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.

Corona Diary #5

How is the Netherlands handling the crisis?

Written over multiple days in June as part of my self-isolation diary.

03-06-2020 Bike Hell: My laziness tells me to write this note tomorrow, but my discipline tells me to write it today. It seems that this time, my discipline is the winner. The heat of yesterday has backed off a little. Also, corona drifts away quickly from people’s minds, including mine. But to be reminded of it, one has only to visit the city centre or public transport. In my hometown, bicycles have been forbidden, and loose standing bikes are removed and relocated to a faraway depot (you could call it: bike hell).

Today, during a stroll around the city, I’ve seen whole bunches of them being lifted onto a truck and taken away. New, old, rusty, expensive. All types were confiscated, even children’s bikes. And people who drove unconsciously into this sudden no-biking zone, got barked at by diligent stewards and were directed elsewhere. The rules that allow the municipality to do so, have been installed in order to prevent many people from merging too much, hence preventing corona spread.

Nonetheless, I don’t think they took into account that people have been riding their bikes for over a hundred year through these streets. So a paradigm change won’t occur within three days either. Anyway, the removal of bikes and sending away of drivers seems to be a cumbersome, ineffective activity which I don’t think will last very long.

In public transport, people are obliged to wear facial masks. It is a saddening sight, because the human countenance which makes people human, is hidden. Our daily dose of smiles from strangers has been reduced drastically since the introduction of masks, and will possibly lead to an unhealthy deficiency in unspoken outings of kindness. And since the smartphone revolution already, suchlike gentle acts of mutual recognition had been become meagre. A worrying development. 

04-06-2020 Vacation:  Corona seems miles away, and the Dutch are shifting their worries from a deadly virus, to forging holiday plans. France and Spain have announced to reopen their borders in Juli for tourists by car, so that the exhausted Dutch families can once again enjoy their well-deserved traffic jams on smoggy highways and annual family camping dramas. 

14-06-2020 Washing hands: Corona measures are increasing but my understanding of them (or willingness to do so), is decreasing. As part of our ‘intelligent lockdown’ strategy, a large survey amongst 64.000 fellow dutchies was conducted to map their compliance with corona rules. It unveiled that keeping distance is getting harder, but washing hands is still feasible. There is a serious error (perhaps on purpose?) in this research: washing hands is not a corona measure. It is the very basis of personal hygiene. But the respondents still confirmed obediently that this is something corona-related. 

So I confirm herewith the internationally claimed assertion that Dutch people have the dirtiest hands. It is culture specific, and I as a dutchman, can acknowledge this: the gross of Dutch people doesn’t wash hands after having used the restroom. The country’s overall cleanliness and absence of deadly diseases might give an explanation. It’s amazing. Here, it is so clean that we even dare to shake the unwashed hands which just wiped an ass. It is quirky, but when abroad, I have always washed my hands obsessively. But when back in my home-country I started skipping it once again. Finally I unlearned it, after my girlfriend Marina shared with me her disgust about this stubborn, culturally inclined habit. I came to even like it, for washing hands is maintaining your body and therefore a small act of self-respect.  

14-06-2020 Priorities: A school example of hypocrisy. Is family less important than vacation? Dutch travel organizations cannot wait to send their customers to the all-inclusive hotels they’d initially booked. Since today, vacations within europe are possible again, after Spain and Italy (which we first didn’t want to help financially) reopened borders for tourism. Now, after we had to fear a severe lung-disease for so long, the second worry is whether we can go on holiday or not, whether we can drink unlimited cocktails at the pool while being served by underpaid labourers, whether we can stuff ourselves again with fast-food, alongside a beachfront crammed with concrete hotels. 

The government understands this impatience of travel organizations and holiday-goers very well, and promises full safety when they travel in aircraft to their destination. The crammed, profit oriented, polluting flying barrels which we call airplanes are not only more liable to an outbreak amongst passengers, they are also the worldwide delivery service for corona. For a great deal, air travel was responsible for the fast corona spread, a couple of months ago, and now, suddenly, they will be fully functioning again. And not for loved ones or family to finally reunite. No, for vacation. 

Even more poignant is that I need to show an impossible amount of proof of relationship to be able to get my loved one here. Me and Marina are excruciatingly separated because we don’t have the paperwork, while Dutch vacationers will be criss crossing throughout europe with all the risks involved, for this one vital activity: leisure. Or should I say, for economy?

I hope that one day, our government will have understanding for people like us, too. We don’t want leisure, we only want each others proximity, for I consider us family. Is family less important than vacation? According to our government, yes. Is paperwork more important than the risk of an outbreak? According to the government, yes.

Photo Credit: Kayla on Unsplash

© 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. 

On Racism

Written in my diary on 04-06-2020.

Look at the header picture of this post and let it sink in for a bit.

Now on to the US, which is set in fury and flame, as George Floyd had been violently murdered by discriminant police officers. Perhaps, this cruel and immoral deed had ignited a wildfire that was already smoldering for years on end in America. George was black, the police officer in question was white.

Though the most notable until now, in this complicated and confusing matter, is the enormous extensiveness of social media use. Millions of arguments and counter-arguments are floating around on social platforms. Some say black lives matter. Some say all lives matter. The first might be too one-sided, the second too abstract. Today, I saw a protest sign on my news feed, saying that ‘’Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because you aren’t personally affected by it.’’ 

Although I think that the term stupidity would suit more than privilege, I suppose this message implies that ‘white’ people are privileged. But creating such dichotomies won’t achieve what they intend to do: Inasmuch as we cannot call all black people unprivileged, we cannot call all white people privileged. Privilege is not skin colour determined, just as inferiority is not skin colour determined. There are privileged wealthy black people and poor unprivileged white people, and vice versa.

Discrimination is the mother of racism. Creating disjunctures is discrimination in essence. Racism is a secondary form of discrimination which uses skin colour to make divisions amongst peoples. So calling white people privileged, is a form of racism, too. Remove this dichotomy, and you remove discrimination. Remove the discrimination and you remove racism. Remove the association and you remove separation.

Side-note: Culturism, for example, is another, often overlooked form of unjust discrimination which uses ethnicity to make divisions. It is obviously inextricably connected to economic prejudice: My girlfriend and I are separated only because she is from Russia. Not because she is a bad person. Not because she wants to do harm. But: An immoral person who has the right ethnicity can enter without visa, but a moral person without the right ethnicity needs to move the earth to get a visa, and vice versa. She needs a visa for the Netherlands, people from the US don’t. She needs to prove sufficient funds, Australian people don’t. Remove borders, and you remove separation. Yet, dividing is deeply, stubbornly anchored in our core nature, and it’s nurtured as well: dividing is one of the first things we learn in math class.  

Philosophically speaking, attaching certain labels to something as peripheral as skin colour is always surpassing objective truth. Deeds of violence based upon ephemeral standards cannot coexist with reason, what makes them injust. Martin Luther King has said that we need reason and moral in the battle against prejudice. But they’re not equal. Who reasons, knows that moral is fleeting and subject to constant gradual change. Some mores are more unjust than others, and whether something is just, can only be measured by reason.

Reason hovers above moral. Moral can therefore be even dangerous if it falls into the hands of certain powerful men, as Nietzsche remarked. In fact, I believe that under the current US president, (unconscious) public moral had already deformed immensely after succeeding the last one, especially with those who were neutral before. This is the danger of moral. It is not reliable, and (sub) culture specific: the decisions by those murdering police officers seemed moral in their morality, and is seen as immoral by others. 

Mores is subjective, and can be individually adjusted and therefore justified according to extreme personal convictions, such as racism. But, as Aurelius emphasizes in his meditations, the reason of justice goes beyond that and reveals that discrimination based on skin colour (or other external characteristics) is something rudimental and beast-like, and can therefore not be tolerated in higher, developed cultures.  The highest form of existence is one of union, but it is a long journey towards the dissolution of borders and separation. And the biggest trap is to think we have already arrived.

Lastly. Look again at the header picture of this post. When disjoined from all their associations, we will hopefully once see black and white exactly for what they are: colours

Photo Credit: Daryan Shamkhali

© 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.