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Society should support autonomy

How the pandemic response filters down to our personal relationships
Stewart Burnett is editor of Kivalliq News. Photo courtesy of Stewart Burnett

It’s difficult to hear as a reporter, and no doubt far more as a victim, a counsellor say that there is often no great escape plan for people dealing with spousal abuse, especially for those in remote communities with few alternative housing options.

Creating those escape routes for victims is necessary, if not always easily done. Unfortunately, escape options alone are not enough.

Neither are education and public awareness campaigns about acceptable treatment of partners and others in our lives, as necessary and helpful as those are too.

At some level, violence and bad acting will never be stamped out. It’s part of life.

But another layer we can add to fostering healthy relationships free from abuse is through the values and ideas we spread in our society at large.

This is why the concepts of personal autonomy, freedom of choice and freedom of expression are so important for their rippling effects through our lives, beyond politics.

A culture that does not value a person’s right to their own body will see less issue in individuals violating that right. A culture that stifles speech will ingrain the idea that unpleasant speech should be kept quiet.

Much of the critical perspective on Covid-19 measures comes from this angle, not as a rejection that action must be taken to mitigate damage caused by the virus, but that extra caution should be considered when we steer core values of our society in another direction.

At its best, government ensures stability, fair treatment and the rule of law among the people, while holding a uniquely powerful and encompassing position where it can address needs, crises and externalities better than individual actors.

At its worst, it can resemble an abusive spouse: controlling where you can go, how many people you can see, what you have to wear and even physical actions you must perform on yourself.

There are all sorts of things that governments ask, some more egregious than others, some more debatable. Not all of those asks are bad, and the mechanism of democracy is about the best one we have to keep that power in line.

But during the pandemic, those asks have been large and they threaten to ingrain themselves in our general expectations as a society. That trickles down and feeds into our daily lives and personal interactions.

If we see people removed from social media because they questioned a dominant narrative, we will be less inclined to speak up ourselves. If we allow the government to form classes of citizens based on their medical history, we will more readily consider others less equal.

Both of these go beyond politics, even if they originate in that sphere.

Fear is often the weapon, with the threat that one must follow the authority or some sort of punishment or bad thing will ensue.

The public health measures Canada and Nunavut have taken during the pandemic are not necessarily wrong and are pursued with the best intentions. Voters will have the ultimate say in the end.

But there is reason for some sober second thoughts once the emotion of the moment dies down, about how these rules and society’s direction can have reverberating effects through our individual lives and relationships.

At best, we strike a balance where we perform the largely agreed-upon actions that are in the best interest of everyone, while retaining our fundamental commitment to nonviolence, respect for one another and the right to be our own person.

The counselling, awareness campaigns, shelter programs and education for new generations to respect our partners must continue. And to support it all, we also need a society that values that ethos.

What good is the advice to speak up about issues in our lives, if the evidence all around us shows consequences for rocking the boat?