“I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body”, Novak Djokovic declared a couple of weeks ago, back before the world changed on 24 February. Cartesian dualism is alive and well in Serbia you might conclude. Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Djokovic’s body are both in play here, the former putting things, or not putting things, vaccine to be precise, into the latter. In case we missed his claim to ethical probity, Djokovic, speaking in an exclusive interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in the wake of his deportation from Australia, stated that “the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else”. He went unchallenged.
Amal Rajan, the BBC’s interviewer, persisted for some twenty minutes in probing why Djokovic wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID despite the cost to his career as the leading star in the tennis firmament. For those not much interested in tennis celebrities it felt like an interminable wait for the real news. But it was – incidentally - a remarkable lesson in how modern ethics rest on the powerful illusion that each man is an island. That long twenty minutes illustrated how celebrity could highlight an unbalanced individualism: the denial of what it is to be a social being, a person whose character and personality are moulded by the social, economic, political and cultural factors which shape our choices. Djokovic seemed oblivious of all this. Nowhere was there any clue that the economics or national politics of elite sport cultivate an obsession with the body or how much Djokovic’s own way of thinking might be socially shaped.
Vaccinations reduce the spread of viral infection and do so most effectively when a high percentage of a given population are vaccinated. Individuals who decline vaccination undermine the protection vaccines afford to everyone. Neither Djokovic nor Rajan gave any sense that to choose to be vaccinated against COVID is to take action for the common good. Discussions about such choices need to be discussed within their social context not decided solely on individualistic grounds and justified by the right to freedom of choice. Though, to be fair, Djokovic did recognise a wider world which was “collectively“ (his words) trying “to find a best possible solution to end the virus”. In short the unchallenged premise of the interview was that moral choice resides in the atomised, autonomous individual deliberating with himself or herself and reaching an unchallengeable personal decision.
Freedom of choice is indeed important but it is also important to recognise how many of our choices are unconsciously collective choices, or, when consciously taken, should keep the common good in mind. Most immediately, it is what lies at the heart of the tragedy of Ukraine. We have watched a people who want to choose their government, who seek to associate for a variety of reasons with other democratic nations, attacked by a dictator using overwhelming military force to impose his will. And we have seen the power of Ukrainians’ collective choice to resist despite the costs and danger to the integrity of their bodies and their individual lives. A stark contrast with Djokovic’s mind-set.
At no point in the interview was the purpose of freedom of choice directed to anything other than the professional interests of Djokovic himself - winning world class tennis matches if he chose to play them. Djokovic assured Rajan that he was willing to sacrifice opportunities to play if they clashed with his individual freedom of choice. There was no indication that anyone might expect him, or any other sporting celebrity for that matter, to consider the wider implications of this stance, his position as a role model and therefore what choice might in this instance serve the common good.
One of the main engines driving the economic growth we have come to expect is the never-ending diversity of things we are offered and which we choose to buy, experience, dominate and own. But this engine has made the amoral freedom of the market the template for thinking about ethical choices and has driven us along a track leading to climate catastrophe. It is almost as if the act of choosing has become the good sought and can be dissociated from the good chosen.
The fashion industry has long ago learned how to manipulate choice and stimulate collective imitation. What you shop for and wear becomes a major expression of identity. And recently BBC listeners have heard that a ‘vibe-shift’ is taking place in which, you can guarantee, a new form of ersatz freedom and self-expression will get the tills ringing with cash extracted from youth.
While their shared choice for many Ukrainians is a matter of life and death and national solidarity, freedom of choice for others, including Djokovic, seems to provide a trivial statement of who you are and want to be. Tellingly, so unbalanced is the contemporary focus on the individual that the faults of collective thinking and action are more readily perceived, labelled and challenged. We have special words available to describe shared choices and those making them: the crowd, the mob, group-think, ‘institutionally racist,’ and with them associated behaviour, impulses to loot, to violence as in ‘joint enterprise to murder’, to discriminate, and to ‘trample on liberal values’.
We are not atomised individuals taking moral decisions in a vacuum. It’s a grand illusion. We are social beings formed in community by our relationships, beliefs and experience. Since we value freedom of choice highly, it is well to be aware of the range of factors that shape our judgement and decisions. Such consciousness would enable us to evaluate how they undermine or contribute to the common good. But to be aware how these factors influence us requires living in a society in which accurate information is available, where there are spaces for deliberation about what constitutes the common good, and with all participants equally valued. That is what democracies aspire to achieve and totalitarian regimes fear.
See TheArticle 01/02/2022
One of your best, Ian. What's remarkable in the thinking that you illustrate in the case of Djokovic is a central illusion, namely, that the very notion of individual freedom of choice is free of social determinants. On the contrary, as you say, that conception of the choosing self as the centre of value is itself a social product. Djokovic is a perfect illustration of the deluded self, proclaiming a notion of the self as autonomous, thereby illustrating perfectly his captivity as a social product.
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