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Deadly Relativism

Nearly two weeks after Russia’s devastating invasion in Ukraine, a curious phenomenon is unfolding: Gradually but surely, Western folks seem to habituate with the increasing human suffering and bloodshed just outside the EU’s doorstep. Intervals between news updates become longer, terraces are filling up with smiling and chatting people, while just across the EU borders, Ukrainian children die of dehydration and hunger and civilians are tormented. The initial solidarity that was expressed by fellow Europeans is -wholly according to contemporary tenets- on the verge of becoming cynical. Upon seeing another bombed building we give a misanthropic sigh, turn away our heads, remark that ‘the world is rotten’ and return to our safe bubble of denial. Not only citizens explicate this attitude. Also NATO, the most powerful military alliance to date, has taken such a powerless stance.

The inclination to respond cynical to peril possibly serves as self protection, as is the tendency to compare incomparable conflicts to prove hypocrisy. General tendencies are to mirror the media attention to the Ukraine conflict to the one in Palestine, or cry that the US also invaded Iraq in 2003, and therefore loses its right to condemn Russia. In all these exclamations there might be a proportion of truth, but by now, there are no states left with a clear conscience. And instead of diminishing the ongoing misery, this relativism works counterproductive and merely paves the way to indifference. And it is exactly indifference that is in the advantage of the the world’s shift towards authoritarian totalitarianism; instead of becoming rebellious, we lean towards its opposite.

Underlying this lethargic indifference sits a certain nihilism. A dangerous belief that good and evil are no different from each other. That all is forlorn, all is chaos. Everyone is wrong, and everyone is right, depending the perspective. Perhaps it was the omnipresent safety in Europe, that made its citizens insensitive towards their own ideals and values; ironically the very basis on which its cherished safety is founded. Because if we zoom in at the state of Ukraine, we see a country that is attempting to escape the cynicism that dominates former USSR countries. A nation that is willing to leave behind its past and embrace democracy, displaying a militancy the EU can only hope for. The bravery of Ukraine against this ruthless aggressor reminds Europe of its own forgotten fundamentals, that’s why Ukraine could also count on widespread sympathy. They have what we lack. A sympathy, which is on the edge of turning cynical because of crooked comparisons to earlier wars, mostly to the self serving goals of the ones who make them.

Yet in the modern world, which is constituted by a dynamic of contradictions (Marshall Berman), hypocrisy is never far away and does not suffice as an argument for an empty nihilism. One who claims to never have been hypocrite, is hypocrite. Preceding unfairness likewise, does not legitimize new unfairness. If Europe still contains ideals indeed, hypocrisy must be subordinated to our norms and values, otherwise our existence will soon be illegitimate. A Europe like that, dissolving in relativism, will be food for the mouth of indifference, cynicism; for gloomy regimes like Russia’s. It needs to formulate its values well and defend them like Ukraine does for us now.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2022. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photo credit: Benjamin Marder.

The Great Depression

This short essay is an attempt to explicate the human damage this ravaging ‘battle’ against a virus is causing. The piece explores possible causes and maintaining factors from a psychological angle and inquires adherent questions philosophically. In short: how did we get caught in a spiral of sameness? What makes this crisis seem perpetual? And to what degree does this relate to depression?

Fishing Therapy

His eyes are endless. The emptiness within, boundless. Somber, with an indifferent countenance, he stares down a muddy pond, behind which a busy highway is rushing. Above the old, unshaven man hovers an impenetrable grey sky, reflecting his inner state seamlessly. He throws in his fishing line and remarks: ‘this is the only thing I still look forward to’. Some ten other men alike are lined up along the shoreline, staring at the still water, having something in common: they suffer from depression. Fishing is their therapy. For some, it is the only reason to keep on living. 

In current modern society, depression is widely prevalent and growing. Suicides have multiplied. Amongst the elderly, the youngsters and even children, it spreads rapidly. It may be closely entwined with the increase of loneliness in recent years and the dissolution of the traditional community without an adequate replacement. One thing is evident nonetheless; that inasmuch as we are better at expanding and extending our lifetime, we became worse in actually spending that lifetime. The excess of free time even became an enemy. Insofar that some, more tragically, decide to end life themselves, for they cannot believe any change is at hand. 

Psychologically, depression is a way of dealing with peril that goes awry; a personal strategy to remain mentally healthy that leads to its very opposite. It usually begins as a reaction to life’s turmoil, such as a lockdown or social isolation. By cognitively presuming that these events will continue eternally, by mentally painting life black, one may anticipate more dark times ahead. A form of self protection, you might say.

There’s another good reason for this. People are in dire need of control, to have a grip on their life and oversee things, in order to feel well. And indeed, by picturing life as a bitter sequence of problems and darkness (based on past events), one may be one step ahead of misery. Continually bracing yourself for incoming gloom. This strategy makes life, despite the misery, appear at least manageable.

But after a while of doing so, this grim attitude will become the new mental default setting. It will surpass its own goal and become clinical; emotions are less bright, moods are bitter, nightmares recur. Especially those with a more negative temper are prone to this, but it can happen to anyone who is exposed long enough to hopelessness and social deprivation. The depressed picture their life as a perpetual repetition of sameness. The time ahead becomes predictable and presumable, with no relief in sight. Like a tunnel without the light at its end. 

Life On Repeat

An effect of the fight against the physical pandemic is that it makes life appear like a repetition.  At first, persistent lockdowns, regulations, social distancing, polarization, alienation and the virus itself entice severe, returning stress reactions. Then, in headlines, on TV and on social media, at bus stops or in planes, even in the outer corners of the world, in Fiji or Phoenix or Indonesia, for two years already, one is reminded of the pandemic. From minute to minute, day in, day out, algorithms flow into each other almost seamlessly, stringing together the news into a constant stream of misery, arresting its audience in a lethal routine. 

Symbols, visualizations, sounds, talks, masks, announcements are consistently recurring, restraining mental experience. We have narrowed down our vision into a tiny keyhole through which we look at the ‘world’. The expansiveness of human imagination, is cut off by a grand reduction of reality. In great fear of letting the virus escape our attention, we have relabeled a crisis into the crisis.  This crisis functions like a super-heavy black hole, drawing all other light from the horizon, making it incomprehensible to see beyond. Even climate change, a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions, became obliterated under the corona twilight. 

Particularly empowered by (social) media, it maintains the idea that the world is almost exclusively composed of the pandemic. And beyond that, there is merely nothingness. The perfect ingredients for mass depression. It painfully shows our inability to zoom out and place things into perspective. The corona routine has dramatically narrowed the scope through which the world is viewed. Swaying from wave to wave, lockdown to lockdown, it dictates our perception of time and space. For many, this monotony may be extrapolated or biased towards other domains of life, sometimes leading to severe depression and even suicide. This is the reason for many to go astray, exiting their country or life itself. Not to ignore the rules, but to try and escape what is almost inescapable. 

‘The’ Crisis Doesn’t Habituate

After some decades of relative inertia, humanity was given a striking reminder of its own natural mortality. This painful realization has -perhaps- enticed a sense of helplessness, which is a key element for depression. Indeed, the inconceivable truth of having no or limited control over the situation plunged many countries into a deep collective depression. Subsequently, the assumed way of restoring that control is by becoming obsessed with the subject; continuously testing, checking, analysing and monitoring even its tiniest change; becoming pragmatic instead of visionary; introducing rigid rituals to maintain the idea of having a grip on something uncontrollable. 

Ironically, the more humanity gets obsessed with one particular subject, the more it fails to see beyond and place it into perspective, which intensifies the depression once more. Gradually and very subtly, we become imprisoned in the penitentiary we’ve built around ourselves. And life’s colors slip away from us, while we’re busy chasing and hunting the subject of our obsession.

So why can’t we get used to the pandemic, so that it doesn’t dominate mental experience as much? The modern citizen is unfortunately not granted a breakaway from stubborn pandemic updates; he or she is encircled by screens that disturb serenity with real time crisis reminders from across the planet, all the time. The commandment to stay home and the reduced social circumstances empower the time spent checking the news and live blogs, because of which, again, one repeats the same cycle: scrutinizing the same subject. The current individual has got caught in a treadmill of over-analyzing, over-thinking, and over-worrying.

One-sided information in such abundance contributes to deceiving and distorted thinking patterns that barely reflect reality. Paradoxically, the information source we use to estimate the remaining duration till the end of the crisis, is also responsible for prolonging that (psychological) duration. Possessing modern streaming and communication technologies, the defining trait of this crisis is its power to continuously justify and refresh its own existence. By constant refreshment and renewal through worldwide media updates, it stays forever young, and doing so, keeps us forever engaged. 

Hollow Shells

Another effect of overly fixating on the pandemic is that complex humans have been stripped down to potential virus carriers: simplified to hollow, soulless shells with throats for swab tests and arms for jabbing and faces for covering. The rest became obsolete. When all is seen as a virological testing subject, the value of everything and everyone is therefore measured by its usefulness in relation to the virus; whether the presence of a thing or person is legitimate fully depends on its infection risk. Social gatherings, for instance, pose a bigger infection threat than no gatherings, thus are restricted. Affection and closeness? Dangers that should be avoided. Simple as that. Psychological, cultural, spiritual, social, religious, and even economic factors are left out. Crude, like an entire chicken farm that needs to be annihilated after one case of bird flu, has been located. 

This orthodox corona moral was widely endorsed at the promise of physical safety. Indeed, physical safety is a fundamental human need. Therefore, a strict set of enforced or unspoken social rules were adopted, rules that relabelled human touch, proximity and sociability as hazards. It’s a normative standard that identifies our fellow beings as a direct (and only) risk for dying. Ignoring objectivity, other essential psychological needs have become taboo, for they now imply only hazard and fear. And, death. There has been an astonishing willingness to accept a pale life of misery, of social distance and coldness, just to decrease the chance of infection by decimals, if at all. Opposing these stringent norms means asking to die, is the consensus. And, a reason to be called an idiot. The orthodox vision cannot accept that there are different perspectives on what can be called ‘a healthy life’. It diligently states that simply being virus-free equals health, period, at the costly expense of other essential needs. 

A Look Forward

After two years of ‘reduced circumstances’, it’s inevitably time to welcome life’s lush complexity again; we need to let go of the virus. Primarily, the installed taboos need to be breached to restore human bonds. Scary as it may sound, people need to learn to embrace each other again without compunction. Nonetheless, wounds in human connection, and in mutual faith run deep, and they might take years to heal. In order to furthermore delay an epidemic of depression, a common hopefulness should replace the collective hopelessness.

The pandemic should settle down as one shade, perhaps a darker color, on an overarching palette that represents life as a vivid, inconceivable colorized spectrum. The hollow shell that we’ve become, needs to be inhabited once again. Humanity never progresses without risk, or by being obedient to the rules. It progressed because it left behind old dogma and replenished itself. At this point, this is the task we’re confronted with, are we to prevent an enormous wave of depression.

Nevertheless, outside the boundaries of depression, outside those dispiriting headlines, graphs and numbers, still lies that lucid world in all its splendor. In all its wonder and amazement. Unchanged, impatiently waiting to be rediscovered. 

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2022. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Dashboard Society

Dystopia Unfolding As We Stand and Watch

Obsessively busy with eliminating a permanent virus, one might almost forget that society is gradually reshaping into forms beyond imagination. For soon only a plain truthful description of our world is needed to set the gritty mood of a classic dystopian novel (though for some it may feel like a utopia). The repression against the unvaccinated increases as fast as it decreases for the vaccinated. On the other hand, the vaccinated ones are in fear of losing their short-lived privileges.

”I’m more afraid of the measures than of the virus itself” – Anonymous quote, taken from a comment section.

Austria has the doubtful honor of being the first EU country where unvaccinated (or, displeasing) people are entirely excluded from social activities by means of a QR code. Not even a negative test will allow them to participate in social life, such as going to the hairdresser or visiting public places. It’s a rapid dissolution of ethical standards and constitutions that were considered immovable just a few months ago.

As the Netherlands is heading in the same direction as Austria, it is noteworthy how little resistance it evokes among citizens. The narrative of fear, which has been imposed on citizens since the very beginning, still seems to effectively maintain a state of panic.

The fixation now seems to move from trying to control the virus, towards controlling the population, towards controlling the individual, in a hopeless attempt to exterminate corona. As we will see further in this piece, it is in fact an attempt to quench the dashboard’s thirstiness.

It’s not the quiet, unchallenging epochs of peace when everyone enjoys a quiet comfort-coma, but it is in times of heavy turmoil, that the real dignity of a nation is disclosed; in economic crises, in pandemics or in wars. Infection rates have reached 19.000 per day at this moment. So, how far will we go if the numbers will multiply? And multiply again? Where will this string of events end? 

People As Dependent Variables

Personally, it feels like there won’t be an end, but rather a beginning. A dashboard society, which we are becoming, needs knobs to twist whenever it wishes. This type of society came into being because of the myriads of data that are continuously collected. Infection rates, death rates, human movement, behavior, opinions.

All these variables allow us to monitor every tiny movement or change in society, insofar as it has created the idea of a controllable dashboard. Yet, what makes the reliability of this notion highly doubtful, is that statistical data are never absolute, since they depend on the values used, the data input and interpretation.

Nonetheless, relying on a dashboard is very alluring during times of peril. Like a car or an airplane, it endeavors to turn on and off certain switches when the situation demands it. Having access to so much data, this type of society wants to regulate, control and steer the effect of all its components, separately or apart.

Human behavior is one of the data variables that requires ‘adjustment’ here and there, to please the dashboard’s parameters. The behavior-reward construct of QR codes; (access to social life) as a condition for good behavior (taking a vaccine), is a classic example of direct operant conditioning. 

Even though they’re often blamed, ministers or the parliament aren’t the real leaders of a dashboard society. They merely fulfil the thankless task of hiding the unethical side-effects under a pile of euphemisms. There is also no great reset or a dark elite that wants to rule us all. No, the true determinants of current lives are the numbers that appear on the dashboard screens, and whether they’re satisfying or not, depending on the goal. An undesirable set of data can lead to intervening in another set of data to reach the desired numeric goal. Human consideration is chiefly bypassed.

In other words: when infections increase, vaccinations must increase to balance it; and QR codes to ‘steer’ people’s decision making in a way that the ‘right’ numbers appear on the dashboard. As observed from the dashboard, this is the one and only way.

The Programmable Human Being

At the beginning of the pandemic, this behavioral component was not that sophisticated yet, wherefore we needed to lock down entire cities in order to satisfy the statistics on the dashboard. Understandably exhausted from lockdowns, citizens have made themselves part of the dashboard, by installing a seemingly harmless app on their phones.

Meanwhile, they have allowed a statistical framework to begin to master their behavior, beginning by becoming a dependent variable on the corona-dashboard. Indeed, seen from this angle, the vaccinated QR users are very right when they say they have offered a sacrifice. But no one knows how big this sacrifice -in potential- really is. It’s a first exploration of the programmable human being. An exploration, because the mechanism scans how far it can go with conditioning and programming ‘good’ human behavior, so that it becomes predictable on the dashboard. Thus far, developments show that there is no clear limit to the integration of people into the dashboard.

When proven effective (and it will, because it sets and measures its own goals), it might extrapolate to other life areas that it seeks to control. Tax payment or civil obedience, for instance, might be upcoming determinants for privileges such as access to events, bars or restaurants. You wouldn’t like to sit in a restaurant full of tax avoiders or disobedient citizens, right? So by the time such a thing is to be implemented, we’re so used to it that we’d think it a plausible plan for retaining a common good.

That the QR users live under the grace of an app, doesn’t mean they’re freer than the ones who don’t. In contrast, they have submitted themselves to the machine -if I may borrow this term from E.M Forster-  and are rewarded for it with conditional freedom, at least for now, until the meters on the dashboard decide it is time for a third or a fourth or even fifth jab to reach its statistical ideal.

The philosophical question of whether such an invasive instrument is desirable, or would contribute to a better life, has neither been asked nor answered. Like other modern innovations in a technocracy, it seems to be always accepted out of ‘necessity’. Stringently they invade and then dictate our lives as if there could’ve been no alternative whatsoever. So these innovations always appear out of the blue, without being interrogated critically. And that’s worrying because the decision regarding its presence in human lives seems to escape human (democratic) scrutiny.

© Stefan Hoekstra /The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Future Of Fun and Risk

In a risk-avoiding society, what will be the future of plain fun? Is there still a place for unchallenged fun when one of its important conditions -risks- are sought to be eliminated? 

Fun might be quite an oblique term that’s hard to generalize. But derived from personal experience, I still make an attempt on doing so. Fun can only, is my guess, thrive in a state of being rather carefree, which lies close to being careless. It’s a disposition of boundlessness, wherein one can let go of the regulations and boundaries that characterize its opposite: predictability. It is also, perhaps, a gap or a break away from repetitive routine. Creating such a break from, predictable routine life generally involves at least some sort of risk; the risk to let go -for a comprehensible period of time- of some of the responsibilities that are the conditions for that predictability. 

But here’s the conflict: technocracies endeavour safety and predictability. Improved conditions in modern societies increasingly reduce the extent to which we are familiar with the risk of the unexpected, including the risks that are inherent to life itself, such as death, misfortune, illness, agony, heartbreak and misery, which can strike at any given moment. 

Despite all the good intentions, the sense of safety has alienated the modern individual from the gritty but core aspects of life. In contrast, modern developments enable us only to avoid, or better said, to postpone the risks of life, rather than exterminate them. Yet, for understandable reasons, the current notion seems to sustain that societies actually can exterminate risks and optimize safety. And along with our separation from risks, our perception of fun is changing. The type of fun that is allowed to persevere is calculated, controlled and virtually riskless. 

‘Calculated fun’, might, in the nearby future fully replace the old-fashioned ‘Boundless fun’. Whereas the last-mentioned may represent spontaneity, adventures and the irregular violation of the law, ‘calculated fun’ is a surrogate duplication that happens in a safe and controlled setting. It offers a simulation of the thrills and experiences we used to experience in old times.

Escape Room

An escape room could be an example of such a surrogate form; a paid activity in which one experiences the thrill of an escape, but is devoid of the risks that are involved in a real manhunt.  ‘Boundless fun’ might involve perpetrating a restricted area with a group of friends, followed by being chased by some guards, and of course, the risk of getting caught. Climbing on a roof to get the best view, is another example of a risky, and therefore, worthy venture. ‘Boundless fun’ has higher risks but higher rewards and better stories afterwards. 

The war against risks has a peculiar outcome; having reduced or postponed so many risks seems to make us only less resilient against disturbances or threats to safety. It has caused fewer risks, threats or disturbances to be needed for more severe distress on an individual and collective level. In other words, we’re not used to unexpected, uncontrolled events anymore, hence the need to enhance the levels of control. So when deviations do occur, what follows is an even greater attempt to control these events.

Heading towards a risk-free society?

Ideally, risks (or dangers) are entirely erased from the face of the earth. Our distance to unpredictability causes the modern world to exist in an ever-accumulating sense of control, more and more unable to handle discordance. And technology is a great helping hand when it comes to surveillance and control. Naturally, it is the question of whether improved technology was responsible for multiplied forms of control or vice versa.

Illustrative for the influence of technology is how we have surrendered to numbers (or data), and how we almost beg them to dictate our lives in a compulsive way. Catching data in statistical analyses have helped mankind predicting certain trends in societies, or explaining certain patterns, thereby fueling the assumption that what is analyzed can also be controlled, simply by twisting a knob here and there. Albeit for corporate, political or scientific purposes, the insatiable hunger for data demonstrates the extent to which the technocratic system tries to annihilate everything that disrupts it.

In a society of surrogate risks and controlled fun, expanding control and diminishing space for unpredictability, how will humanity face new disturbing events? It will probably seek to control what it can control: itself and its adherents. It will also allow itself fewer space to be reckless, careless and carefree. It is unforgiving and there can be no trial and error; mistakes are taken seriously. As a consequence, individual lives may start to feel suffocating, with excessively violent behaviour as an inevitable outlet. 

This paradox can be well illustrated by means of recent misbehaviour in football stadiums after months of being restrained by lockdowns and other limitations. To a similar extent, intensifying control is nourishing conspiracy movements who see it as a mere confirmation of their prophecies. Thus, the current technocratic mechanism can be an explaining factor when it comes to radicalization in certain groups, but more strikingly: as a mechanism that is becoming its own worst enemy.  

© Stefan Hoekstra /The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Reflecting On Social Media

The current crisis has cleared the road for social media to incise further and deeper into social life. After corona’s final nudge, social media’s unstoppable advancement seems self-evident. Critique, regarding modern technology has shifted rapidly from philosophical to pragmatical. From ‘why do we need it?’ to ‘how do we successfully implement it?’.

Time for the social writer to shift back gears, question the topic in itself and revise some of its sly unintended outcomes. These are earnest effects on the psyche that are difficult to disclose, as the frame of reference became undetectable by the perfunctory yet lyrical reception of another deliberate digital immersion.

The Digital Paradox

It can strike out of the blue. Perhaps during a calm Sunday walk. Or while spending a breezy day by the sea, trying to escape the online world. But promptly it imposes itself. An uneasy restlessness, maybe discontentment. Missed messages, e-mails, news feeds. Perhaps that upcoming zoom meeting. Online matters that disturb the real-life, ending the serenity as they surface from the subconscious; worries that arise out of the archives of our mind, where they continually reside.

The conscious swiftly detects all the information that could be processed. Then there might be panic. Fear, taking over. Digital opportunities lay thereabouts, stored gigantic data centers, but remain ungratified. It’s alluring, even compelling to give in to its temptation, and grab the phone to quench the digital thirstiness, unlocking yet another problem.

For this submission doesn’t upheave the ongoing uneasiness. In contrast. Vice versa, the mechanism seems to work just the same; feelings of guilt appear when reeling through the superfluous news feed, aware that physical (offline) life passes by meanwhile. Offline-life and its digital counterpart seem to balance each other in a mentally destructive status quo. Frankly, none of the two activities can actually be undertaken independently, free from some sort of sorrow in relation to the other.  

One explanation I’d like to pose might have to do with a simple yet striking paradox, which probably originated at the point when online and physical life had grown equally significant. Roughly, this unprecedented historical marker can be pinned at around 2010. It turned out to be a point of no return. 

After this dichotomy had taken place, life was sliced into two. Social technology ceased to be a mere tool to serve ‘real’ life. Its successful campaign was thought unstoppable. To an equal extent, ‘real’ life started to serve social media. And that’s where the paradox commenced. Because these different lives can, however much we like to believe it, impossibly be combined without entering a state of constant discordance. Out of the blue, there were two worlds that contain enormous significance for our identity, well-being and practical comfort. Using social media was not a choice any more. 

Held In A Stranglehold

Under the surface (and sometimes above), the online and physical world are in constant conflict. They are caught in fierce competition for human lifetime, which, unlike life’s environments, hasn’t multiplied. Who spends time online, pays for it with real life time.

Who spends real life time, pays for it with online time. In both cases, time cannot be retrieved. It’s spent and forever gone. And in both cases, one of the two worlds is excluded. This conflict may bring forth a constant state of incongruence, for one brain cannot live in two worlds simultaneously without a sacrifice.

It doesn’t end there. Inasmuch as the human identity may have multiplied, the ancient physique remains singular. Insecure as it is, the human mind is still attempting to resolve the conflict. Some indulge themselves in the digital world by, for example, excessive gaming. Opposers might fully reject technology and choose digital exile.  

But for the masses, ordinary people, the offered solution only seems to worsen the problem. When attentive in one world, the mind is trying to assert what might be happening in the other, and conversely. This contradiction creates the odd disposition in which the brain is actually in none of these worlds. Neither online, nor in real life. Both digital and physical, the lives lived barely become palpable enough to entice a sense of completeness.

The concept of FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, hits the spot, yet it falls short. The concept should be perceived in a way broader, far-going sense. For it is a constant restless state, not an incidental fear. The missing out is real. 

The Good Sides

Of all possible addictions, social media must be the most widely integrated and accepted one. Every new technology has, in essence, good sides and bad sides. And it is often the good sides that make us forgive its bad sides. Supporters claim that we would never have mentally coped with the corona lockdowns without online communication tools, which sounds plausible on the surface. Yet, these lockdowns and perhaps the entire crisis would not have lasted this long without such technologies.

Without video-calling for instance, society would come to a complete halt, annihilating social, political and economical spheres. Instead, the western society would’ve had no other choice than to acquiesce with corona’s risks, as seen in the economically less fortunate parts of this world. In this sense it is tricky to praise technology -and essentially everything else- as merely positive: it has suppressed our suffering, but it has also prolonged it.

© Stefan Hoekstra /The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Header photo: Gian Cescon

Modern Conversations, Ancient Philosophy

Conversating for the sake of conversating; chatting with no specific endeavor. For such -seemingly aimless- talks, there’s no room in modern dialogue . In a competitive meritocracy, being well-opinionated is thought inevitable in regard to almost every topic. And certainly, most certainly not to show any doubt in one’s opinion.

Instead, the current approach seeks to defend personal notions till the last shred of blood, with the support of arguments in abundance. To stand your ground, loaded with empirical and statistical frameworks, that serve as ammunition against the views of opposers. Indeed, as being an autonomous and well-educated grown up, it must be exasperating and indignating when proven -slightly- wrong.

The opinionated approach could work well in the political arena, wherein popularity prevails over truth. But when practiced to excavate original thoughts, its rigidity can turn out to be rather compelling. Having an immovable opinion aims not to increase mutual knowledge, but seeks to stick with the subjective view of oneself. In all its pretentious ambition it prefers to convince others, which is as impossible as it sounds. And when others deploy the same strategy, nothing is achieved but an awkward silence. Any valuable or original knowledge suffers a premature death. What could’ve been an intellectual thought exchange between two mature people, might regress into a malicious, infantile dispute.

To prevent catastrophic escalation, both sides may decide on an unsatisfying cease fire. They would ambitiously try to lift the conversation into more superficial areas, before the emotions set in. But after a vicious dueling with words, diplomatic relations may be irreparable. Possibly, one of the offended parties might even storm out of the arena, leaving both misunderstood and hurt, and definitely reluctant for another chat. Well, at least none of the opinionated strongholds had surrendered. 

It all raises one rhetoric question. When in dialogue, one’s opinion is already unchangeable at the outset, what then, is the purpose of the dialogue itself? In such a case, the ‘dialogue’ is in truth nothing more than two deaf speakers promoting their own dogmatic opinion without rebuttal. It appears steadfast like a rock and ironically leaves no room for the core pursuit of both conversationalists: understanding this complex world (and ourselves) a little bit better. 

An Ancient Solution

Thankfully, there’s a gentle alternative. In ancient Greece they were rather good at it: philosophizing. It’s a less aggressive way of exchanging thoughts, demanding patient acceptance. And, if feasible, a warm roman bath.

The relationship between contemporary dialogue and philosophical reasoning has become quite problematic. In these hasty times, where fastness, profit and decisiveness are demanded to stand a chance, serious philosophizing has no place. It would steal too much precious time.

More than before, philosophizing is seen as something superfluous which, at most, could be saved for the tipsy talks in a murky bar. But in what follows, I will set out how this ancient practice can be the saviour of contemporary conversations. 

Foremost, philosophizing is team-work. As Socrates already understood two-thousand years before these ‘advanced’ times, a hard-fought victory doesn’t have to be the prime condition for a talk to be fruitful. In fact, it often proves to be entirely useless to try and convince another. The aim of philosophizing is, in contrast, to merge the thoughts and curiosity of both sides in order to grow wiser together.

Setting doubt and scepticism as a common starting point, the twofold performance of philosophizing aims to declutter complicated matters in a way that’s advantageous for both sides. What makes this additionally interesting is that its accepting approach uncovers and deepens the level of intimacy between two people. In other words: the outside word cannot be understood without exploring the inner world. Ruthless squabbling over an opinion becomes obsolete, as the cooperation makes rigid opinions become inoperative.

It is curious towards the origins of stringent, protective feelings. The gentle and respectful process soothes the emotional need to protect oneself, after which the mind begins questioning its own dead-locked notions. As such, it clears the way towards a deeper understanding of each other and the world.

This way of talking might reveal a whole range of new perspectives, thoughts and insights. And even without a definite outcome, the act of philosophizing itself can be experienced as sincerely pleasant, for the mind is thoroughly instigated by each other’s shared critical yet respectful attitude towards the same inquisition.

The purpose of philosophizing is therefore not to disagree and convince another, or to make a quick decision; the purpose is to set up a shared cause in search for deeper knowledge.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Crisis Morality: A Short Essay

A kind of tiredness that cannot be resolved by sleep. 

How long can humanity still hold on? The crisis has lasted for around one year now. Personally speaking, psychological resources are nearing a rapid dissolution. Fierce headaches, nightmares and fatigue are besieging my wellbeing. But the worst of all is the plain indifference that’s been holding me in a tight grip over the last month or so. My future self may not believe so, but this enormous, world-scale catastrophe, is gradually becoming the most boring, uninteresting and routine part of my life. 

Conditional Hope

Hope does not console when it is conditional, when it instantly needs to concede a wish for change. Hungry for hope, society sways from press conference to press conference, frozen in an utmost boring and predictable regime: numbers rise, more measures, numbers drop, less measures. If virology isn’t your thing, these times are anything but intriguing. Every month or so, the expected measures are conveyed to ‘the nation’ in a patronizing manner through an equally tedious press conference by a dispiriting prime-minister who lacks vision and imagination. 

As always, the nagging cliche ‘Only together we’ll get control over corona’, laughs at you from the pamphlets of the press conference room. But the ungratified hope has made this unrealistically militant phrase sound ironic by now; like an army general who still believes in victory, not knowing that he’d lost all his troops. Perhaps they need to come up with a new one and add some nuance. ‘Only together we’ll maybe, with luck, get control over corona’, might represent reality better. 

After having seen 835483 of suchlike press conferences – I try to avoid it at all cost- they can merely, with difficulty, squeeze out a cynical grin on my face, while sighing lethargy. Newsreaders on the other hand, tell about the tiniest crisis developments. They do so in an unsuitable uplifting tone of voice; British variant, mutation of the British variant, mutation of the mutation of the British variant and so on. 3rd, 4th, or 50th wave. It cannot engage me any more.

The Lower Compartments

Yet it helps to apply some sort of philosophy to this brain-melting crisis. For there is only one reason that people swallow this way of living -which can hardly be called living. It’s simply because they can still bear with it. Our psychological bunkers are damaged, but haven’t been destroyed just yet. Meanwhile, signs of erosion are slowly presenting themselves. And erosion usually starts at the bottom. At the lowest layer of our society to be exact. As always in human history, it’s the poor who suffer first; One hundred years later, we’re still aboard the Titanic, categorized by the sizes of our wallets.

The noble idea is that society strives to protect the vulnerable ones. We must pauze our lives in favor of the most vulnerable. But ‘vulnerable’, here, is in the physical sense: It implies the elderly, the sick and the weak. But the economically vulnerable ones on the other hand, crammed in small flats with entire families, remain unnoticed. They are locked in the lower compartments of the 2021 Corona Titanic.

But when they suffocate and try to break out, they are arrested, put in jail, publicly condemned and shamed for their behaviour. A more interesting question; not if but when, will the ‘higher economic classes’ try to break free and flee the sinking ship. And will the retaliations be similarly severe?  In another metaphor: when will the bunker’s higher parts start to erode? It’s only a matter of time. 

Temporality Morality

In addition to the previous note, I’d like to emphasize the frailty of normative structures by which we measure good and evil. Recent riots as an answer to the curfew demand a closer examination of crisis morality. For morally condemning an act according to man made ethics will always be faulty to some extent. One cannot have moral judgements about past (or future) events, based on today’s morality, without harming the truth. Those who fully supported the corona measures last year, but have reconsidered their opinion today, are not hypocrite or contradictory, or ignorant to the threat.

Liquid Virtue

They have simply shifted their principles alongside dynamic crisis developments. Norms and values are superfluous and deserve a healthy dose of scepticism. The rioters who’ve set the Netherlands in fury and flame after the dubious implementation of a curfew are condemned today, but might be understood tomorrow.

We mustn’t forget that we rely on a changeable set of fleeting, fluid normative structures, invented by imperfect species (humans). Morality has no ties with any natural order. Virtues are not infinite or universal, not even international. This sort of easy shifting might seem both terrifying and liberating; We claim to disregard violence in itself, label young protesters as ‘criminals’, but make an exception for police violence. Football hooligans on the other hand, who ‘helped the police’, become heroes. 

A Choice

Another example; an authoritarian regime might sound unthinkable in the Netherlands. Yet we live deliberately under such a regime right now.Every few weeks, the cabinet might decide regulations that affect our lives more and more severely, and of which the subsequent political debate is purely theatrical. For indeed, all regulations are implemented out of ‘inevitable (technocratic) necessity’. Discussion, the foundation of democracy, seems therefore obsolete. The political arena is surpassed. We live in an empty shell of what once could be called ‘democracy’. And we are (still) alright with it. 

But it’s only the government’s promise of temporality which allows people to acquaint themselves with this more and more restricted life. Normative shifting goes almost unnoticed, perhaps in a way that the so-called decent people will be protesting themselves when time and psychological exhaustion will grant them the possibility. Will they, then, be condemned by their past selves? It is good to remember that all of it is a choice, be it political or social. The reaction to the virus remains an intentional human choice. 

© Stefan Hoekstra & Marina Pribylskaia/The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photo Credit: John Webster

Corona Diary #9

Stay safe, stay (physically) healthy. Written on 09-01-2021.

The above-mentioned cliche still loudly reverberates from last year. A particular kind of health is meant here, since societies have fixated most of their efforts on harboring physical health, but have undervalued mental wellbeing. As mental health is declining rapidly, we’re facing a very crude choice: mental health versus physical health. 

We’ve entered a rather curious phase under the corona reign. Its last breath is at hand, if we must believe optimistic virologists. But in contrast to the cheerfulness about ongoing vaccinations, a swift end to the pandemic may be found downright unimaginable; at the doorstep of our long awaited liberation, corona bashes upon us at the peak of her power. 

Record breaking infection rates have unlocked another series of relentless lockdowns and curfews, that ought to strip life from all its pleasure and distraction, hence ensuring minimal social contact. 

Parks are possibly the best places to observe whether citizens indeed comply with these relentless measures or not. And an afternoon stroll through an Amsterdam park reveals to me more than a thousand statistics; they do not. Visitors clutter together in large flocks despite a bitter windchill and the threat of being infected. Moreover, inhabitants seem to embrace a rather bohemian lifestyle; they’re dancing in the eye of the corona storm, and take the risks for granted. 

United in their hunger for sociability, crowds crack open bottles of beer or inhale the intoxicating fumes from a joint, stand in long queues towards Glühwein stalls and laugh their sorrows away with strangers. Spontaneous and carefree scenes, smiles on many faces, uplifted chatter. The behavior doesn’t arise from denial or stupidity; it is, especially in this phase, an inevitable necessity. After one year of being bombarded by inescapable corona news, hooking our attention into every tiny development, these can only be conscious, well weighed decisions. A heartbreaking dilemma between one’s own mental health or the physical health of another.  

During the first wave, the task seemed feasible, the strong must protect the weak, simply by staying indoors and avoiding contact. Yet, growing disobedience proves indeed that after a year of neglected social needs, the mental capacity to fulfill our duty is evaporating. The source of psychological resilience, of human closeness, has been exhausted at last. Mental illness is lurking, and has become equally threatening as its physical counterpart. 

Contrary to Camus’ description of The Plague, in which Oran is slowly dying from unknown and superior enmity, we are in a crisis that obviously feeds itself on social interaction. To retain good mental condition, togetherness is a key component, especially amidst fearful times. Mental vitality is an often underestimated, nonetheless unmissable precondition in order to win any physical battle. Tragically, it is this subtle individual nuance, untouched by statistics, that has perished at this crucial point. At the moment we need it the most. 

Cover art: Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876. Public Domain. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2021. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Corona Diary #8

The waterbed-effect, Written on 21-12-2020

Lately I’ve been searching for a comfortable bed that would suit my new apartment. It wasn’t easy. There’s a vast multitude of beds and mattresses, ranging from simple wooden frames to fairy tale princess beds that would only fit if you’d own a castle. During the hunt for a bed, I began to notice the absence of something reasonably common in my childhood, and considered an item of sheer luxury: the waterbed. 

This wobbly bag filled with water promised its customers the most comfortable and healthy night’s rest one could imagine.  Being a kid, its curious workings had always intrigued me. In shops, I would jump onto it, observing the flow of water shifting towards the other side, from where an imaginary person would be launched into the sky; the water needs to go somewhere.

Why am I talking about waterbeds? Well, a high speed train of thought made me connect it to the current management of the corona crisis, somehow. A second lockdown has been implemented for a week now. It’s more rigorous than the previous one in April, which still allowed some sort of human gatherings. 

Now, all public places have shut down for five weeks, except life supply shops. The maximum group size is two people. Christmas is cancelled, new year’s eve paralyzed. Yet, as research (my empiric personal observation) shows, the second lockdown doesn’t generate the effect as did the first one, despite being the strictest lockdown since the crisis began. There’s no spine chilling silence that dominates the streets, like in April. People go out and about. 

Undoubtedly, many of us are complacent and follow the rules obediently. But the willingness has notably decreased with this second lockdown. Like the distribution of water in a bag, people seem to disperse wherever the government puts the pressure. The water doesn’t disappear, it relocates elsewhere. After the closure of nearly everything, the remaining leisure is illegal partying, coffee for takeaway or obsessive grocery shopping. And that’s how people omit the rules and concentrate elsewhere.

Spending money, shopping and eating out are the collective coping techniques of our capitalist society. They have become the means by which our stressed mind relieves its pressure; that’s the circle of our economy. Still, politicians were staggered, even outraged that a record-breaking amount of people ignored the rules for a bargain hunt on Black Friday, or about crowds attending the IKEA for obsolete items and swedish meatballs. The water needs to go somewhere. 

But what if the pressure gets too big and the water cannot go anywhere? As a kid, I often wondered what it might look like when the waterbed would rip apart because of excessive weight. I imagined how it would explode. It was a most harrowing idea, knowing that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night, drifting in your bedroom surrounded by floating IKEA miscellaneous.

Warned by such ominous depictions, my choice fell upon a pocket foam mattress. And I would recommend Dutch policy-makers to change to a more resilient foam mattress too, instead of relying on a market based, consumer oriented waterbed. It’ll enhance their good night’s rest!

Photo credit: Ameen Fahmy

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Fluid Society Note: The Dutch Housing War

Preface

Since corona and the liquidity of modern life are so intertwined, I found it necessary to start this separate diary which focuses more on the poignant effects of the current society, in which we often feel estranged from the objects and subjects that surround us. An inconceivable society wherein nothing seems to be constant and stable.

It tries to capture an individual view on the instability and uncertainty the technocratic neoliberalist profit tenet has led us to be, after the disintegration of metaphysics and religion, about a hundred years ago. Nietzsche -if I may paraphrase- remarked that the disentanglement of religion and metaphysical philosophy would be highly inadvisable. So where do we stand right now?

Today’s housing situation in the Netherlands might reveal to what extent stability is a plain imaginative delusion, and to what extent do we really need a physical home. Perhaps, using my individual psychological experience proves to demonstrate this phenomenon most precisely. This series of notes called ‘Fluid Society Notes’ will cover such contemporary challenges from an individual perspective.

The Crumbs of Accomodation

The Dutch housing war, as I would like to call it, has intensified once more. Currently we’re fighting for a space to live in Utrecht, which lies even closer to the housing frontline. Groningen could already be marked as one of the worst places for housing in the world, but Utrecht really steals the show.

As we scavenge through the leftover crumbs of Dutch accommodation, we witness the most mutilated, ugly and abhorrent dog shelters one could possibly imagine (and beyond), rented out for downright outrageous sums. We’ve seen apartments which were actually basements without daylight, located literally underneath more costly ones; daylight has become a privilege. Only oxygen is still for free.

In Groningen we begin to witness the destruction the devastating housing war is causing. In its outermost outskirts, many former family houses -initially built for those with a meagre income- have been divided into student houses. Meanwhile, many families in poverty are waiting perpetually for a reasonably priced home. It’s likely to be a result of social housing being sold on the relentless investor market. 

WI-FI Capsules

These odd, charmless student homes can easily be detected, for their only purpose is to serve as WIFI capsules. During corona times, all classes are held online. If Maslow would have lived nowadays, he might’ve placed WiFi at the bottom of his pyramid. Before all else.

But inasmuch as the WiFi in those places may be fast, it certainly doesn’t cheer up the street’s ambiance, nor does it anyhow add a sense of youthfulness to the hood. Rather a worrisome sense of apprehension for the incoming generation, who, by the way, barely show themselves. Their black curtains are closed all day and their premises look unmaintained. 

There is vermin all around and rusty (swap) bikes lay stacked onto each other. Food is ordered online so there is no need for these timid creatures to venture outside and risk encountering real human beings.

Conclusion; very unexpectedly, it turns out that corona, universities and the Dutch housing market are cooperating to fully realize E.M Forster’s dystopian world in his story The Machine Stops, where people live underground, surrounded by everything they could desire, except reality. 

Header image: Margot Polinder

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.