Geoffrey Harpham:
Must Human Solidarity Take the Form of Isolation?

Last week, on my daily run through the woods, I saw a new sign:  “We’re all in this together.  Keep your distance.”  Which perfectly captured the moment, I thought, in the form of a paradox:  human solidarity must take the form of isolation. 

Of course, we enter and exit the world alone, but now we face the radical form of this existential truth, and must live alone during our human span as well.  With the limited capacity for abstract thought one can command while running, I made the switch to . . . social media.  “That’s exactly how social media is,” I reflected, “everyone is together, in one big community, but all socially distanced.  And now, the pandemic has made us realize that social media is a huge addictive disease.”  I finished the run in a state of grave concern about the fate of the world, but otherwise with great satisfaction, because I had come to a deeper understanding of this horrifying once-a-century, wholly anomalous, never-before-seen event.  In the current crisis, many things are uncertain, but one thing had become crystal-clear:  I was right all along.

Since that run, I have read a number of accounts of the meaning and ultimate effects of the pandemic, and I have discovered that I am complete agreement with all of them on one point:  the pandemic confirms our deepest convictions.  There are, to be sure, disagreements on a few of the details.  Some say it will destroy the EU, others that it will strengthen it; some, that it signifies the end of the Age of Trump; others, that his re-election is assured; some, that the fight against climate change has been superseded, others, that it has become all the more urgent; some, that the need for strong central controls has finally become self-evident, others, that federalism is now resurgent; some, that the fatal weakness of the global order has been revealed for all to see, others, that at last everyone recognizes that only global action can defeat global threats; some, that the event means the death of democracy, others, that it heralds the rebirth of democracy.  But these are small matters compared to the inspiring human solidarity displayed by thinkers of totally different persuasions.

Crises are, among other things, opportunities for education, but in this case—as in many others, come to think of it—what we seem to be learning is that there is nothing to learn that we did not already know.

April 17, 2020.

Geoffrey Harpham is a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University in Durham.  From Febuary to March 2019 he was a Guest at the IWM.

 

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