealth among the wealthy. And with such wealth comes both power and privilege. The ‘blood’ of the yet aristocratic-aping bourgeois class must remain inviolate. In a symbology of envisioned violence, the ‘educated classes’ wage a chill war against any other who would attempt to gain their inherited privileges let alone their wealth. Governments, which after all are run by the elite classes or are at least told what to do by them, aid and abet the spread of private schools, thereby concentrating wealth and privilege amongst the few. Is it any wonder that the majority of us have a heightened mistrust of expertise of all kinds?

            Those who are being schooled to become the next generation of experts trust the authority of those current without question. Hence the duplicity of the schools in general, wherein ‘questioning things’ is limited to either the technical or the historical; ‘why does gravitational lensing show us exoplanets?’ or ‘why did Spain hire Columbus the very year it expelled the Moors?’ and such-like. These are questions only in the most literal sense, and hardly that literate. In the private schools, there is, ironically, more of the real question, but this is precisely because the ultimate question of addressing the conflict that privilege has created and thence has attained is never broached; ‘why are we in this school and not our ex-friends?’, ‘why is there a private system at all?’, ‘are we really superior beings or is this an affect of social inequality alone?’. These kinds of questions are on the road to the truth of things and cannot remain in the technical realm. They are of course, also historical questions but they do not absent themselves from the present simply because we also need to know the pedigree of such current social formations. Every other apparent ‘conflict’ about educating today is a decoy: critical race theory, ‘wokeness’, subaltern genders, ‘traditional values’, civics, and sundry others. These fraudulent and fashionable contrivances serve only to allay a lingering sense that due to this family’s relative wealth and this other family’s relative poverty that their respective children will have glaringly different life-chances over the life course.

            The final if not fatal irony is that any expert who points this out in a critical manner is himself automatically distrusted. Any pedagogue, any philosopher of education, any sociologist, any ethicist. Surely he too must have been a product of elite education? How could he then be betraying his own kind? It must be a trick. While it is the case that any partial critique that issues band-aid ‘remedies’ is an act of duplicity and betrayal – ‘let’s fund the two systems equally’, ‘let’s reward the best and brightest without regard to class background’, ‘it is a function of democracy to give parents a choice in educating their children’ (a false choice since it is based upon differential access to resources of all kinds) – what these lesser ‘experts’ achieve is but a blanket ban on understanding the key issues that backdrop the problem of knowledge in our contemporary society. To see them for what they are is, regrettably, to also see expertise itself as a mere rationalization for the existing social order.

            This general mistrust of the expert appears in all contexts, petty and profound alike. I first experienced it later in my academic career when young students questioned the relevance of the history of consciousness, cited celebrities instead of thinkers, refused to read assigned texts, referenced popular culture tropes as the meat of critique and displayed a shockingly low level of literacy in all its forms. It was of interest that pending social background, this distrust of authoritative work was either fully present or equally absent. Most germane for our discussion here, was that the few working class students at the universities were keen to accept and learn and those from the bourgeois classes felt no need to learn anything but the technique presented for specific professions. The ‘ethnic’ students were of two minds; those from the sub-continent who were wealthy disdained all authority while those from East Asia genuflected to it in a kind of shallow supplication that made it look like they were the ‘best of students’. In marginal regions young people craved learning and understood their privilege in being able to have that opportunity. In urban and more wealthy areas, the students saw themselves rather as customers, ‘clients’, a sensibility only encouraged by the universities themselves, partly as a way by which to divide faculty from the student body and partly to attract young persons in the first place. This latter ploy played upon the quite righteous sense that an average eighteen-year-old is rather sick of schooling and needs be treated more like an adult. Ethically this is correct, and indeed, such mature and respectful relations should extend well back from the legal age of adulthood, perhaps to age twelve. But such respect must function both ways, as it were. Ultimately, there was no point in someone like myself continuing to be a professor in such classrooms as presented themselves, where students en masse behaved as if they had no interest in being present to learn anything at all.

            But the insular academy is hardly the only place wherein expertise is in principle mistrusted or even denied outright. And the deniers are, to a person, those who hail from the bourgeois classes themselves. It is as if in attaining their own little arena of expertise, they can maintain it only by denying the authority of all others. Know a little know a lot, they must imagine. My wife, who is a veteran and senior advisor in the finance sector, brings weekly accounts of bank customers who tell her to her face that she is incorrect about very technical matters that no layperson would generally have a clue about. Our real estate agent told us of the daily occasions where she was told how to sell houses by buyers. Our brilliant contractor regales us with similar accounts of those who ‘tell him his job’, which is a concise manner of putting the problem. Similarly our wonderful mechanic, with whom I could not live without. In the corporation of which I am the CEO, our in-house cyber-security and marketing expert tells us of regular occurrences where his highly skilled and subtle expertise is denied by clientele, and add to this the perennial issue of parents telling teachers how to teach, patients telling doctors how to diagnose, analysands explaining their own psychopathology to counselors, and parents – once again – screaming at referees from the sidelines, insisting that officials’ calls were biased, and especially those indicting their own children, what do you know?

            Is it odd that I, as an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, and aesthetics and as the author of fifty-three books, should have no issues at all granting others their authority and expertise? Should it not be the case that if ‘know a little know a lot’ is the general foible, that ‘someone like me’ should quite literally think that he knows it all? What my advantage is, is that I have been able to surround myself with those who really are experts in their fields, whether it be contracting, cars, property, finance, or caring for youth amongst others. I can do that because I know what it takes to become an expert, to gain the credentials yes, but the more so, to be able to learn to apply them in the world. At the same time, I flatter myself in knowing the difference between work well done and a sham effort, whether at the level of the individual or the institution. No doubt I cannot always be correct in my estimation of others, even of social structures and their widespread effects. No matter the experience, no matter the level of literacy, there will always be episodes, events and eventualities that defy one’s ‘expertise’. But this reality should not take away from the general sensibility that expertise and authority of the authoritative kind is a pressing necessity in these our shared times and this our shared world. It is almost as if the masses lie in wait for the expert to make his singular mistake, betraying himself as the naked emperor he always must have been. And it is the supposedly ‘educated classes’ who populate this ambuscade.

            Even so, one also does not desire a society full of illiterate and obeisant servants who slavishly follow every ‘expert’ demand without question. Yet it is equally clear that in order to ask a serious question, a certain critical literacy must be attained, and schooling neither public nor private is geared into this goal. Indeed, there is no social institution as such that can afford this too precious level of literacy lest all loyalty to them be immediately absent. ‘Corrupting youth’ yes, to be sure. But it is not youth who primarily need educating to these regards, but rather the smug and self-assured middle class ‘adult’ who thinks he knows, if not everything, then at least what he ‘needs to know’ about all things. ‘Everyone an expert’ must be the battle hymn of this repugnant republic: ‘No one knows myself better than I’, ‘My children, my house, my rules’, ‘don’t tell me how to run my life’, and even ‘live and let live’, are its much chanted refrains. There is a certain anarchistic element to individualism decoyed both by the false choices of consumer media and the false democracy of the separate school systems. This impulse plays upon our general lack of control and authority in society as a whole. In fact, very few of us have the luxury to speak our minds freely and fully, and simply because this act is a function of my profession gives me a sense of authority far beyond the reality that the entire history of philosophy has encountered in its rare disseminations.

            In seemingly an ultimate irony, Max Weber, arguably the greatest expert on society that history presents to us, stated that we must not trust the experts with anything beyond their expertise. Experts are tools alone. They cannot make decisions for us, especially those political, and thus they should be consulted only in times of true crisis, and thence put aside once again. Insofar as this is how a democracy must function in order to attain a reality beyond that in name alone, Weber is correct. The ‘expert’, of whatever ken, is after all only one person, a human like ourselves, fallible and even biased. Further, the expert cannot be an expert in all things, and so she is not merely like us, she is us, in all of our knowledge and ignorance, partial in both senses of the term. But insofar as expertise is sabotaged by ignorance within the selfsame person, we are jarred into a more general suspicion; if he is that stupid about this, then how can I trust him about that? The only working antidote to this gnawing doubt is to interact with others only within the bounds of their official capacities. All human relations are thus to be made contractual alone. Is this not why marriage is such a challenge for most of us? Only here do we confront the whole person and must trust her, eventually implicitly. Yes, there are even ‘marriage experts’, though one would think that the person who had been married and thus divorced the most times would be the greatest of these!

            While Hume stated that ‘all knowledge comes from human experience’, Kant qualified by responding, ‘yes, but what does it take to have an experience?’ and by the twentieth century, other thinkers asked ‘what does it mean to have an experience?’. On the one hand, pending the event, such experience might not even be communicable to others. The vision is notoriously lost in translation, as William James pointed out. On the other, however, most human experience can be at least partially shared. The trick is to understand just how much the other has comprehended of the self, and the more so, vice-versa. We do know something of ourselves, but we also deny and suppress other aspects as important. Even with regard to our own spirits, we are but partial experts. Our shared humanity is unhinged if all imagine that what they know is ‘enough’ to live. True expertise comes in understanding rather the limitations of both selfhood, of discourse, of learning and even of human experience. Not that these limits are perennial, unassailable by a future consciousness or even a more precise science. Even so, our own living Zeitgeist has its inherent limits. Coming to know that when we approach the counter upon which is laid out the pleasures and desires of the spirit of our age that we are always at risk of being wrong about each and every one of them is the beginning of authentic expertise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

            The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.

            Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?

            The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.

            But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?

            We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.

            Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.

            That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.

            Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.