The Importance Of Criticism

In this fourth brief in our coronavirus series, Research Fellow Matthew Kruger explores the importance of criticism during this time of crisis.
The Importance Of Criticism

When life stopped

In the last book published before his death John Gardner wrote: "Uncontroversial ideas need not less but more critical scrutiny, since they generally get such an easy ride".[1] Rarely, I imagine, has this observation been more apposite than it is today, in the world of COVID-19.

Before this virus began to infect not merely our bodies but also our consciousness, one of the more common refrains by politicians and public intellectuals was that the world today is more divided than ever before. This division, we were told, takes different forms in different places, but it is constitutive of modern political and social life. Even now, they lament, in the world of COVID-19, we cannot escape these conflictual tendencies. In the midst of the crisis initiated by this virus, when humanity so desperately needs a coordinated response, we cannot agree on how to act.

Whatever the truth and relevance of this analysis of politics pre-COVID-19, it appears to me to get matters completely backwards as a diagnosis of our present political reality. In the face of COVID-19, the world has almost without exception adopted a uniform response. Speaking last Thursday, on the eve of South Africa's own inevitable lockdown, Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, articulated the essence of this response: "Come 23:59pm tonight, life stops."

Instead of the usual conflict and controversy that characterises politics, nations have acted in concert. More than this, civil society and market actors have voiced a near deafening support of the state. Of course, there have been technical disagreements—often to do with timing or intensity—but these must not distract us from the fact that on the questions of what to do and why to do it, we have witnessed in the last few weeks that phenomenon usually reserved for utopian dreamers: harmony.

"Good!" you might say, and you might well be right. Before we reach this judgment, though, we must at least for a moment reflect critically on this extraordinary convergence of opinion and response.

Understanding "why"

To be critical is not to be mean-spirited or ungrateful. Our leaders and experts, in the main, are doing their best. What they are doing may even turn out to be best. Surely, though, we need not be reminded that this is not guaranteed. After all, the response to the virus has been striking precisely because it lacks the nuance usually thought necessary to deal effectively with social problems, be these related to health or housing, climate or crime. Why should COVID-19 be any different? What works in London is rarely what works in Lenasia. As Alex Broadbent and Benjamin Smart put it: "Failure to recognise that one size does not fit all could have lethal consequences in this region, maybe even more lethal than those of the virus itself."

Importantly, it is not only the "what" of the response (lockdown) but also the "why" that needs critical questioning. We must question the why not just because the reasons for what we do are as susceptible to the conformity—and its potentially lethal consequences—criticised by Professors Broadbent and Smart, but because the why is prior to the what. Put otherwise, we can only know what to do when we know why we want to do anything at all. Or, to say the same thing in a third way, the reasons for our actions, the ends or ideals that we want to realise or actualise, shape the actions that we take.

What I want to suggest is that the uniformity of response, i.e. the near global lockdown, is informed, at least in part, by the very thing that many of our politicians and intellectuals lament as being absent: unity of purpose. This purpose is the preservation of human life, not in any substantive or meaningful sense, but life as a bare, biological fact.

If this is true, merely identifying this fact, which is one of the principal functions of criticism, throws into question the legitimacy, or at least the sustainability, of this response. For, we know that life in this crude or biological sense is not all that matters. By itself, it barely matters at all. What matters is a dignified and good life, a life worth living. When we recall this, we recognise the true significance of Minister Cele's statement: "Come 23:59pm tonight, life stops."

Lives worth living

I do not think that many of our leaders or intellectuals would, after conscious and critical reflection, in fact privilege biological life above all else. To the contrary, many would balk at this idea. That this is so, however, does not mean that their actions and policies are not informed by it.

Indeed, this is how I interpret the cacophony that replies to any person who for just a moment floats a response to COVID-19 other than lockdown. "How dare you", they unite in chorus, "trade lives for money!" Of course, nobody, or at least hardly anybody, is suggesting anything of the sort. What this response reveals is not so much the callousness of neoliberals or other bogeymen, but the fact that the critics themselves struggle to think outside of those economic categories into which life biologically understood neatly fits.

Closer to home, this predominance of biological life as an ethical ideal—the idea that mere survival of the greatest number is the ultimate measure of right and wrong—is evident in our legal descriptions of essential goods and services, the sweeping treatment of activities or concerns that fall outside of them, and the apparent willingness, evident from our relative silence, to tolerate violence against or abuse of persons suspected of acting contrary to this ideal.

More explicitly, perhaps, the ideal informs this claim by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi: "Individual rights are important. But life is a paramount individual right. Keeping us alive is the most important function of government."

Legally speaking, Mr Ngcukaitobi is wrong. The Constitution not only recognises, as he later points out, that rights conflict and that law or conduct that settles this conflict will often demand the sacrifice or limitation of rights. It also recognises that what we sacrifice can never be decided or settled in the abstract. Context is essential and differently-situated people often disagree, hence our Constitution's embrace of a participatory, accountable form of politics. Disaster or emergency can warrant further limitations, but they cannot change these legal facts.

Not merely keeping us alive, but acting in a way that makes possible good and dignified lives—lives worth living—is the most important function of government. Often, this requires doing all that we can to keep everyone alive, but, tragically, other times not.

All too obvious

These points are not just critical and legal. They matter for how we should understand our response to the threat posed by COVID-19.

Because conflict and choice is the essence of politics and the origin of law, when we find ourselves, as we do now, in almost global agreement—when parties as diverse as the ANC, DA and EFF stand shoulder to shoulder with CEOs, journalists and human rights bodies—we should pause and ask: "Why are we doing this?" We must ask this question not because the answer is elusive, but because it appears all too obvious.

Of course, many after asking this question will answer that a temporary lockdown is worth it, that our substantive lives coming to a stop is a price worth paying for the chance of saving biological lives, not merely for their own sake, but because of the substantive ones that could emerge therefrom. If you, like me, are inclined, at least for now, to offer this answer, then we must ask a second question: "For how long should substantive life come to a stop?"

When we begin to answer this second question—as we inevitably must—the purposive unity that we have witnessed over the last few weeks will disappear. As before, we will disagree about what makes life worth living and we will disagree about what or who we choose to limit or sacrifice. When we do, we must not lament. This return of conflict, choice and sacrifice, as frustrating and difficult as it might be, will be a good thing. When matters no longer appear so obvious, this will be a sign that life has started again, that the clock has finally ticked past 23:59.

Matthew Kruger
Research Fellow

[1] John Gardner, From Personal Life to Private Law (2018) 189-90