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The tug of war between COVID Regulations and Human Nature

I would give a grade of 65-70 on the compliance of Israeli citizens to the COVID regulations of the past year. I would give a grade of 75-80 to the government’s management of the pandemic.

Probably most political and social commentators would give a much lower grade than mine to the efforts of our citizens and our government. So why am I more generous and less given to negative criticism?

This is because as a social conservative I give much more weight to the importance of Human Nature in planning, executing and evaluating programs of social change and development.

Our government’s efforts this year to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is a classic example of a program of social change.

Most individuals and sectors made a good to very good effort to take the COVID danger seriously and to cooperate with government regulations. But then Human Nature stepped in and played its very normal role. Due to human nature normal people just could not keep all the regulations all the time. Thus I give them a passing grade of 65-70.

This article discusses in more detail how human nature affected our well meaning, but incomplete, cooperation with government imposed restrictions.

My COVID-19 confession

I admit that I probably cooperated with only 70-80% of the restrictions, violating those that particularly related to small family gatherings. Most of my friends and relatives also took calculated risks at certain times.

The basic human need to give and receive warmth and support from my family caused me to take calculated risks, and not all of them in accord with governmental restrictions. I wanted to be the perfect citizen, but ‘failed’ 25% of the time.

The government knew ahead of time that compliance would only be partial because of human nature.

Now I will l let you all in on a ‘dirty secret’. The government understood all along that compliance would be partial because of the reality of human nature. It knew that there would a tug of war, a souk type of bargaining, with regard to the public’s compliance. It thus purposefully demanded a great deal of restriction knowing ahead of time it would receive only 60-70% compliance. And 60-70% compliance was its realistic goal all along. Just as in the souk. The seller wants to get 100 shekels for his article, so he demands – in the beginning – 130 shekels.

The role of human nature on the individual level

So how did ingrained human nature affect our coping with COVID regulations on the individual level?

First, after the first three months people stopped being scared. They saw that 95% of the people under sixty who became sick with COVID were on their feet and living normal lives after three weeks. Virtually no one of their family or peers under sixty died. For 90% of those younger than sixty, COVID was just a very bad flu. And without the element of fear, human nature had much less desire to accept the difficult discipline of the COVID restriction.

Second , the extremely strong, super basic drives of human nature for economic security, and human /family companionship and emotional support became increasingly stronger as time passed The government wanted us to be on an ongoing, seemingly never ending, highly restrictive diet with regard to our basic needs of economic and relationship security. We seriously tried. But as with the case of almost diets, human nature just does not permit them to go on forever. And so as time progressed we just had to ‘feed’ our basic human nature needs for economic and emotional security, and felt compelled to cooperated less with COVID regulations.

The role of human nature on the communal level

Also, we live both as individuals and as members of a specific community. So how did the realities of our communal human nature affect our coping with COVID restrictions?

In significant cases government COVID regulations hit a hard brick wall of very strong traditional communal practices which community leaders felt were highly essential for the survival of community self identity. The most blatant examples are:

a) thousands of Arabs at Friday prayers on the Temple Mount, and large Arab weddings,

b) the need of the haredi community for their children to learn in supervised classrooms and not from home zoom, and to celebrate holidays in large groups and family settings, as well as

c) the irrepressible need for young people under 25 to socialize in large social gatherings with few inhibitions.

These sizable segments of the population saw denial of these community social practices as being comparable ‘to committing communal suicide.’

Judged by the requirements of rational social planning these violations are not justifiable. But if we take into account Human Nature, community-wide violations become at least more understandable, although still not permissible.

The role of human nature on the societal level

The way in which our ingrained human nature socially expresses itself is greatly influenced by changing norms of social behavior.

Since the end of World War II, Western society has been driven by social norms that encourage increasing individual libertarianism.

It is now the accepted social norm that each individual should be able to live his life how he wants to, even if it goes against very long accepted, traditional social norms.

Virtually the only universally accepted ‘ethical norm’ today is ‘if a person freely chooses to do something, and it does not immediately harm another individual, that act should than be considered ethical’.

Since World War II, individual libertarianism and capitalism have acted together to promote an exaggerated ethic of materialistic consumerism.

This ethic of consumerism has in turn created a society on steroids of ‘immediate self and sensual gratification’. Self discipline incurring long term delayed gratification is no longer preached as an accepted, realistic social norm.

So it must be obvious to the reader, that as these basic social trends have become increasingly dominant and ingrained in our human nature over the last seventy years, the ability of the public to completely adhere to COVID restrictions that require tremendous self discipline and delayed gratification faces an almost impossible uphill battle from the beginning.

I think the public gets a good grade for trying to do their best and cooperate with governmental COVID restrictions that completely go against seventy years of social media ‘brainwashing’ and promotion of the ‘inherent goodness of individual libertarianism and self gratification’

Social conservative and liberal differences in understanding the role of Human Nature in promoting social change

This above understanding of the critical role of ingrained human nature in evaluating the effectiveness of programs of social change is based on a social conservative political philosophy.

Briefly, social conservatives respect the power of ingrained human nature and are more willing to ‘compromise’ with it when planning programs of social change

They thus believe that programs of social change should be cautious, incremental and positively recognize and respect traditional institutions and ingrained human nature.

In contrast, social liberals believe that ‘human nature’ is ‘not based in nature’ but is rather a ‘social construct’ of the norms and values of a particular society.

The most glaring, current example is the liberal argument that gender-sex roles are not are not defined by biology/nature but can be defined by individual self choice.

Liberals thus believe that human nature can be molded and redefined by reconstructing the society’s social structure.

Remember that at the beginning of the twentieth century the socialists and communists promised us that they would create ‘a new socialist/working man’.

Liberal thinking thus holds that traditional institutions and ingrained human nature should not ‘stand in the way’ of progressive social change engineered from the (ideological elitist) top down.

A passionate cry for humility in evaluating our war of attrition with COVID-19

I want to end with an important clarification. My willingness to accept and respect traditional institutions and ingrained human nature should not be understood as giving legitimacy to non-compliance with COVID regulations. It is a ‘mitzvah’ to observe COVID regulations, and like all mitzvot, we should try to observe them as much as is humanly possible.

However, the above article articulates between its lines a strong criticism of the haughtiness of politicians, social policy makers and commentators whose basic message is “I know what is best and what works. Just follow my ten step plan and we will solve the problem. If my plan was not tried, that is the reason we are still in the throes of the pandemic. If my plan is tried and does not work, it is not because my plan is wrong, but because a traditionally oriented public, and self interested politicians are to blame”.

This attitude really drives me crazy. It is simply not fair, is incorrect, and is counter productive.

Blaming the political, public and traditional institutions as self centered and self interested simply shows that the planners are out of touch with the social reality of different sectors.

Elitist haughtiness achieves the opposite of compliance and cooperation.

It is much easier to blame the decision makers and the public, than to do the hard work of accepting the reality of human nature and tradition, and making the challenging effort to develop a common language of change and cooperation with sectors of the population who are more traditional and communal in their social structure.

Conservative humility, and not radical utopianism, is the beginning of lasting social change.

Source: Dr. Chaim C. Cohen – Arutz Sheva