The question that defined 2021 was perhaps the one Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, famously posed to Jesus in the Gospel of John: what is truth? Indeed, all the most debated issues of this dire year from vaccines to fake news were in the end about “verity”. Far beyond postmodernity, we appeared to have lost the shared set of values that constituted the mainframe of our societies in the past. This is not necessarily wrong. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger pointed out how traditional values systems are undermined by too-rigid structures for history. These structures, whether scientific or economical, are always shaped by epochs and societies that determine their outcomes. So as we enter a new year, the question about truth becomes: who can we trust in 2022?
We must put aside any pretence of immutability and search for an answer inside history. But in this effort, we cannot leave our lives in the hands of experts only, even though languages of techno-science do require in-depth knowledge of a hyper-specialised curriculum.
As citizens, we are all entitled to discuss the social effect of scientists’ findings and conclusions, even though we may not be capable of reproducing their experiments or following their mathematical explanations. This is also the case with the COVID-19 vaccines: every single honest and coherent argument on this issue should be seriously considered. Experts cannot and should not dismiss concerns, questions and arguments of citizens on issues that directly affect their lives with an attitude of “stand aside and let us do our work”. Just as the recommendations of economists alone were not sufficient to resolve the 2008/9 economic crisis, the findings and recommendations of scientists alone cannot end this devastating pandemic. Such economic or public health crises require responses from a variety of social agents that can together provide solutions that are each fit for purpose in specific areas. We call these agents “public institutions”.
Commonly, the modi operandi of democracies are more painful than those of authoritarian regimes. The model of “Reason of the technocracy” is a historically western model that has had many successes but has also paved the way for countless atrocities and injustices. Despite what many scientists are often tempted to believe, science cannot substitute democracy or religion. Thus, the only viable solution is to search for the elusive truth inside the social community.
If “truth,” as philosopher Richard Rorty explained, is “what your contemporaries let you get away with saying,” then verity in the human world is not eternal but rather a product of current social agreements. This is evident in the story of pioneers of the messenger RNA technology that allowed for the production of several leading COVID-19 vaccines. Biochemist Katalin Kariko and immunologist Drew Weissman struggled for years to get funding for their mRNA research, and the importance of their work was recognised by the scientific community only after mRNA powered COVID-19 vaccines changed the course of the pandemic. How can we avoid overlooking such key scientific breakthroughs, or similarly important social turning points and political opportunities in the future?
It will not be easy: the consumerisation of communication technologies, social media relationships and social atomism has left us divided and focussed on ourselves alone, making solidarity a concept of the past. Our current lack of a shared identity is so despairing – and destructive – that in his An American Utopia (2016), acclaimed cultural theorist Fredric Jameson proposed the creation of a parallel structure: An army composed of all citizens. The challenge is to build an actual communitarian network to start building up an alternative, really democratic, society. Those who, like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, attempted to provide the first tools to construct such an alternative, however, have been quickly obstructed and silenced, raising questions about the feasibility of such a project.
Thus, 2022’s mantra must be: let us go back to society! We have to trust ourselves, our innate capacity to live together, the “zoon politikon” (political animal) that we are. We need to, as philosopher Paul K Feyerabend suggested, “conquest the abundance”, the irreducible richness of life, against all the abstract approaches framing the technocratic world of market globalisation. Quoting writer and philosopher Gilbert K Chesterton: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”.
There is nothing new to be invented: we must start with what we already have, and what we already are. In 1999 urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote the unforgettable book The Great Good Place about “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community”. The message of the book was simple: “third places – where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation – are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grassroots of democracy”. And this message is still valid – those are the places of community-making (yes, in obvious symmetry with the “soul-making” John Keats talks about in his famous letter). On a more complex layer, you can add the church, the mosque, the synagogue in traditional societies to this list, and why not? Also the political parties, the unions … everything goes. Even before the pandemic struck, these places were losing ground. But now, as we struggle to return to some sort of normality, disruptive innovators such as Mark Zuckerberg are proposing new platforms (“Multiversum”) that would undoubtedly further divide us. And thus, Oldenburg’s physical “third-places” are more important than ever before.
Regardless of the various meanings and forms it may take in different cultures, “conversation” is at the centre of the concept of community. The internet is pure magic – it has the ability to spread many aspects of this conversation around the world. But it cannot transport the faces, the smells, the gestures, the touch, the common perception of a place that add meaning to the conversation. “The quickness of social media”, as American philosopher Judith Butler once pointed out, “allows for forms of vitriol that do not exactly support thoughtful debate.” So in this new year, to return to society, we should have a decent, human conversation, that is, we should carry the conversation back to those places we have lost.
This conversation is more an attitude than a praxis. A new wave of inflation and consequent economic struggle appears to be once again around the corner for most of us. So, how can “conversation” help us?
It certainly will not provide us with a solution, but it can prepare the terrain for the emergence of a collective answer – an answer based on a communal feeling of justice and a fairer sharing of sacrifices.
The pandemic has inevitably invited us to reconsider our sense of community – it showed us that, in the face of a crisis of this scale, our only real way out is through solidarity. Indeed, we now know that variants will continue to emerge and the pandemic will not be truly over until those in the Global South, too, have adequate access to vaccines.
So can we still trust our public institutions in 2022?
If we can, it is not only for the guarantees they continue to provide but also because they sustain that communitarian network we call society. Is this a utopian point of view?
Yes, and no – because against the powerful mainstream vulgate that “there is no alternative”, our history suggests that there is no one reality, but rather a complex intermingling of interpretations that crystallise many possible visions of the world. What we have not to trust in 2022 is the narrative of an ideological realism that serves up the story of a one-sided world.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.