The Fruits of Apathy

Those who’ve seen footage of the recent anti-war protests in Russia may have spotted a few appalling characteristics in the (absence of) crowds. Firstly, there seems to be an enormous gap between the expected revolt and the actual deeds in the streets of Moscow and other cities. Based on the seriousness of the situation, one would expect insurgency all over Russia, citizens setting fire to the streets and tearing down government buildings.

Because for many, the risk of being jailed during a riot may even be more alluring than the prospect of being sent to the front-lines and serve as cannon fodder. Yet, surprisingly, the majority silently consents. Apart from some courageous gatherings and multiple arrests, nothing significant happened. Nothing, at least, that would seriously concern the regime.

Secondly, during this modest uprising, one might also have noticed the difference with other, more successful protests elsewhere: the overall lack of unity. As one protester after another is arrested or beaten up, most bystanders stay uninvolved, film the uproar or simply back down, although outnumbering the police by far.

This tells me that the underlying causes may be more severe than one would suspect on the surface. It’s the sheer inability to unite. And that might be the result of a dangerous form of social disintegration; years of disentanglement of inter systemic human bonds, cold estrangement from fellow citizens. More bluntly: the entire social system that is supposed to unite people, is rotten to the core. Human connections, vaporized by apathy and indifference, mistrust, confusion and denial. And this is not limited to Russia.

Civic Duty

The role of citizens in a well-functioning society lies in concrete actions otherwise known as civic duty. These can begin by gentle gestures: listening to each other, retaining dialogue and maintain the irregular flared up discussion, but also to rebel when needed. According to Marcus Aurelius’ meditations, civic duty belongs to the palette of natural, social behavior, guided by reason. It requires social responsibility from all citizens in all layers of a society.

Essential is that all society’s strata connect in public spaces and exchange perspectives on a regular basis to form lasting ties. Commonly shared values need to string citizens together and make them resilient against impulses of violence. This mechanism will prevent a society from overshooting into dangerous absolutes and will encourage consensus instead of fragmentation. All inhabitants of a state, in this case, are the watchdogs and guardians of their own inclination to irrationality. It will ideally do justice to the complexity of a nation-state. Suchlike societies will reflect, not deflect.

But today, one can observe certain eroding tendencies that undermine the realization and containment of social nations. Apathetic and indifferent citizens begin abandoning their position as key critical elements of a healthy society. Extreme examples of this phenomenon can be seen in Russia, where the negligence of civic duty has indirectly culminated into strict totalitarianism, thousands of deaths in a senseless war, not even to speak of internal repression and state terror.

Not coincidentally, many thinkers have mentioned indifference and apathy as the biggest threats to democracy. Conversely, they’re the closest companions of every autocrat. Taking current Russia as an example, we see that years of oppression have robbed the citizens from their public voices. Civic unions have evaporated, were annihilated or went underground, isolating every individual or family on exile. As distant islands, they’re unable to form any noteworthy counterweight against a government that’s rapidly running towards self-destruction.

The two terms can be supplemented with distrust and denial. When society is stricken by these two factors, it may furthermore enlarge the chance of individuals leaving their post as active actors in a democracy. Those affected by this feeling may seek refuge in conspiracy theories and end up denying all about which there is wide consensus, such as ethical standards. Doing so, they place themselves outside of the democratic game, for they lost confidence in its functioning. Paradoxically, this group often claims to be the most critical. In reality, they merely contribute to the deconstruction of the system they are trying to save. They become islands.

The threat of disintegration of social structures is not limited to Russia. Dotted all over Europe, citizens begin acting like separate atoms, moving independently from another, downright denying their interdependence. Estrangement from human proximity speeds up the decay of democracy, which on its turn is interconnected with loneliness, despair, war and eventually, destruction.

On the branches of separation, the fruits of apathy are ripening.

© 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: Pawel Janiak.

International State Terror

In his outstanding work The Rebel, Albert Camus came up with two concepts in regard to what he called ‘state terror’. Roughly paraphrasing him and others, I will draw some parallels with the ongoing war in Ukraine. In this light, Camus spoke of two forms of state terror in which revolutionary thought could overshoot, namely: rational and irrational state terror. The first, rational terror, will be elaborated on thoroughly in relation to the logic Russia is currently subject to. Helped by these concepts, this piece will argue why the war won’t end anytime soon and why it should be taken seriously.

States that apply terror, feel the need to sacrifice concrete, palpable life in order to create totality and fulfill an oblique destiny. In other words, they need to suppress and kill for a supposed greater good; a greater good that is far from certain. Irrational state terror, according to Camus, is what has been practiced by Nazi-Germany. What makes it irrational, is that its logic inevitably led to its own destruction. Taking the idea of movement and action to religious spheres after Nietzsche’s death of god, Nazi-Germany had set out on a crash course with the rest of the world in order to justify its existence; it always needed an enemy. It didn’t exist without war. For the first time in history, a state showed that it can create terror on an industrial scale.

Now, rational state terror, in relation to today’s Russia, finds its origins in the Soviet Union, in Lenin’s selective adaptation of Marx’ works. Lenin had rewritten socialist thought in a way that it would justify repression and suffering in the name of inevitable history. He claimed that an authoritarian regime would realize the predetermined lot of his union faster than simply waiting for it. He promised that at the end, when all is unity, the regime would be superfluous and dissolve itself. But no end date was given. Whether Putin’s Russia can be labelled as rational or irrational state terror, remains unclear until the final outcome of the war. Possibly it’s a mixture of the two.

According to Camus, an important component of rational state terror is the way it fabricates and manipulates truth -retroactively- in order to make all its actions seem rational as a logical means to an end. This mechanism is well illustrated in the works of George Orwell, like 1984, where newspapers are adjusted every second to match the changing reality and make it seem like the state is seamlessly following its own history. Unlike Nazi-Germany, which tried to hide its atrocities and horrors from the public and hypocritically pour out its violence over Europe, the Soviet Union presented repression as a necessary sacrifice: to achieve peace for all in an undetermined future, violence is justified in the present.

The state, in this case, wouldn’t even portray its violence as repression; merely as re-education to create totality and unity; a small detour along the Uighur camps in China. They would even take it a step further and claim that it is the unity of the state itself who is repressed by citizens who explicate deviant ideas. In a rational state, there cannot be any defiance, for all is totality: the future, the past and the present. Other perspectives that may distort this total image, must be either converted or destroyed without the possibility of martyrdom, which rhymes with the crusades in Europe’s dark ages.

This brings us to the terror in Ukraine. Why did Russia’s internal repression became external and spill over into Ukraine and previously Georgia, Chechnya and again, Ukraine? Above the much discussed strategic reasons for an invasion, Russia follows a certain logic, reminiscent of the Soviet constructs as described by Camus and others. In regard to the ‘deviant perspectives’ to the endeavored totality, Russia’s interference with Chechnya is interesting to begin with. When Chechnya revolted and tried to untie itself from the federation, its rebellion was smashed down by the freshly chosen president Putin. The goal: restoring totality. But the mechanism goes international, too.

The Kremlin’s knowledge of different perspectives, thriving in neighboring countries, creates eternal friction (which boasts nationalism and the need for a ‘strong leader’). Military or not, a state that pursues total unity exists in a perpetual state of war with opposing views, in Europe, Ukraine or elsewhere. A totalitarian state that has given itself the religious task of fulfilling human destiny, experiences continuous dissonance with neighboring democratic countries and is constantly reminded that its totality is unfulfilled. So the moment Ukraine moved into a more democratic direction, Russia’s latent dissonance accumulated into terror. Random attacks on civil targets might not just be a military tactic, it’s also a way of terrorizing and spreading fear, until Ukraine’s citizens will follow suit again and comply. If they refuse, destruction is what awaits them, to restore the totalitarian equilibrium.

The collision between democratic and totalitarian systems is denuded by the mere description of a democratic system. Democracies, respecting various perspectives, admit that there is always an area of tension, of conflict between visions. But contrary to other systems, the democratic one perceives conflict -in the form of dialogue and debate- as its main advantage. And historical dialectics, but also pure logic, have shown that the immense human diversity cannot be squeezed into one or two simple state models. Democracy offers a platform for the diversity to come to consensus and do more justice to the vast human complexity. Law and shared values, based on mutual decisions, offer an overarching foundation that bridges the gaps of a multiform society. In more Nietzschean terms: chaos brings order.

Conclusively, this is simply a description of the logic a state can follow, and whence it can lead to the application of terror. And if the question is posed whether Russia is applying terror in Ukraine, the answer following Camus’ paradigm is a full yes. Nonetheless, lacking the military power to create the world it adores, those in the Kremlin have learnt from the past, and have refined their strategies into quite sophisticated methods of manipulating public opinion and blackmailing their perceived enemies. Yet, the force of action and movement, in order for such a state to justify its existence, is only stopped when it collides with another force. Until that moment, the day that it is halted, the 21st century Red Army will roll onward.

© 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. 

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. 

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 #7

We went on vacation, but the virus didn’t. Written on 22-07-2020.

There is no reason to wrap up this diary just yet. Corona seems to be returning. Better said: it had never left us. A Dutch publicist stated sharply that ‘we went on vacation, but corona didn’t’. Numbers of infections are on the rise once again. Virologists are apprehensive for a second wave. But I’m afraid that we are still riding on the the first wave. Did we cheer to soon?

I have to reckon that I was impatient too and went on a brief train getaway to Czechia, where the virus seemed non-existent. Meanwhile, my fellow countrymen are sunbathing in France and Croatia. Some of us take it a step further and are endangering themselves and others, as they deliberately squeeze themselves into packed airplanes heading to Greece and Spain. This striking turnaround in mindset denudes our fleeting values. Touristic ventures by airplane were thought utterly irresponsible just one month ago, until ‘experts’ praised the plane’s ventilation systems and deemed air-travel entirely safe. And of course, we nod our heads agreeably. But for only a few weeks, Corona didn’t dominate the headlines, and here we are. 

Humanities and technocracy don’t run smoothly together, that much is certain. In the heydays of Corona, the health ministry was releasing death-reports on a daily basis, which were then conveyed to the masses by news channels. As cases dropped, the frequency of these reports downshifted along with it, eventually dropping towards a meagre one time a week. From an epidemio-technocratic perspective, this might have seemed logical. Less cases, less attention. But from a social psychological angle, that means walking a very slippery slope. For it should be clear that the contemporary mind is directed by whatever appears (and disappears) on the powerful outlets of mass media (individually customized by algorithms). 

Our Dutch vacation exodus also reveals how we put our blind trust in the government’s choices and advice. Which is erroneous, since even the best informed governments are running behind the facts. Technocratic decision-making is reactionary at most. It doesn’t envisage an ideal or anticipates on future events. It is perpetually in need for the outcomes of earlier research, and perpetually too late to act wisely in the moment. Understandably, the government doesn’t quite know how to anticipate, for the virus is still a big mystery. What isn’t a mystery though, is that certain sectors of economy are losing money.

Likewise, it proved tempting for politicians to act based on what they know, rather than on what they don’t. We know the economy is suffering. Yet we don’t know how dangerous and recurrent the coronavirus actually is. So what do we do? We let economy run free again, because we ‘know’ the sorrows of economy. Yielding to the pressure, the Dutch government had given in to compelling demands to reopen bars, cafes and even prostitution. Economically constrained countries such as India and Brazil never even had the luxury to disobey economy’s impatience. Nonetheless, even the financially backed-up Netherlands have ultimately succumbed to the hasty consumer market.

Unfortunately, also the Dutch reopening of economy was not a philosophically wise -free spirited, independent- decision, it was simply kneeling before the unrelenting power we have attributed to our consumer economy. Virus or not, we need to start running on the money treadmill once again. The future will tell where this will lead to. But the passivity of citizens and the loss of common sense, merged with the unwise hastiness of governments are worrisome predictors. 

Header image: Sujeet Potla

© 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. 

The Romantic Melancholy Of Train Travel

An emotion-provoking piece, devoted to Literary Realism; one of my favourite writing-styles. It was written -rather suitably- aboard a train in Germany on 17-07-2020.

Producing a sine wave sound rising in frequency, electricity passes through the engine and the train sets itself into motion. Its destination lies elsewhere. Puffing and squeaking, the noisy machine fares out of the station. The commotion dies down quickly after, and quietness returns.

A big clock on the platform tells that it’s somewhere around eight in the evening. Peak hours are over and passengers are few. The surrounding valley is encircled by hills, topped with plucks of pine-trees. At this point of dawn, the sun had descended enough in order to send some of its last rays through the periwinkle overcast. 

The station’s diner had closed its shutters hours ago. The entrance has been amalgamated into the only notable terminal, which gives quite a dilapidated impression. Its canary yellow wainscoting had begun to exfoliate seemingly years ago. Nonetheless, bits of former glory still remain. One could easily imagine it being bypassed by whistling steam trains in a faraway past. Yet, a large plastic pamphlet hanging down the facade promises that the area will soon be modernized, whatever that might mean.

All in all, it was an intensive day aboard different carriages, leading through lively towns and vast pastures. Safely behind a large window, innumerable settlements and industrial sites could be seen drifting by. Within the intimacy of the train compartment, there were some shy interactions with fellow passengers, but it was too transitory to still recall their precise countenance. In contrary to this lonesome place, they have disembarked earlier on and might now be having dinner with their family or loved one. 

Travel announcements can be heard from a row of rusty loudspeakers, echoing til far beyond the station’s bounds. Talking in an unknown language, a recurring female voice conveys all sorts of travel information. In the warmth of her voice, there is confidence and reassurance. Those present, listen attentively whenever she has something to say. 

On an adjacent marshalling yard, the blood red eyes of a small suburban train seem to hover above a complex structure of tangling railway tracks. The empty vehicle appears to be standing by for the start of its working hours. When the red signal jumps to green, it will glide onto an allocated railway track to begin loading and unloading human beings.

Meanwhile, and with sheer indifference, a lengthy freight train cuts through the station in full speed. The extensive string of chemical containers which it carries, shapes into a giant, otherworldly snake, of which a roaring locomotive forms the head. Little later, its poisonous tail escapes the station with a fierce blow of wind. Once again there is calmness. The snake’s visit was just a fleeting disturbance in the prevailing tranquility. 

Scattered across the platform, a handful of travellers is awaiting their transport. Partly hidden behind a windshield, sits a young woman with blonde hair who appears to be lost in thoughts. And on appropriate distance, a young man is leaning against an information display. Other, more distant platforms are similarly dotted with vague human silhouettes. 

Every now and then, there seems to be a flash of curious eye contact between the passengers. Dreamy eyes glare across the premises almost uninterruptedly. And sometimes, the lines of sight would coincidentally cross paths and affirm each other’s solitude. One might wonder how many fragile romances have bloomed amidst these charming railroads. 

The curious workings of the universe had arranged this brief encounter between strangers, who might never meet again hereafter. As soon as the incoming train will disperse them into opposite directions, their precarious common ground of solitude will perish.