The Corona Virus and Post-Modernism
by Charles Ringma tssf

The longer COVID-19 continues its free-play throughout the world with its deeply-concerning attendant consequences, the more we are all realising that far more changes will most likely come our way than we had first anticipated.
Much of the present conversation around possible future change has to do with the impact of the vaccination roll-out and its long-term consequences, economic recovery, and work-related issues. There are voices heralding an increase in work-from-home practices, the move of people to regional centres where houses are cheaper and travel time to work is minimised, the probable much longer need for booster vaccinations, and on-going social distancing practices. And there is the growing possibility that more and more educational courses will only be available on-line.
However, I am suggesting that more profound changes will come our way, that call us to careful discernment.
I am proposing that this pandemic will white-ant the Western world’s post-modern perspectives.

While I have no intention of reiterating all that may belong to the post-modern banner, it is clear that this philosophy majors on personal perspectivism, relativism and experientialism, and lacks coherent frameworks of tradition, ethics, and action. Moreover, it rejects meta-narratives, critiques dominant power structures, and celebrates the marginal and contingent. All of this is certainly not all bad. In fact, the opposite is the case. It has certainly helped to create a more tolerant environment.

However, I wish to suggest that post-modernism is a luxury spawned in the Western world of plenty, freedom, and the pursuit of individual self-enhancement. But I suggest that this philosophy is not well-suited when it comes to major national and global crises.

Generally speaking, in times of crisis governments tend to be more interventionist, and the latent “cracks” within the social fabric of societies may well become more evident. They may become chasms.

This means that democratic processes may be weakened, that authoritarianism may be strengthened, that dictatorships may become more oppressive and that societies may lurch towards contemporary forms of fascism. At the very least, a major crisis highlights the great disparities in societies.

However, none of this needs to happen, even though it may.

Let me suggest what we may do in order to build a more just society that avoids the polarities of a laisser-faire way of life on the one hand and a more oppressive set of realities on the other.

First of all, it is important that we maintain and further create democratic societies where we maintain the balance of power between government, the judiciary, police and army, and all economic, social, and religious institutions. It is understood that all of these must maintain both high levels of public accountability, and seek to work as cooperatively as possible for the common good.

Secondly, the above scenarios are simply not possible when relativism reigns supreme. Thus, the challenge is to find an increasingly common narrative as what a just society that seeks the human flourishing of all, should look like. This means that a new public discourse needs to brought to the fore. Rather than petty party politics, and the clout of powerful economic entities, and the championing of provincial causes and issues, we need to regain debates that deal with overall well-being, justice, and social integration.

Thirdly, this means that we need to find a new hermeneutic where we recognise the limitations of our knowledge and ideological silos. Thus, we need to create communities of conversation rather than the present shouting past each other or the premature dismissal of the other.

Fourth, the consequence of this is that neither narrow political party concerns, the pressure of lobbyists, and the favouritism of the elite, should dominate. The concern of all and the mantra of the nation should be one of building a better future for all. And that includes not only all the citizens, but the newcomers and refugees who are seeking a homeland.

Fifth, it is rather obvious that mere strategies, pragmatics, and the neo-liberal focus on economics, will not be sufficient to build a better future. New symbols and sustainable values are needed to sustain the hard work of nation-building.

Every major crisis presents an opportunity. While the usual impulse is to go back to the old and while the wholly new is utopian and unrealistic, a crisis can be an unexpected mirror. It shows what we are capable of in working as cooperatively as possible. It also shows what we value. But it also highlights the disparities in our society. Thus, it highlights both new possibilities and our glaring needs that are often kept hidden and have certainly been neglected.
With multiple recent royal commissions into the church, the banks, aged care and other sectors of society, one thing is clear – our social institutions are in many ways ethically flawed. Given this disturbing reality, the solution is not simply more organisational efficiency and scrutiny. We need to recover the more basic human values of care, servanthood, self-sacrifice and a commitment to the commonweal that should characterise this commonwealth. By all means let us work for new policies and programs, but we need to become better human beings. And for that to take place we will need to face the difficult task of ideological and ethical formation. The kind of transformation that is implicit in such formation, is both one of truth-telling regarding past wrongs, processes of reconciliation and healing, strategies of cooperative learning and visioning, and a life-long implementation of the older mantras of love of neighbour, empowerment for the least, and service to all so that together we may live well in these challenging times of a pandemic, global warming, ecological destruction, vast social disparities, and changing empires.

Too many big issues face us. Our safety silos and echo chambers and our narrow political agendas will not serve us well in these circumstances. Communities of conversation may at the very least be a starting point for the “new” to emerge. And such communities need to face the past wrongs of colonialism and empire, the hubris of past narratives of dominance, and the present narratives of denial. At same time, such communities need to embrace present realities in humility and grief and face the future in hope that calls all to sacrifice and to work for the common, rather than the parochial, good. Doing this implies sacrifice on the part of all.

Charles Ringma, tssf.