During the times we are living, opposite things are said together – that is why today’s outcomes are unpredictable. If we want life to be different tomorrow from yesterday, at least in regard to the topic of “Communal life”, there are three reflections help the process accelerate: care, communication and human bodies (Translated from Italian by Alissa D'Vale).
During the last few months, the pandemic has been an unsettling passage that is part of a changing time, which is in itself already difficult to read. Anyone who tries to predict the results is firing a shot in the dark. Much has yet to be settled before we can make a precise and profound analysis of this wedge that has unexpectedly embedded in our personal and collective time, spreading them apart.
If one cannot make great predictions or distil basic meanings, it is possible to at least try to perform a negative task. First, by trying to explain why it is not possible to give a univocal reading of this time. Second, by trying to say what different things emerge by comparing them to “before”, making them a learning experience, guiding our concerns towards the future.
A time of opposite tensions
It is not possible to give a univocal reading of this passage because it has many divergent features, making it in some ways paradoxical. In short, there is no "lesson" that comes from this time, because in reality it says different things all altogether and at the same time solicits awareness and non-univocal transformations. Here are some examples:
What can we learn?
What can we learn in this space troubled by opposing tensions? One can perhaps try to circumscribe some emerging evidences and treasure them, by looking at social life as "communal life", as a space for bodily communication and relationship.
1-. Communal life. In order for social life to not disintegrate it must be able to express itself as
a “communal life”, but life can be “communal” on a daily basis if by taking care of the sick, the elderly, the children, the poor; in all forms of care, ranging from medicine to care giving, education, and social promotion. There is a tendency to consider these issues as “already met” by some institutionalized systems such as health care, schools, welfare, and social services. Issues that are considered so “already resolved” can be systematically neglected in favor of other instances, which promise to be the “real” economy, the “future”, the “growth”.
The truth is that those areas of care giving are a central part of the whole social life, because we are all at some time or in some way sick, children, elderly, students, or poor. As observed by the philosopher Eva Kittay, there is a "love cure" that is not only a private matter but also the fabric of dependencies and dedications on which the life of each individual and the strength of each society is based[ii]. Therefore, there is no way for a community to live as such if not by starting from the consideration that these conditions of human experience are fundamental parts of its identity.
This reality is clearer today than in other moments, but in the “after pandemic” perspective, we need to immediately ask how to prevent this awareness from being dispersed. During the 2008 financial crisis, there was already a persistent repeating that “after” nothing would be the same as before, and instead little has changed from a regulatory and operational point of view. We must be aware that the same will happen when we somehow exit this pandemic emergency phase: we will reaffirm once again that we must run to make up for lost time, that is to restore as soon as possible previous priorities.
It is understandable that there should be an increase of resources. However, in order for the “after” to be different this time, those involved in education, care, and assistance should not restrict their requests to the normal routine of asking this increase of resources, perhaps as "remuneration" for the service performed in times of crisis. In time of crisis, more it is necessary. These areas should return at the center of cultural, social, and political planning, of public discussion, of research, and carried out with most priority – the nucleus from which we think about the future. Whatever it will be, it is that future we would live in tomorrow.
2-. The space of communication. If what is needed is rethinking and making new choices, then we have to take into account the space where collective awareness and orientation is formed today. The main trade shaking our times is that of attention. Social networks are great attention engineers, environments built to train, orient, and sell it, as a good book “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu illustrated a few years ago.iii
This type of mechanism has largely penetrated all areas of social life, including the political one. In this ubiquitous flow, only the image remains, on which it is possible to catalyze the attention of most (by harmony or by reaction, it does not matter). A great impact of the pandemic's collective experience was to make everyone look in the same direction, to have imposed an unplanned and unexpected center of attention.
In this confused and somewhat astonished change of scene, the difference between authoritative word and chatter, between meaningful gesture and disordered agitation is once again perceived. In the empty Saint Peter square, the words and gestures of Pope Francis, with all his corporeity of an elderly man, had universal eloquence. The firm and few-word speech of the Italian Republic's President was perceived by many as the most significant in a political conversation that often offers no solution or continuity, in its ways and contents, during the afternoons of popular TV programs.
This communicative space – of the liturgical rite, of exemplary gesture, of the laconic but high word – can and must be preserved. It is a condition for the most important things to continue been said in a context where their meaning and weight are understandable. The preservation (or perhaps the reconstruction) of this space concerns everyone, including those who work in the fields of education, social work, and civil commitment. Too often we are uncritically playing with the platforms of social communication, with the understandable desire to reach an audience. Too often we throw ourselves into the most noticeable debates, perhaps driven by the desire to contrast their prevailing opinions. The task of those who take care of the life of others in order to be understood requires a space that makes appreciable the dignity of any individual person and his destiny, the seriousness of life and his pain. All of this is not easily communicated while sharing the same speech as the merchant or the provocateur, even with good intentions. If you want the contents of the conversation to change, it is necessary to understand that the language, ways, and platforms of any conversation guide and determine these contents.
3-. The relationship between people. At the core of a reconsideration of communal life, a different look must necessarily be given to the human condition in a shared global space. Much has been said and written in recent weeks on the rediscovery of vulnerability as a decisive trait of humanity; therefore, also as a possible foundation for ethics of care and mutual responsibility, not only against the logic of profit or consumption, but also beyond the concepts of social justice focused only on the abstract issues of economic resources or civil rights.
This is not a matter of new debate, but a long, cultivated foreknowledge of personalist, communitarian, and feminist traditions that achieved worthy consideration these days. In recent decades, globalization processes have been based on a series of assumptions on a clear collision course with respect for the vulnerability of life.
The assumption that any physical body can be unlimitedly dislocate: so everyone's lives should be flexible, mobile, be found where market opportunities require it, also ready by adapting themselves to the conditions of competition.
The assumption of the unlimited interaction of bodies: for men and women, animal species, and goods of all types are necessary to interact everywhere with increasing frequency, always with fewer barriers of time and space.
These assumptions, whose unconditional acceptance was considered essential for the efficient functioning of global markets, now appear at the root of a very fragile system, inclined to get stuck as an undesirable effect just of its speed and ubiquity on the entire planet.
Our human bodies and the environmental “body” in which we live are vulnerable and exposed to this type of regime, and within a few weeks they made a local wound a worldly wound, leaving each one the task of finding a remedy, just when suddenly the global factory is struggling to guarantee goods and resources, putting a strain on political systems that are very different from one another in terms of culture and possibilities.
In these events, the self-destructive tendency of “waste culture”, of which Pope Francis often speaks, is revealed. A technical-economic system that does not take care of the limits and profound diversities of its people and their contexts of life, simply marginalizing them when they are not suitable for the efficiency of its functioning, will sooner or later collapse under the consequential weight of this lack of responsibility. Either vulnerability is always taken seriously in account, or it will return to make its inevitable implications felt on everyone’s life: it does cause concern for the extremely fragile mechanisms of production and world trade.