The Dangerous Luxury of Claiming You've Rejected Society

Title (Dublin Core)

The Dangerous Luxury of Claiming You've Rejected Society

Description (Dublin Core)

Early in the pandemic, a man I knew died of Covid-19 in an overwhelmed hospital. I kept thinking he might not have died if the hospital had been better funded. Then I remembered he had once insisted to me that he lived outside society. I saw a sad connection: hospitals and public health in general were underfunded because too many people felt they did not share a common society with others. More thoughts about Covid and community started flooding my mind. Eventually I pulled these thoughts together in a short essay.

Date (Dublin Core)

June 19, 2020

Creator (Dublin Core)

Ellen Balleisen

Contributor (Dublin Core)

Ellen Balleisen

Partner (Dublin Core)

Bronx Community College

Type (Dublin Core)

personal essay

Controlled Vocabulary (Dublin Core)

English Art & Design
English Conflict
English Government Federal
English Protest
English Social Issues

Curator's Tags (Omeka Classic)

personal essay

Contributor's Tags (a true folksonomy) (Friend of a Friend)

COVID death
white privilege
Donald Trump
mask refusal
overwhelmed hospital

Date Submitted (Dublin Core)


Date Modified (Dublin Core)


Date Created (Dublin Core)


Format (Dublin Core)


Rights (Dublin Core)

CC-ND-NC 4.0

Transcription (Omeka Classic)

The Dangerous Luxury of Claiming You’ve Rejected Society
by Ellen Balleisen
June 19, 2020

“I live outside of society,” a friend of a friend asserted to me at a party about
10 years ago. I don’t remember what prompted him to say this but I do remember I
didn’t feel like starting an argument and therefore didn’t say what I wanted to: Did
you sew every piece of clothing you’re wearing right now? Did you manufacture the
elastic in your underwear and attach it to the cotton? Did you plant and pick the
In April I found out that my friend’s friend had died of Covid-19 in an
overwhelmed Manhattan hospital. Of course I am sorry that he died in this way; no
one should die in this way. But I also keep thinking about an irony of sorts, that a
person who believed himself to exist outside the web of society died partly because so
many people have imbibed versions of this toxic kool-aid that we’re all individual
islands best off without the strictures or protections of organized society.
The man who died came of ages in the sixties and could be said to have drunk
the countercultural version of the kool-aid. I didn’t know him well, but well enough to
imagine he felt the word “society” meant rules and regulations trying to hem him in,
rather than a complex network of interdependent relationships at the level of nations,
neighborhoods and even families.
There’s also the libertarian kool-aid version, the kind swallowed by a woman
who not only refused to wear a mask recently at a Trader Joe’s, but called fellow
customers in masks “sheep” and explained her actions by saying, “We have individual
rights, we don’t have community rights.” Her words imply that individuals have no
responsibilities towards other individuals who share their community. I wonder
whether she feels those annoyed by their neighbors’ loud music have no grounds for
denying anyone the right to enjoy heavy metal at 120 decibels. Or, more
consequentially, how she feels about a driver who insists the community has no right
to demand that he not drive on the sidewalk at 70 miles per hour.
We have a president who has mixed his own distinctive kool-aid cocktail. In a
nod to Hugh Hefner, Trump’s drink includes a hedonistic disregard for 1950s norms
that dictated a veneer of respectful behavior towards women. In a nod to Ronald
Reagan, there’s a dollop of contempt for government’s ability to help those in distress.
And in a curious echo of 1960s counterculture’s disdain for authority, there’s a hefty
scoop of hostility towards experts in science, economics and international affairs.
Had there been less hostility, preparations for Covid-19 might have taken place in the
two months between the time when China first made the Coronavirus public and the
first Covid-19 case was reported in the U.S., and perhaps my friend’s friend would still
be alive.
There’s definitely a place for individuals who are outside accepted norms and
who question authority. If no one ever questioned conventional wisdom and practice,
we would still think the earth was flat and slavery would still exist worldwide. But
Gallileo and early abolitionists went against the beliefs of their societies not because
they saw themselves as outside society, but because they wanted to bring about
change within it.
George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests made me see yet another
angle to the phenomenon of those who consider themselves apart from society. If
you are living in a nation where you belong to a group that is not in the majority, you
don’t have the luxury of declaring yourself outside society because it suits your
perception of yourself. Instead you are often literally outside of society, but at the
same time subject to the control of that society, whether or not you choose to be.
Those who are protesting are interested in re-making society and changing the way
the rules are made. People who think they are “outside” society get to think this way
only because they already belong to the dominant group. In the US, it’s one aspect of
white privilege.
And as that dominant group gets smaller, relative to the overall population,
some people in that dominant group are digging in their heels. When it suits their
purpose, they call on the rules of society, the rules of law and order. When it doesn’t
suit their purpose, they deny the existence of society. Donald Trump embodies this
contradictory way of seeing the world, as well as the refusal to acknowledge the
Meanwhile Covid-19 marches on, not caring about anyone’s views on
belonging or not belonging to society but inflicting its greatest damage on those
outside the mainstream who didn’t choose to be outside. I can only hope with the
thinnest thread of tattered optimism that once this virus has burned itself out, there
will be a greater understanding that we all breathe the same air and have both
responsibilities and rights towards the others who share this air with us.

Location (Omeka Classic)

The Bronx
New York City
New York
United States

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