Will the future be like the past? Making sense of experiences in and of the corona crisis

The world is a different place now. But what does that mean? In keeping with my previous posts, I want to think about the way we experience this situation. Binge-scrolling through expert advice, curves and numbers is important for assessing the situation and deliberating about forms of collective action. But at the same time, it is essential to understand one another and ourselves within this situation, to return from the third-person talk to the second and first person perspective. Thus, a crucial part of our thinking should be devoted to the various meanings of our experience. I speak of “meanings” in the plural for two reasons. On the one hand, I think our experiences of the situation vary quite a lot, such that the events we undergo mean different things for different people. So your social and economical situation, for instance, matters greatly in how you will feel and how your expectations take shape. Would I feel as balanced as I do, if I worked, say, in a bar? Or as a postdoc who is facing that my contract is running out soonish? Even if we’re likely facing an enormous global recession, the current stability still affects my being. On the other hand, and this is perhaps surprising, I have noticed that my very own experiences have different meanings even to me. Let me explain: I have now been staying mostly inside (with family) for a bit more than three weeks. Given that I often suffer from anxieties, I would have expected that the growing corona crisis would make me feel bad. But while I have clearly lost a sense of normality, this doesn’t exactly trouble me. I feel ok, perhaps even slightly more balanced than in the months before. For a while, I thought that’s quite surprising. But then I realised that this is true of a number of people. In fact, this morning I read an article according to which some psychologists report that a significant number of patients with depression or anxiety disorders find that their situation improved, paradoxically so. How can we make sense of such experiences? Is there a way of explaining the eerily positive attitude some of us have in this crisis? I’m no psychologist. But as a historian of philosophy I know something about the ways in which we relate to our histories and biographies. My hunch is that this kind of experience is partly determined by our beliefs about how much the future will resemble the past. While trying to explain this hunch a bit more, I’ll say how this might help in assessing conflicts between people with different ways of experiencing the crisis. Will the future resemble the past then? As we will see, this is not a question of (future) facts but of values.

Speaking to various people about the corona crisis, it seems that most conversation partners fall into one of two categories: (1) those who believe that we’ll be “going back to normal” at some point and (2) those who believe that the future will be fairly different from the past. Let’s call them continuists and discontinuists respectively. Continuists think that the future resembles the past, even after this crisis. Accordingly, they will try and prepare for the time after the crisis in much the same way they have pursued their goals before. By contrast, discontinuists assume that the future is not only uncertain but likely different from the status quo of the past. Accordingly, they cannot prepare by pursuing the same goals by the same means. They will expect having to adjust their means or even their goals.
The question whether historical events are continuous with past events or mean a disruptive change is hotly debated, because whether or not you see continuity or change depends what criteria you focus on. But for now I’m less interested in the theoretical issue. Rather, I’m wondering how our pertinent beliefs affect our experience. A wise friend of mine once said that our beliefs about the future shape the present, for instance, in that such beliefs guide our current actions. If that’s correct, then continuists and discontinuists will be preparing for different future scenarios. Of course, the question which future scenario is more likely is a rather pressing one. What (else) will this virus do to us? Will the economy break down completely? Will we have civil unrests, wars over resources? Like you, I’m interested in these things, but lacking relevant knowledge I have nothing to say about them. What I want to address here is how being a continuist or discontinuist relates to your experience of the current situation.

Now how does having one or the other attitude affect your experience? As a continuist who retains your goals you will likely want to stick to your strategies and go back to normal if possible. The current restrictions (contact restrictions or lockdowns) will probably feel rather disruptive. By contrast, a discontinuist might welcome the disruption as way of preparing for an uncertain future. So my guess is that there is a correlation between being a discontinuist and having a more positive attitude towards the disruptive measures. Let’s illustrate this idea with an example. A controversial issue that arises for many people around me is productivity. While some people readily give tips on how to successfully remain productive at the home office and quickly switch to things like online teaching, others see these outbursts of productivity as a problematic distraction from more pressing issues. They worry, for instance, that the switch to online teaching will worsen the standing of academic teaching or the exploitation on the job market.
My idea is that we can pair up the conflicting approaches towards productivity with attitudes about (dis)continuity. While a continuist will remain productive, a discontinuist will be suspicious of such productivity as it seems likely to be jeopardised by the changes ahead. This doesn’t mean that the discontinuist will stop being productive tout court. It just means that the discontinuist will likely want to prepare for adjusting the means or even the goals, rather than keep going as before.

As this example shows, there is not only a difference but also a conflict between continuists and discontinuists. If you currently google the keywords “coronavirus” and “productivity” and look at the headlines, you’re clearly listening in on a fierce dispute. Should you work on improving your productivity? Or should you redirect your focus on different priorities? Continuists often seem to experience the restrictions as if their lives have been put on hold. The crisis might be very disruptive, but by and large the goals remain intact. This might also be mirrored in different attitudes of students: If you are an ambitious student and a continuist, your priority might still be to pass your exams well and quickly. If your university cancels the regular classes and exams (rather than running them online), you will likely be annoyed or worried. By contrast, discontinuists seem to experience the restrictions as the onset or emergence of a new situation; they will likely try to adjust their goals in line with hopes or guesses about the outcome. If you are an ambitious student and a discontinuist, your priority might be to understand and prepare for the new situation. Your focus or interests might change and you might appreciate a pertinent adjustment of teaching rather than the pursuit of former goals.

As I see it, this kind of conflict is often misrepresented. It often seems to be presented as a quest for the right way of responding to the crisis. Thus, depending on the predominant attitude around you, you might see your own response as a failure. Surrounded by continuists, the discontinuist will feel like being not sufficiently productive. Surrounded by discontinuists, the continuist will feel like insufficiently adapting to the new situation that will arise. However, as I see it the conflict between these two stances is not about the facts of the crisis or the predictable future but about values. Let me explain.

As I see it, the question whether there is a continuity after the crisis is not one that could be established by looking at current or estimated future facts. It would be fallacious to think that there is a definite cut off point that distinguishes continuity from discontinuity. In other words, whether a crisis like this allows for going “back to normal” or is a pervasive disruption is not an empirical question. If the crisis has very dire consequences, you can still claim that we’re going back to a “very impoverished normal”. If the crisis is not too disruptive, you can still claim the world is altered, if mainly by the prospect of the crisis returning. So it is the other way round: First you claim that there is a continuity or discontinuity, and then you quote empirical facts for support.

If this is correct, what is it then that makes the difference between continuists and discontinuists? As I said it’s a question of values. If you largely accept the norms of the status quo before the crisis you will evaluate the predicted situation as a deviation from these norms and find points of impoverished continuity. However, the discontinuist will see the norms of the former status quo as undermined. In fact, this is what allows for seeing discontinuity. So the future scenarios discontinuists see are ones in which new norms are established. They will be what we often call a “new normal”, for better or worse. Such a new normal might include, for instance, the restrictions that we anticipated in view of anthropogenic climate change and the Paris Agreement. Seen in this light the current measures taken against the corona crisis might appear as being in line with new norms to be consolidated.

What does this mean for the eerily positive attitude that some of us experience? Once you recognise that the belief in discontinuity is a matter of value, it’s plausible to assume that what empowers (some) people is the necessitated change of norms during lockdown. So while it might be right that the positive attitude correlates with former states of anxiety or depression, it would be dangerous to confine this to a psychological question of individuals. We shouldn’t overlook the societal values going hand in hand with such empowerment. Seen in line with societal values, the disruption of the status quo is not merely destructive. It holds the possibility to establish norms more in line with what many of us might desire in light of the challenges we face, for instance, with regard to climate change. It doesn’t mean that this possibility will become true. But as long as we’re not hit by total disaster, there is hope.

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