The question that defined 2021 was perhaps the one that Pontius Pilate, prosecutor of Judea, asked Jesus in the Gospel of John: what is truth? Indeed, all of the most debated issues of this disastrous year, from vaccines to fake news, were ultimately about “the truth.” Far beyond postmodernity, we seemed to have lost the shared set of values that formed the backbone of our societies in the past. This is not necessarily wrong. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger have pointed out how traditional value systems are undermined by structures too rigid for history. These structures, whether scientific or economic, are always shaped by the times and the societies which determine their outcomes. As we move into a new year, the question of truth becomes: who can we trust in 2022?
We must put aside any pretense of immutability and seek an answer within history. But in this effort, we cannot leave our lives in the hands of experts, even though the languages of techno-science require in-depth knowledge of a hyper-specialized curriculum.
As citizens, we all have the right to discuss the social effect of scientists’ discoveries and conclusions, even though we may not be able to replicate their experiments or follow their mathematical explanations. This is also the case with COVID-19 vaccines: every honest and consistent argument on this issue must be seriously considered. Experts cannot and should not dismiss citizens’ concerns, questions and arguments on issues that directly affect their lives with an attitude of ‘stay away and let us do our job’. Just as the recommendations of economists were not sufficient to resolve the economic crisis of 2008/9, 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 together provide solutions that are each tailored to a purpose in specific areas. We call these agents “public institutions”.
Generally, the modi operandi of democracies are more painful than those of authoritarian regimes. The “Reason for Technocracy” model is a historically Western model that has seen 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 for democracy or religion. So the only viable solution is to seek out the elusive truth within the social community.
If “truth,” as philosopher Richard Rorty explained, is “what your contemporaries allow you to say,” then truth in the human world is not eternal but rather a product of current social agreements. This is evident in the history of the pioneers of messenger RNA technology that enabled the production of several leading COVID-19 vaccines. Biochemist Katalin Kariko and immunologist Drew Weissman have struggled for years to secure funding for their mRNA research, and the importance of their work was only recognized by the scientific community after COVID vaccines -19 powered by mRNA changed the course of the pandemic. How can we avoid overlooking such key scientific breakthroughs, or equally important social turning points and political opportunities in the future?
It won’t be easy: The consumerization of communication technologies, relationships with social media and social atomism have left us divided and focused on ourselves, making solidarity a concept of the past. Our current lack of shared identity is so desperate – and destructive – that in his An American Utopia (2016), renowned cultural theorist Fredric Jameson proposed the creation of a parallel structure: an army made up of all citizens. The challenge is to build a real community network to start building an alternative, truly democratic society. Those who, like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, attempted to provide the first tools to build such an alternative, however, were quickly blocked and silenced, raising questions about the feasibility of such a project.
So, the mantra for 2022 must be: let’s get back to society! We have to trust ourselves, our innate ability to live together, the “zoon politikon” (political animal) that we are. We must, as the philosopher Paul K Feyerabend suggested, “conquer abundance”, the irreducible wealth of life, against all the abstract approaches framing the technocratic world of market globalization. Quoting the writer and philosopher Gilbert K Chesterton: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything except his reason”.
There is nothing new to invent: we must start from what we already have, and from what we already are. In 1999, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote the unforgettable book The Great Good Place on “Cafes, cafes, bookstores, bars, barber shops and other meeting places in the heart of a community.” The message of the book was simple: “Third places – where people can come together, put aside the worries of work and home, and get together just for the sake of good company and lively conversation.” – are the heart of the social vitality of a community and the basis of democracy ”. And that message still stands – these are the places of community creation (yes, in obvious symmetry with the “soul creation” that John Keats talks about in his famous letter). On a more complex layer, you can add to this list the church, the mosque, the synagogue in traditional societies, and why not? Also political parties, unions … everything goes. Even before the pandemic hit, these places were losing ground. But now, as we struggle to return to some sort of normalcy, disruptive innovators like Mark Zuckerberg are coming up with new platforms (“Multiversum”) that would undoubtedly divide us further. And so, Oldenburg’s physical “third places” are more important than ever.
Regardless of the various meanings and forms it can take in different cultures, “conversation” is central to the concept of community. The internet is pure magic – it has the ability to broadcast many aspects of this conversation around the world. But he cannot convey the faces, the smells, the gestures, the touch, the common perception of a place which give meaning to the conversation. “The speed of social media,” as American philosopher Judith Butler once noted, “allows for forms of vitriol that don’t exactly support thoughtful debate.” So in this new year, to get back into society, we should have a decent human conversation, that is, we should bring the conversation back to those places that we have lost.
This conversation is more of an attitude than a praxis. A new wave of inflation and the resulting 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 pave the way for the emergence of a collective response – one based on a community sense of justice and a more equitable sharing of sacrifices.
The pandemic has inevitably invited us to reconsider our sense of community – it has shown us that, in the face of a crisis of this magnitude, our only real way out is solidarity. Indeed, we now know that variants will continue to emerge and that the pandemic will not really be over until the inhabitants of the countries of the South also 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 that they continue to provide, but also because they support this community network that we call society. Is this a utopian point of view?
Yes, and no – because against the mighty mainstream vulgate that ‘there is no alternative’ our story suggests that there is no single reality, but rather a complex web of interpretations that crystallize many possible visions of the world. What we should not trust in 2022 is the narrative of ideological realism that serves the story of a one-sided world.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.