The problem of exceptionalism

covid exceptionalism Aug 06, 2020

This image just about sums up human behaviour, doesn't it?  

Image via @CorkCoypu

I'm writing to you from the locked-down city of Melbourne. A few weeks ago it seemed we were on top of Covid-19 but in a blink we find ourselves under Stage 4 restrictions. An 8pm-5am curfew, a 5 kilometre boundary in which we can shop - but only for essentials - remote schooling and limits on outdoor exercise.

It feels like the whole class got 6 more weeks of detention because some naughty kids acted up.


A word that keeps popping up for me is "exceptionalism". It's the belief that a person, species, nation, region, time period or political system does not conform to the norm; it's an exception and, at some level, superior.

Is that what's at play in people's behaviour, like the Covid-19 compliance officer in the picture? Do we not think we are susceptible to infection or beholden to rules like others?

I'm guessing here, but I believe we all think, deep down, that we are different. That we are exceptional in the sense that no one understands exactly how we think and feel.

Others never quite 'get it'. But we never quite 'get' them, do we? 

So we tell ourselves stories about how the world works to make it make sense.

And these stories help us justify our actions - like driving 300 kilometres for a Big Mac or standing too close to someone in a queue, or popping down the street to get something while we await Covid-19 test results. Or like that UK politician who told everyone to stay at home but then drove hundreds of miles to his country estate.

Of course these are the extreme cases of exceptionalism because they made news. But no one called it exceptionalism. Instead it was marked down to stupidity.

But that misses the point.

Infractions are easy to judge in others, and easy to label stupid because they defy "common sense". But if we think of ourselves as exceptional, there is only "our sense".

That means to ensure collective behaviour is more conforming, we are best to design for the exceptional because that is where we will see the least rational of behaviour.



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