di Jimmy Hernández Marcelo
The old normality
These days, it seems far away the times when we greeted our family, friends and even strangers with a kiss –or more, depending on the country. It seems to us that it was in another life when we queued at the bank or at the post office and talked freely with the people around us. It seems so long ago when we were helping a stranger on the street or offering a handkerchief to someone who needed it. These are some examples of our social customs or our normal way of behaving when we are part of the community. These examples were referred to unwritten rules, to acquired and unconsciously repeated behaviours, but which express a way of understanding ourselves in the world with the others.
Now, it is important to highlight that these acquired social practices are consolidations of customs, which are related to a belief that is associated with an act. It is for this reason that the act itself is an act of normality because it conforms to a norm –a conceptual scheme– which can have its origin in several sources: religion, politics, aesthetics, science, etc. The toast, for example, is associated with a political context in which the security of not being poisoned by drinking was sought. The norm established that if the glasses clashed strongly and the contents of each other are mixed, who was trying to poison the opponent will be, at the same time, also poisoned. If we analyse it carefully, it is not a sign of friendship but a sing of distrust; besides, it is a more hygienic way than making someone else taste the food or drink first.
Kisses, perhaps one of the most distinctive signs of Western societies in comparison to Eastern ones, are part of this wide range of normal social behaviour that we performed daily. Based on the belief that kisses communicate the feelings of one person to another, kisses have always been considered an expression of love, trust, closeness and acceptance. We now also know that this belief –accompanied by the physical phenomenon of the participants in the act– is supported by scientific evidence that explains that in the lips there are nerve connections that allow the brain to activate the emotional responses and link them to the act of kissing.
However, there are other behaviours normalized by the force of law that shapes our ordinary life. For example, when we went to a clothing store just for the pleasure of observing and seeing the new trends that fashion designers had projected for this season. We could also try on clothes, shoes and other accessories. Likewise, if after buying them we realized that we did not like them as much as in the shop, we had the right –assured by the legal framework of consumer rights– to be able to return the object and receive our money back. This legal regulation has created normal forms of consumer behaviour. Another example would be when the law protects the right to protest and freedom of expression. These rules have created a type of behaviour of individuals that is based on precisely those rules that make normal our public political life.
This normality –although practised differently in each country– has been touched to death by the global phenomenon of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Until now –June 1, 2020– the virus has caused a total of 6,193,548 confirmed cases and a global number of 372,479 confirmed deaths. However, this amount is not definitive given the different way in which the deaths are registered in each country. What we can realise in this scenario is that this micro-organism has posed such a threat to humanity that it has put the world’s population in quarantine and forced us to completely change everything that seemed normal to us. From everyday acts such as going shopping, visiting family, helping a stranger, saying hello, going to the bar, having a coffee or a beer with friends, to more recent technological behaviours such as dating with strangers (Tinder, Ashley Madison, Whisper) and sharing a car (Blablacar, Amovens, Bluemove). It is surprising and frightening at the same time to realize how fragile and ephemeral our normality is. We have been confronted –all of us without exception– by this microscopic enemy, that rather than uniting countries has caused the closure of borders.
Epistemology and normality
The presence of this new virus is not only changing our way of living, but also serves as further –and perhaps definitive– proof of the impermeability of the real, on the one hand, and of the dependence of social norms on conceptual schemes, on the other hand. Let’s start with the second one. If we go through the newspaper archive of the last few months we will see a series of mistakes made by politicians when they talked about the virus. The case of the use of the face mask is perhaps the most paradigmatic one: firstly, they said that it was not necessary; secondly, that only those infected had to use it; thirdly, that it was highly recommended; finally, that it is obligatory in public spaces. It must be assumed –as a hypothesis– that no ruler has wanted to lie about this matter in the current circumstances –with some exceptions, of course– and that their mistakes cannot be identified as lies since we know well that between “lying” and “believing, to tell the truth,” there is an important epistemological difference.
The first one involves deliberately expressing objective content about the world as opposed to what it is. This would be the case, for example, of someone who, having done the respective tests, knows that a new virus has appeared, but reports that it is a common flu. In the second case, there is a theoretical framework that explains certain phenomena and is used as a source of truth. Here we can find examples from ordinary experience to scientific theories. For example, I would believe that I have locked the door when I leave the house and would affirm so when someone asks me about it, but my statement may not be true. I didn’t lie; I just think I was telling the truth. This would be the case with the recommendations and rules that our politicians have made on the use of face masks. They had as a theoretical frame of reference what the scientists were saying about the ways of transmission and contagion of the virus. However, it is only when virologists have been able to know the internal structure and its real properties –always considering that the real thing goes beyond our conceptual frameworks– that they have been able to give reliable information about the way people should behave in the public sphere. In this way, politicians have normalized forms of behaviour by having as a source the epistemological constructions of scientists.
We can see the dependence of normality on epistemology in other cases. Consider, for example, the count of deaths that each country registers according to different epistemological criteria. Now, this leads us to the second aspect of our reflection: the impermeability of the real. As we have seen in the examples above, the scientists’ explanations of the virus varied constantly and the health and political decisions, which were based on them, varied as well. The reason for the volatility of the explanations lay mainly in the novelty of the phenomenon. It is a new (ontological level) micro-organism. We try to understand it from already existing conceptual schemes (epistemological level) and the official recommendations adopted are the same as those adopted for similar diseases (social level). Likewise, the statistics used to reassure the population are comparisons with the diseases that serve as a reference framework (epistemological level). The aim is that people do not change their life habits (social level) because of a phenomenon that we know and that was perfectly controlled (epistemological level), as was said by several European politicians in February 2020. What followed in the next weeks made it clear that regardless of our conceptual schemes, the micro-organism behaved and propagated without being affected by our beliefs, our knowledge and our norms. We could say that the virus is immune to our interpretations.
This virus will remain immune to our conceptual schemes even if we find the vaccine to immunize ourselves against it. This is because the being –the microorganism in this case– is the source of any theory that wants to account for it. The scientist who wants to understand it must learn to observe the novelty of its being. Virology and nomenclature –knowledge– will depend on the phenomenon and not vice versa. Likewise, all the legal, health and social measures adopted in response to this new being will be dependent on the theory. In this sense, the emergence of this new virus and all the successes and mistakes that have been made during its contact with humanity are perfectly understood thanks to the differences between the ontological, the epistemological and the social levels, that is, between the microorganism, SARS-CoV-2 and the New Normality.
In this state of affairs, it is inevitable to head towards the new normality, since the novelty of the phenomenon forces us to normalize our social behaviours differently, taking into account that a new being has arrived to stay and share the planet with us. The epistemological frameworks –virology, epidemiology– have included a new member in their object catalogue. Scientific and technological researches will take into account this new knowledge – mainly the pharmaceutical industry– to provide us with new tools to deal with the virus. On a social level, we will not be able to go back to living like before. Everything has changed and will be seen with surprise throughout these months the consolidation of the new normality.
Firstly, public spaces will become less public. The reduction of agglomerations and social distancing will be present and will be assumed as something normal. Businesses that previously involved direct contact with the public will avoid any contact. Before the pandemic, there were spaces and businesses whose characteristic was precisely the friendly treatment and the closeness between clients and workers. It is quite clear that tourism and travel, in general, will suffer a significant transformation. Teleworking is starting to work in some countries that have decided to keep the economy afloat. Unfortunately, not all forms of work can be done remotely.
Sex life has been an important field of transformation during the pandemic. We have seen how Pornhub –one of the most important sexual platforms– released all its premium content to help respect the lockdown. Also, in the sexual environment, new behaviours have been normalized such as camming and sexting. “Sex in times of pandemic”, could perfectly be the title of an erotic novel in the digital age.
Finally, regardless of the enormous loss of life and economic issues, it is important to remark that the digital age has contributed powerfully to make the consequences of the pandemic less severe. At the research level, we now have a huge communication network between researchers around the world, so science has never in the history of mankind seen such rapid and fruitful cooperation between the scientific communities. It is also true that the cooperation of the states at the beginning of the pandemic can be questioned, given the criticism that Taiwan has made to the WHO about the late reaction and the transmission of information about the phenomenon in China. Also in this aspect, we find the accusations of the president of the United States of America about the concealment of information by China and the collaboration of the WHO that has ended with the exclusion of Taiwan from the last assembly and with the announcement by Trump on May 29, 2020, of the end of his country’s relations with the WHO.
At the economic level, if we consider the many possibilities that communication technologies have offered us to carry out work at a distance, we would discover that no past pandemic had been able to maintain a minimum of work activity as we have now. Indeed, the educational field has not come to a complete halt thanks to the amount of information available on the Internet and in the use of educational platforms that have proved to be entirely useful now. And so we could continue to list aspects of our society that thanks to the existence of the internet and digital technology have reduced their negative impact during the lockdown.
The imperfection of human beings allows them to adapt to different environments and settings. The SARS-CoV-2 emergency will not be the exception. Thus, depending on the conditions given by the present pandemic and how society adapts to the new reality, we will find new ways of coexisting in the community. Perhaps the new normality is precisely the result of having learned how to coexist with a new organism that has made us value the automaton (a mechanism), which has recently helped us –and will continue to help us– to live with the virus. In short, the new normality could be, perhaps, a more automated society.