How do we manage to rethink
Crisis? Really? Maybe we also need to rethink our idea of normality
One crisis diagnosis is currently chasing the next. But our pessimism is only the punishment for being too optimistic in the past.
Crises are a matter of perception. They arise when society's expectations of the normal course of events are shaken by the onset of unexpected impressions. Regardless of whether the slump occurs slowly, as in the case of climate change, or quickly, as in the pandemic, at the beginning of a crisis there is usually a controversy as to whether the irritating impressions correspond to the prevailing ideas of normality or break with them.
So the perception of global warming was far from being followed by a consensus about its crisis. At first it was argued for decades whether natural temperature fluctuations or a man-made greenhouse effect were the main cause. In the corona pandemic, the controversy lasted shorter, but here, too, the impression had to vanish first that there was just a rough flu approaching.
My age cohort grew up like spoiled children who were spared
Confused irritation with normalcy.
The fact that crises are a question of perception does not mean that perception is a question of arbitrariness. If signals that are received as a strong disturbance of the social understanding of normality intensify, a crisis diagnosis is inevitable.
The same applies vice versa: if the horizon of expectations only darkens for a short time, as in the mid-eighties in the last century, when everyone was talking about the death of forests without the forest getting ready to obey its announced death, the crisis ebbs. Alarm inevitably goes off. At least in democratic societies with a free flow of information, to take up a famous bon mot by Carl Schmitt from the interwar period, nobody has the "sovereignty" to proclaim crises out of the blue by imposing a state of emergency.
But why should we regard crises as phenomena of perception at all, when perception is itself shaped by external influences? Because otherwise we do not understand how much the events that we experience as crises are shaped by our ideas of normality. These ideas change radically over the course of history.
For us, the pandemic is only a crisis because we are one of the few societies in world history that have erased epidemics from their inventory of normality expectations. Our ancestors a hundred years ago experienced a lot of hardship, but not a crisis, during the Spanish flu, which swept over them with far more deadly force. People died, life went on. Accordingly, the virus ate only weakly in the collective memory of the survivors. It would be wrong to look for the reason for this in a blunting effect caused by the break in normality of the First World War. Rather, most people at the time could not even imagine a world without epidemics.
The fact that today we have different demands on normality than previous generations is not only justified, but necessary. Otherwise we would have to bury any idea of progress. If, however, the present, with all its unreasonable expectations, from terror to Trump, appears to us to be a veritable cascade of crises, we must ask ourselves the question of whether, measured against the course of history, we harbor illusory expectations of normality and therefore stumble from one disappointment to the next. There are good reasons to answer the question in the affirmative.
The generation of forty to sixty year olds who are in charge today grew up in an exceptional historical situation of supposed stability. It was the long decade from the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, when the utopia of a liberal world order under the sign of the Pax Americana came true and democracy seemed to have proven its world-historical superiority.
My age cohort grew up like spoiled children who mistook being spared from irritation for normality, while the baby boomers in power were preparing the later crash of the financial markets and the rise of populism with carefree social and economic policies. Landing on reality was all the harder in the new millennium.
If we want to fill the current often thoughtless talk of the “new normal” with content, we should first free ourselves from the ballast of expectations of the nineties. Perhaps this will enable us to have a higher appreciation for what we still experience yesterday as normal, but today as fragile.
Caspar Hirschi is Professor of General History at the University of St. Gallen.
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