The pandemic and morality – towards an anthropology of fairness

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Author: Daniel Miller, UCL Anthropology. Daniel Miller is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: Ireland (based on ethnographic research done for the ASSA project, as well as further research done digitally)

This is the final of our six questions and therefore an opportunity to look back and draw more general lessons and conclusions from having gone through this exercise. The anthrocovid.com website was devised with the idea of developing a specifically anthropological response to the current traumatic times. In the spirit of citizen science, it encouraged pretty much anyone anywhere to contribute and the results have been a fascinating palimpsest of perspectives and observations. Mostly,  this has resulted from anthropologists using the pre-existing connections and networks that they had developed from prior ethnography, but in some cases also continued interviewing during the pandemic, in order to give us a kind of ‘bottom-up’ perspective of how ordinary people have been coping and responding. I don’t feel this was merely opportunistic. Rather it reflects an important change in the discipline, whereby the end of fieldwork is no longer the end of our relationship with the field. Digital technologies make it easy to remain in contact and reading these reports shows that much of the discussion simply reflects the degree that as ethnographers we continue to be concerned about the lives and welfare of people we have got to know well and are often now our friends.

The material presented across these postings leads to many conclusions. One very obvious one is that these events are likely to lead to an acceleration in the shift to online across all fields, from work, through education to social interaction. Lockdown brought out both many of the limitations to online and the reports are replete with the sadness and frustration that people experienced when separated from the people they loved, or simply from ordinary but key activities, such as dating. But the reports also contain many comments to the effect that as people contemplated what it might have been like to have been in lockdown without this capacity for online communication. So the experience has simultaneously shown the limitations and the necessity of online. This is a topic that will surely continue to resonate within the nascent studies of digital anthropology.

The question posed, however, makes specific reference to morality and I want therefore to take up an argument that leads us in that direction. While the pandemic is largely a tale of suffering, deprivation and life cut short, there is perhaps a silver lining to this dark cloud. If anthrocovid.com comprises the anthropological response, then curiously, it also seems to equate with a vindication of anthropology itself.  In my earlier report on care and surveillance, the debate concerns the possibilities of a smartphone-based trace and contact programme. Although there are various competing versions, the basic resource is a technology and is, therefore, the same everywhere. But what has been extraordinary is the range of responses to this technological possibility. In some places, people seem to have had little concern that privacy might be breached, although newspapers in the UK love to publish stories about how contact tracing in South Korea exposing one person’s extra-marital affair and another being stigmatised for going to a gay night club. It seems clear that these were seen locally as relatively trivial issues compared to the possibility that effective tracing could mean the whole nation escaping lockdown. This is unimaginable in many Western countries where personal privacy and data protection have become paramount.

What this shows is that the key to understanding people’s experience of and response to Covid-19 is mainly based not on technological possibilities but cultural values, that the balance between care and surveillance is primarily a moral issue. We, therefore, see extremely different results within East Asia but also from there right through to the Americas, because in some regions there is more anxiety about surveillance and others more about care. This surely vindicates the perspective of anthropology as an investigation into comparative cultural values as an essential component in understanding what is going on.

Yet cultural values are not things you can simply ‘see’, especially as in most cases what is evident is the policy of national governments and in many cases, these are by no means the same as, or even a reflection of cultural values. One of the advantages of anthrocovid.com is that these reports have focused on the values and experiences of ordinary people, while news reports are more likely to reflect governmental policy. But one of the other major contributions of anthropology is the study of structural power. The pandemic has given still more impetus to the anthropological concern to tease out from their evidence the relationship between these two forces which clearly influence each other – those of cultural values and structural power. In the case of South Korea, an election that took place during this period gives direct evidence for the prior statement about support for their approach. The Swedes may largely agree that consensus is quite ‘Swedish’. But equally, clearly, the reports on the website show the massive conflict at present between people’s values and the government of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Autocratic regimes as in China and populist regimes as in Brazil and the US and the UK claim to represent cultural values but largely represent structural power.

My fieldsite of Ireland is one of those fieldsites where there has been decades of centrist government. If I was to start from my own fieldsite, then it is clear that the people I worked with see themselves as expressing what they understand to be reasonable attitudes linked to notions of compromise and consensus. They would want that to be seen as the ‘Irish way’. But how does such consensus develop? In my own posts but also in several of the others, it has become quite common to illustrate arguments with memes that have been circulating in that region. In our previous Why We Post project, we made a direct argument for memes as the ‘moral police of the internet’. The public circulation of memes have become therefore a wonderful source for understanding the way public morality forms and is shared.

Memes also help us understand one of the astonishing features of the pandemic, which is just how quickly the new can become the new normal. What my Irish informants were enforcing was an unprecedented set of everyday practices impacting on the foundational forms of sociality, whether it was what they no longer could do offline like go to the pub, or what they now could do online, such as Zoom. The rapidity of meme sharing and other online sharing as vehicles for establishing normative values are thereby made that much more evident.

So can all this help us with understanding the relationship between cultural values and structural power in interpreting the response to lockdown? An observation that has arisen as much from simply following the news here in the UK, as also in following developments in Ireland is how important an underlying ideal of fairness becomes in popular responses to policy change. This was evident quite early on. Both in the UK and in Ireland there was general support from the police in ensuring compliance to government. Indeed, my first report from Ireland was about how ordinary people saw themselves as adjuncts to the police in monitoring public behaviour and how affronted they were by any sign of break of regulations. Yet in the UK, when a drone intruded on walkers in a remote area, the response was much more equivocal. Although technically, this was a breach in the order to only go outside when strictly necessary, walking in a remote part of the country was clearly not going to endanger anyone’s health. As a result, the police drone while seen as entirely consistent with the law, was also seen as ‘unfair’ and a misdirection of priorities. Even more revealing was a key moment in the UK which was the notorious Dominic Cummings episode, where the individual seen by many as the power behind the Boris Johnson throne breached regulations but went unpunished. I can’t give concrete evidence but it certainly seemed to me that this led a radical change in people’s behaviour and popular compliance dropped immediately from rigorous to lax because if there was one law for the establishment and one for the rest of us, then the regulations were ‘unfair’. Several of the anthrocovid.com posts suggest a similar sense of popular appraisal.

This is a case where one set of cultural values seems to cut across others. People in Taiwan might have a very different idea of the necessity for contact tracing as against US Republicans’ emphasis on privacy as a human right. But both can equally use the criteria of fairness in assessing the discrepancies between what they regard as right and decent and the actions of governments as policy. Fairness is very different from other forms of critique. A given population may be ruled by an autocratic regime but popular opinion may genuinely support the claims of paternalistic autocracy. After all, Bolsonaro was initially democratically elected. But whatever the regional diversity in political ideology and indeed in cultural values, there is a common theme around whether people regard actions as fair or unfair, which is quite separate from legal and other criteria. Having drawn these conclusions, I then searched the anthropological literature, especially the recent upsurge in interest in the anthropology of ethics and morality. But my sense is that the anthropology of fairness is surprisingly underdeveloped. So if I was to draw one particular conclusion about the pandemic and morality then this is probably what I would wish to see pursued in greater depth. How does fairness operate in the interface between structural power and cultural values?