National Lockdown: Homo Empathicus under the gaze of the law

by Rehilwe Senatla | Published on 26 June 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Recent times have never seen a more challenging battle as the one found now between the law and the idea of doing right – as based on empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid. The Covid-19 national lockdown has seen this battle become greatly accentuated in relation to the restriction of movement.

I have seen friends struggling to access children for whom they share verbal, undocumented custody. I have witnessed a son waiting in the parking lot of a hospital as though he was an Uber driver, while his father was inside undergoing surgery. I myself could only imagine holding my father’s hand while he was being wheeled into a theatre-room 40km away. I have brokenheartedly missed funerals of loved ones because I didn’t make the cut-off of 50 attendees as per lockdown regulations. I have observed a man make a distressing appeal to the lawmakers to let him sell cooked food from his yard since he could not go out to his usual stall at the street corner. I have helplessly observed the mighty power of the law arm-wrestling the notion of doing right. As social beings with societal attachments and agreements with each other, especially in times of need, we are struggling with obeying the law (staying at home) and still being empathetic.

Never have we been so anxious of our visibility to the law as in recent times. We are found always looking over our shoulders, fearful that our daily decisions could potentially conflict with the latest regulations; and resort to actions that we hope the law will turn a blind eye to. Like a beggar, in our many varied tough circumstances, we have knelt in shame assuming postures that would humble us to the law. We have been left powerless, when all we wanted was to do good to others. As the restrictions on movement and gatherings continue, so does the distance between the two poles of empowerment and powerlessness, and equally so the tension between obeying the law and doing right, doing good – realising the extension of our moral boundaries.

It was Jean-Paul Sartre that introduced the concept of le regard, the gaze, in Being and Nothingness (1943) wherein the act of gazing at another human being creates a subjective power difference, which is felt by the gazer and the gazed. The person being gazed at is perceived as an object, and not as a human being. In our lockdown decisions, we cannot help but feel the weighty gaze of the law. The law has been afforded the privilege of surveillance, while doing right has been destabilized, left asking itself endless questions in turmoil. We are more aware of our presence and how accountable we are for the decisions or actions we take, as this might expose us as being unlawful or unethical.

The critical gaze of the other, of the law, has indeed robbed us of our freedom but, I must admit, it has also led to constructive internal changes. Being gazed at has afforded us the opportunity of being aware of ourselves, of our existence, our presence. The beggar and the giver have had a silent exchange of conflicting wills and intentions. So, while we are down on our knees terrified of, and humiliated by this gaze, we are also suddenly and fully aware of our decisions and actions. That is, the extent to which these will have an impact on social transformation, even if this is simply only to immediate associates. We bow our heads in avoidance of making contact with this gaze, with our hands held out and hoping and yearning for an empathic bond.

While the law dictates what we ought to do, ethics – from whence empathy finds a home – informs us what we should do in accordance with the social contract. The present-day clash has forced us to look at ourselves, discover our inner-selves and grasp that others matter too.

Isn’t it ironic then that the very gaze that has seemingly robbed us of our pride is the same one that has forced us to think freely and to choose, especially in relation to the other?