We did not need pandemic to remind us of the fractures in society. But it has not made things any better! Wherever you look there are profound questions: How to handle the double-edged sword of social media? Can we separate cultural identity from nationalism? Will gender wars ever end? How to cope with trauma? And perhaps most obvious of all: Why has politics become so polarised - can’t we agree to disagree anymore?
You would think that doses of enforced isolation might give us pause for thought, but social media put paid to that. It is so much easier to disagree online; rage on paper then go public – anonymously! So, Zooming, using Teams or blogs via social media don’t just add to face to face chat, they replace it altogether. Dangerous stuff, because losing the spontaneity of proper dialogue lets us miss the vital signals that come from being together – mood, context, body language, tone of voice, timing and moderation of reply and so on. None of these are easily recognised on a flickering screen. They are the vital signs that make face to face dialogue such a pleasure and so much more effective.
I reflected on this as pandemic took hold through the last few months but realised we had been suffering from the dislocations long before ‘The Plague’ shifted from Albert Camus’ novel of 1947 to something going on all around us. Now we long for return of some of the ‘old normal’ before we forget it altogether while realising with trepidation that 2020 will mark so many changes in the ways we relate to each other. Can we properly define ‘new normal’ before it becomes a cliché and renders us amnesiac for what went before?
Before I descend into a dose of Celtic doom and gloom, let’s look to the positives. Governments have cast off their austerity clothing and decided that borrowing against future tax revenue is not such a bad thing – indeed it’s vital for survival and sanity. But with interest rates so low, and the whole capitalist economy in the same boat, does the recent but remarkable lack of churn between currencies suggest that debt really does not matter that much for now? With Argentinian levels of borrowing now worldwide, should we not continue to spend against tomorrow so as to live another day?
More profoundly, are there not legions more of us now realising that real happiness comes not from acquiring more stuff but being content within our own skin and knowing there is a community of friends out there? The community is really pulling together below the megaphone level of broadcast media who seem only intent on delivering the bad news and too little of the good stuff. If you think I am imagining this community thing, look at what is happening in my previous field of endeavour, planning new towns. Now it’s all about walking access separated from motor vehicles, to every urban facility within 20 minutes, conditioned consents around serious contributions to climate change and a real drive to get at least starter housing prices down to affordable levels. In short, community priorities over statistics and Soviet style 5-year plans.
All well and good I hear you say, but what can we do as individuals? I thought about that as well realising that, like that journey of a thousand miles starting with the first step, we need to do the same with our relationships. We all carry far too much baggage with us when meeting people for the first time. We judge them for context and our own mood as much as for what they are saying or how they appear in front of us. The differences of language, accent, culture, religion, political context or gender ought to pale in comparison with the one key ingredient of getting along with people whether for the next five minutes or longer term. In other words, to understand their agenda for what they want to get out of the encounter, as much as our own. I think this grasping of other people’s agendas is really all about empathy. But that word is becoming so overused, I hesitate to repeat it here. Let’s call it imaginative identity with others - to anticipate what they want from a relationship with us before they have to spell it out - because they probably won’t!
I ended up writing a whole book on this stuff, Fractured Society – Causes, Effects and Resolutions published this month. I chart a whole range of fractures like those in my first paragraph, but then examine where we are now before coming up with this behavioural stuff about how to step back, listen as well as hear, and engage with others via their agenda as much as possible. No matter if we get it wrong sometimes – we learn as much if not more from mistakes as from successes, but the will to try is the first step on the long road to better understanding. It might just make for a better world after pandemic; try it yourself!
Hugh Roberts November 4 2020