Black, White, and a Little Grey in the Age of Covid-19
By Joshua Noyer
One of, if not the greatest contradiction of contemporary society is that as individuals we’re offered more opportunities than ever for self-expression. Technology allows us to broaden the diversity of our experiences, to see, hear, and read great works of literature and art, to speak with others from around the world; to do things our forefathers could have never imagined. Then why do these diversities of experiences translate into a dull intellectually homogenous population? Hegel believed that contradiction was the essence of life; it was through the discovery of these contradictions that individuals, and collectives move forward. Whereas the acceptance of dogma leads to stasis as dogmatics taking the given as a religion fail to see beyond their own horizons. A world of black and white is a simplistic ugly place. Only when we start seeing the gray can our horizons begin to broaden and truly become individuals. Covid-19 has exposed the ugly underbelly of American life, but with that exposure also comes the opportunity to further comprehend the ugliness and grow from it.
In my 44 years of life, I’ve seen such a dramatic change in terms of technology and culture that it’s hard to take it all in and comprehend; especially when looking back at history you realize that the overall progression of change was such a slow affair. It was pretty much a given that the world you grew up in would differ little from the world when you left it. We’re unique to the extent that living today we can’t make that statement about ourselves. In fact we look upon people from previous ages and see their complete lack of technology and make the assumption that these individuals were the historical counterpart to what is commonly referred to as a “country bumpkin,” a not to kind way of calling someone dumb, and ignorant. When making this assertion, the party doing the asserting is making the cardinal error of attributing progress to be a cumulative outgrowth of time; that each generation, because it has new and fancier technological gadgets than those which they preceded are consequently smarter and more knowledgeable than their predecessors. Fundamentally, it’s an attribution of value to technological progress.
A critique of this assertion can only be based upon the nature of knowledge. If knowledge is nothing more than the accumulation of facts and memorization then yes, the average 21st century individual is more knowledgeable than their historical counterparts. Simply existing in a time succeeding others implies a more thorough acquisition of historical events and technical know-how. A Roman, would not know how to use a cellphone or know of the events surrounding WWII. However, is this knowledge? If knowledge is to have value as a thing in itself and not just an empty descriptive term, then we must look at its nature.
Knowledge can be defined as, “awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or a situation.” Using this as our jumping off point knowledge cannot be simply the acquisition of facts or information. Anyone can know that the American Revolution started in 1776; that the Americans were victorious and know the results of the battles along with the direct causes of the war. But these are only surface phenomena and not knowledge. If knowledge is awareness, then it must delve much deeper into the nature of in this case the American Revolution. Someone with knowledge of the event would know that within a historical context the infringements upon liberty committed by the government of Great Britain at that time were relatively light. So, there must have been something much greater at work that led to the War. And the military progression of the war did not happen along conventional lines. The British were victorious in most battles and continued to be so even unto Yorktown. The causes for the defeat of the British went much deeper than a simple military defeat. Knowledge is much more than the accumulation of information. Knowledge is the comprehension of the thought; it’s the knowledge of the mindset of both the British and the American participants of the War. It’s an understanding of the historical context in which the event took place. Most important of all it’s the ability to take two seemingly dissimilar things or events and to see their connections and significance and come to produce an understanding of a historical epoch from the interaction of these dissimilarities. It’s the rejection of black or white and an embrace of grey.
The modern age, with its technological conveniences has created an environment which is not conducive to knowledge. The picture we often have of American history of a family sitting by a fireplace in a log cabin reading may produce feelings of nostalgia for something never experienced or even feelings of beauty, as a longing for a simpler time as contrasted with the more complicated world we inhabit today. However, there’s something much more valuable in this picture than nostalgic beauty; that is the act of creation.
When we watch a show either through the television or on our phone, we often perceive this as a substitution for books, in the process creating an equivalence between the two. However, these two means of acquiring information are very different. Reading a book is an act of creation. The words you absorb act as a spark which lead to the creation of a world, while descriptions of characters, and landscapes and their interactions together are provided within the book’s pages. It’s only within the mind that they come to life, as visualizations and significance are the result of the individual’s thought. Reading is an act of construction. On the other hand, when reading is replaced with the absorption of images, little if any creation is taking place. Instead what you see is all there is and instead of a world being constructed around words, those words being accompanied by images, come fully packaged and shaped, ready to be absorbed by individuals. There’s no thought put into the act, just emotional responses and associations with past images.
Contemporary society being the repository of this technology is also its product and the answer to the question posed in the first paragraph as to why there exists such little intellectual diversity in today’s world. Think about it, would a Mussolini, a Marx, Hegel or Nietzsche have been able to produce the works they did in today’s world? We live in a world where creativity is crushed. Those with original thoughts are ignored. Most of us like to think that we prize originality and those who choose to be different, but we elect charlatans to office, choose to watch television shows which prize crude humor and unrealistic sexuality. For many, society’s role models have become the Kardashians, with aspirations amounting to being reality TV stars. What society claims to prize in originality is nothing more than its tolerance. A tolerance derived from the worship of the self and its producing love of vulgar mediocrity. Originality is either constrained to the ivory tower or sits in hibernation within the soul while its owner say’s “hello, may I take your order.”
Illustrations of this phenomenon and its consequences become readily apparent within a few seconds of leaving your house. It’s not uncommon to see individuals wearing masks while driving their cars or while walking by themselves on the sidewalk. Apparently oblivious to the science which has confirmed that the odds of catching Covid-19 by those methods are astronomically small. Or the numbers which illustrate that while for certain high-risk groups the virus can be very dangerous but for most others its consequences are either non-existent or the functional equivalent of a bad case of the flu. The dangers associated with a society that devalues originality become manifest in the lack of critical thinking, in the submissiveness of individuals to authority. Instead of embracing authority because of how it uses its power for the betterment of the whole it becomes embraced out of fear and awe. People embrace the charlatans they put into office and the system which they perceive to give them their freedom and liberties. Not being experienced at constructing their reality they embrace the reality which is absorbed into their brain through the medium of electronic devices. Governors such as Newsome, or Cuomo are looked upon as public servants looking to protect those whom they have sworn to serve; while doing so upon the advice of the country’s foremost scientific minds. Fidelity to a fraud is difficult to overcome, it prevents the difficult questions from being answered such as why statements were originally made criticizing the use of masks changed in a very short amount of time to being an essential necessity. Why has there not been more questioning of lockdowns, when those lockdowns were based upon models with death predictions not close to what has transpired or would have transpired without the lockdowns? And if the restrictions imposed upon Americans have been advantageous then why is a country like Sweden which has chosen not to lockdown to the extent that others have had only a fraction of the cases per capita?
The answer lies in a toxic herd mentality. We like to think of bullies as being individuals who desire to inflict bodily or emotional harm on others. In reality that harm can be inflicted in much more subtle means. Moral condemnations are such a means. The inability to understand the world and express it in a comprehensive manner leads to black/white thinking, portraying opponents as being the other, the manifestation of what’s wrong and bad. So, when there are outbursts condemning opponents of the current lockdown strategies as being uncaring of others and not deserving of care should they require hospitalization due to Covid-19, what you are seeing is an attempt to harm another due to a lack of understanding and self-righteousness, just as the physical bully manifests his own self-righteousness through inflicting bodily harm on others. Our office holders are not bullies, the scientists they take advice from are not bullies. They are the victims of bullying. They are the victims of a media establishment and individuals devoid of critical thinking. As I said earlier politicians are charlatans, so they’re not free of guilt by any means, but being charlatans, they will go whichever way public opinion is shifting. And this has been the story of the progression of Covid-19. One media establishment after another is using its position to create an atmosphere of hysteria and fear; to keep the public glued to their opinion pieces. The truth or sound policy be damned. The new normal has become a place for self-righteous blowhards to condemn through an unfettered self-righteousness and threaten the careers of any who don’t engage in the same pseudo-morality. The religious like dedication to the same policy of lockdowns, and social distancing are not the end result of scientific analysis but an attempt to appear proactive in the face of an indignant media and public. In the final analysis the gestures are as empty as the society from which they derive.
The path we take from here on out does not have to be dictated to us. Technology doesn’t have to lead us to a future of ignorance. Black and White can be overcome, Grey is within our reach. However, the path cannot be tread alone, because the problem is not only social, it’s philosophical. Do we choose to have a State, with competent leadership and authority derived from sound actions; or do we have a socially darwinistic playing field where power is held behind closed doors and governmental leadership is composed of puppets. The answer is up to us and to the extent we embrace originality and who we truly are meant to be.