Opinion: The coronavirus wisdom of Stephen Colbert and Rousseau | Opinion | DW | 23.04.2020

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Opinion: The coronavirus wisdom of Stephen Colbert and Rousseau

As many European states begin relaxing restrictions in the COVID-19 outbreak, we'd do well to think like the comedian and philosopher, says Cristina Burack. It can help avoid a false dichotomy between liberty and health.

What do an American comedian and an 18th-century French philosopher have to do with the coronavirus? These past days, when I've read the latest coronavirus news, I can't help but think of Stephen Colbert and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An odd couple perhaps, but one that can help reframe how we think about the pandemic and restrictive measures.

Coronavirus debates have frequently presented society's health and individual liberty as diametrically opposed. Only at the cost of individual freedom to move around, pursue our professions and make self-determined choices can widespread health be preserved. In this light, even the requirement to wear a face mask in public spaces, which all of Germany's 16 states have individually promised to institute, could seem like another rights curtailment to some — the next evolutionary step in government-mandated restrictions.

A lesson in improv

Cue Stephen Colbert. After graduating from Northwestern University, Colbert launched his performing career in Chicago's improv scene. When he went back to the university to deliver the 2011 commencement speech, he reflected on relationships in improv:

Cristina Burack

DW's Cristina Burack

"One of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you're in the scene too. So hopefully to them, you're the most important person, and they will serve you."

This statement contains wisdom we can extract and apply to the current situation, especially as the first European nations experiment with relaxing restrictions. People will be encountering one another again in public spaces — sharing the stage, so to speak. We must think like improv actors: How can I serve the most important person in the scene? In other words, how can I best protect you? A generous helping spirit has shone time and time again during the pandemic, but prioritizing the other must imbue all our actions for the foreseeable future as we begin to interact again.

One way is to adamantly maintain a 2-meter distance to all others. Another is strictly adhering to wearing a mask. Research has shown that a simple mask won't do much to protect you from being infected, but it can effectively prevent you from infecting others. You protect me in my daily life and I, in turn, protect you in yours. Seen through the Colbertian improv lens, restrictions are no longer restrictions: They are guarantees that every individual in the scene can participate to the fullest extent possible.

Read more: Coronavirus antibody tests and immunity certificates pose ethical and scientific problems

'Forced to be free'

However, for this to work, everyone must buy in. That's where Rousseau comes in. In The Social Contract, his monumental treatise from 1762, he lays out how individuals invest political legitimacy into a "sovereign" that enacts the general will for the common good. But, as he admits, "individual self-interest may speak to [a person] quite differently from how the common interest does."

Such differing self-interest is arguably especially high in Germany, which has so far been spared the horrific death tolls of other nations. Many may believe the worst is past and want to return to their old uninhibited life or think everything is under control and simply let down their guard. Where I live, the throngs of bare-faced individuals out and about certainly suggest this.

A man and a woman leave a store, with only the man wearing a face mask

Even in Bavaria, where measures have been especially strict, not everyone is obeying the mask-wearing rules

Enforcement of restrictions is needed. Or to use Rousseau's terms, we must be compelled to obey, for this "means nothing less than that each individual will be forced to be free." According to him, enforceable rules enhance our liberty since they secure us against "personal dependence." Whether verbal reminders from authorities, barred entry or even fines, the restrictions of this next phase in the coronavirus fight must be enforced. Only then can they save every person from having his or her individual right — including the right to not be harmed by another — infringed by someone else's whims. Enforced obligation of coronavirus restrictions maximizes the rights of individuals across society.

Compelled to prioritize one another

"Life is an improvisation," Colbert went on to say in his commencement speech. "You have no idea what's going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along."

This definitely sums up the present. No one knows what course the virus will take in Germany over the next few weeks. However, we do know that through our actions, each of us can do a lot to protect one another — and consequently ourselves — if reciprocity is forcibly mandated. So let's keep improvising, with Colbert and Rousseau in mind, and make sure everyone else around us is the most important person in the scene.

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