Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Theorising – If We Lose Our Humanity, We Lose Ourselves

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Mirjana Ule, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Spending my days isolated at home in Ljubljana, I am in a mood to reflect on the state of the world. In these times when anxiety and panic have increased as the result of the viral pandemic, I remember the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and his predictions of critical and chaotic social conditions in his 1998 essay on Utopistics. Or, Historical Choices Of The Twenty-First Century [1]. Wallerstein stated that we are living in a time of transition from the capitalist economy to a new global system or systems. We do not know if this will change things for the better or worse, but we know that it will be difficult for everyone to endure a time of strife and growing unrest in which many will see a collapse of moral systems. The crisis, in his view, is caused by global economic imbalances and depletion of natural resources that we depend on. In addition, a central factor he predicted would intensify in the coming decades, were ethnic conflicts, which ‘are not a remnant of the past, but a phenomenon enhanced by the modern world system’. He predicted some 50 years of chaotic social conditions, but two decades ago, this all seemed too apocalyptic.

Today, however, we seem to be well into the world Wallerstein envisioned. How do we respond responsibly and ethically to the crises we face today, and above all, how do we preserve human dignity? Are we still capable of a critical analysis of social conditions, and are we able to act as a community?

We live in uncertain times, but it is precisely this uncertainty that is conducive to creativity. Here, our potential has no boundaries. However, Wallerstein warns that creativity is not necessarily positive, nor does it force progress on its own. Here I recall Theodor Adorno, whose critical social texts inspired us in theory and practice in the second half of the 20th century. In the text Minima Moralia he wrote, among other things, that “wrong life cannot be lived rightly” [2]. It is not possible to give the full context of this sentence here, but suffice to say that it is not meant as an excuse for maintaining ‘wrong’ actions in situations where inhumanity prevails in society, nor does it ascribe moral good only to personal choices of disconnected individuals. On the contrary, I understand it as a call for a concerted effort to transform the world into one that will enable and respect humanity.

Adorno was aware of the difficulties of finding the right life within a world based on inequality and exploitation. Yet he did not despair at the possibility of a moral posture and the creation of improved social conditions. The moral good can only be meaningfully discussed in relation to interpersonal, social relations, since an isolated man or isolated life are only empty abstractions. Why do I emphasise this? Currently, as each nation-state is taking over the role of organising social relations, we are bombarded by instructions for social isolation. Ironically, however, many places where physical contact takes place, such as hairdressers, remain open in some countries. We must put all efforts into keeping a safe physical distance, but we should not forget to find all possible and permissible ways to maintain social closeness.

A crisis can shed new light on the state of the world. The world is not something outside of us, we are not simply ‘in it’, but rather the world ‘lies between us’, and we carry the world in this in-between space, as Hannah Arendt used to say [3]. This in-betweenness is the foundation of humanity: co-actions, co-feelings, solidarity. Under pressure for isolation, though, this ‘interface’ that carries our living world is in danger of breaking down. 

Narrowing down the field of in-betweenness can erode the sense of our humanity. Thus the unfortunately persistent viral pandemic can precipitate into an even more long-term social pandemic, which has been unravelling already for decades. This social pandemic can spread into the pores of our lives without us being aware of it. We do not notice it as it lacks clear physical signs. Instead, the social pandemic slowly weakens our relationships, sense of community, closeness. It can disassemble our world of shared humanity, from a community of fellow beings who support each other, into increasingly separate and isolated individuals, who perceive the world mainly as conditions that each must individually ‘master’ or ‘protect themselves from’. This inevitably leads to the instrumentalisation of other people for specific ‘purposes’. Going back to Kant, we see that the instrumentalisation of the human eliminates humanity at its core and makes us ready to accept any inhumanity.

And speaking of Kant, now more than ever is his notion of ‘one humanity’ very timely. We are living through a time of crises that are interconnected at the individual, local, national and transnational levels. Rather than retreating into silent privacy, it will be required of us to have an active and community-based relationship with the world, based on mutual assistance, solidarity and friendship.

We live in an imperfect world, which will always be imperfect. However, we are far from being helpless in the face of this reality. We can increase our understanding of it. We can carry on conversations and share knowledge with each other. Now that we are forced to spend our days physically separated from each other, we need even more to ‘share the world’ with others beyond our national boundaries, to share our experiences, to express our emotions, and to do our best to help one another. These days, as I share moments each day with my grandkids who are in Salerno and London, but I cannot invite my neighbors around for coffee, I realise more than ever how much we need each other. And I remain inspired by Anne Frank, who against all odds broke her isolation across the boundaries of time.

If we can extract something from our time, it is a reflection on the importance of nurturing the in-betweenness, sociality, community, humanity, wherever we are engaged. And this is the challenge of today for the future. To paraphrase Wallerstein: The world of 2050 will be as we make it today. This opens a free path to our creativity, dedication and humanity.

References
[1] Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1998. Utopistics. Or Historical Choices of the Twenty First Century. The New Press.
[2] Adorno, Theodor W. 1970. Gesammelte Schriften. Suhrkamp.
[3] Arendt, Hannah. 1960. Von der Menschlichkeit in finsteren Zeiten. Gedanken zu Lessing. Rede anlässlich der Verleihung des Lessing-Preises 1959, etc. Piper.

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