The question that defined 2021 was perhaps the one that 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 awful year, from vaccines to hoax news, have finally been about “truth”. Far beyond postmodernity, we seemed to have lost the shared set of values that formed the main framework of our societies in the past. This is not necessarily wrong. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger pointed out how traditional value systems are undermined by rigid structures for history. These structures, whether scientific or economic, are always shaped by periods and societies that determine their outcomes. As we enter a new year, the question becomes truth: who can we trust in 2022?
We must set aside any pretext of immutability and look for an answer in history. But in this endeavor we can not leave our lives alone in the hands of experts, even though languages of techno-science do require in-depth knowledge of a hyper-specialized curriculum.
As citizens, we are all entitled to discuss the social impact of scientists’ findings and conclusions, even though we may not be able to reproduce their experiments or follow their mathematical explanations. This is also the case with the COVID-19 vaccines: every honest and coherent argument on this issue should be seriously considered. Experts can and should not dismiss concerns, questions and arguments of citizens about issues that directly affect their lives with an attitude of “stand aside and let us do our job”. 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 who can work together to provide solutions that are each appropriate for the purpose in specific areas. We call these agents “public institutions”.
Usually, 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 achieved many successes, but also paved the way for countless atrocities and injustices. Despite what many scientists are often tempted to believe, science cannot replace democracy or religion. The only feasible solution, therefore, is to seek the elusive truth within the social community.
If “truth,” as philosopher Richard Rorty explained, is “what makes your contemporaries get away with saying,” then truth in the human world is not eternal, but rather a product of current social similarities. This is evident in the story of pioneers of messenger RNA technology that has enabled the production of several leading COVID-19 vaccines. Biochemist Katalin Kariko and immunologist Drew Weissman have struggled for years to get funding for their mRNA research, and the importance of their work was only recognized by the scientific community after mRNA-powered COVID-19 vaccines changed the course of the pandemic. . How can we avoid ignoring such important scientific breakthroughs, or similarly important social turning points and political opportunities in the future?
It will not be easy: the consumer of communication technologies, social media relations and social atomism has left us divided and focused on ourselves alone, making solidarity a concept of the past. Our current lack of a shared identity is so desperate – and destructive – that award-winning cultural theorist Fredric Jameson in his An American Utopia (2016) proposed the creation of a parallel structure: an army composed of all citizens. The challenge is to build a real communitarian network to start building an alternative, truly democratic, society. However, those who, like Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, tried to provide the first tools to build such an alternative were quickly hampered and silenced, raising questions about the feasibility of such a project.
So, 2022’s mantra should be: let’s go back to society! We must trust ourselves, our innate ability to live together, the “son politicon” (political animal) that we are. We must, as philosopher Paul K Feyerabend suggested, conquer “the abundance”, the irreducible richness of life, against all the abstract approaches that frame the technocratic world of market globalization. With the quote from author 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 find out: we must start with what we already have, and what we already are. In 1999, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote the memorable book The Great Good Place on “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Pubs, Hair Salons, and Other Conversations in the Heart of a Community.” The message of the book was simple: “third places – where people can get together, put aside the worries of work and home and simply hang out for the pleasure of good company and lively conversation – are at the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grassroots level of democracy ”. And this message is still valid – these are the places of community creation (yes, in obvious symmetry with the “soul-making” that John Keats talks about in his famous letter). On a more complex level, 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 lost ground. But now, as we struggle to return to a kind of normality, disruptive innovators like Mark Zuckerberg are proposing new platforms (“Multiversum”) that will undoubtedly further divide us. And so Oldenburg’s physical “third places” are more important than ever.
Regardless of the different meanings and forms it may take in different cultures, “conversation” is at the heart 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 can not transport the faces, the smells, the gestures, the touch, the general perception of a place that gives meaning to the conversation. “The speed of social media,” as the American philosopher Judith Butler once pointed out, “allows forms of vitriol that do not exactly support thoughtful debate.” So in this new year, to return to society, we need to have a decent, human conversation, that is, we need to carry the conversation back to those places we lost.
This conversation is more of an attitude than a practice. A new wave of inflation and consequent economic struggle seems to be around the corner again for most of us. So, how can “conversation” help us?
It will certainly not provide us with a solution, but it can prepare the ground for the emergence of a collective answer – an answer based on a common sense of justice and a fairer distribution of sacrifices.
The pandemic 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 really be over until those in the Global South also have adequate access to vaccines.
So can we still trust our public institutions in 2022?
If we can, it’s not just for the guarantees they continue to provide, but also because they maintain that communitarian network we call society. Is this a utopian point of view?
Yes, and no – because against the powerful mainstream vulgarity that “there is no alternative”, our history suggests that there is no one reality, but rather a complex mix of interpretations that crystallize many possible visions of the world. What we do not have to trust in 2022 is the story of an ideological realism that serves the story of a one-sided world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.