We are living a crisis in search of a narrative. Pundits seem to agree that the world is being changed “fundamentally” by the coronavirus epidemic, just not in which way. Are our institutions and politicians showing resilience and leadership or ineptitude and myopia, and what is the yardstick anyway? Is increased government surveillance a threat to be countered, a necessary evil to keep us safe, or an inevitable trend that would have happened anyway, virus or no virus? Do we henceforth need even more focus on fighting climate change or should we forget about such luxuries as we scramble to restart the shell-shocked economy?
For the moment, most of us are simply reacting, in manners which are often genuine and uplifting, if a bit copy-paste. We are inundated by emails of companies reminding us, GDPR-style, that they are “still there for us” in “these difficult times.” Various actors are rushing to “pledge” money for the response. Some of it will help; some of it, if we are to be guided by the Notre Dame fire episode, will end up “unpledged” once the spotlight is gone. The line between philanthropy and marketing is, as always, blurry.
We are celebrating our doctors and nurses in the media, rightfully so. We directly owe our lives to these people. Yet, if the experience of September 11, the other monumental event of this century, is to be trusted, this will not last. They will not see any practical improvement to their working conditions or salaries once the crisis is over. Remember how long it took 9/11 first responders to receive just a modicum of compensation and justice?
Following an initial feeling of heartfelt unity and compassion both among and for the American people, the events of September 11 led to wars costing trillions of dollars, annoying airport security lines, Muslim-bashing and the surveillance state. Commentators have bent over backwards to describe this as “inevitable.” It wasn’t. Rather, the interpretation of the tragedy and what was to be done had been left to a few decision makers, and they duly proceeded to act in accordance with their worldviews and priorities.
Initial attempts at a cohesive analysis this time around haven’t mustered more than the usual platitudes about the need for “global unity” and such. The story is up for grabs - now is the time to raise your voice in shaping the exit narrative of the coronavirus epidemic. You should do so with your actions, not words. Here are seven steps that will help you in doing so:
1. Ride the wave of “seeing the Matrix.” You are witnessing everything in a new light these days, and reassessing the world around you, from your family and community to the global events. The society, it turns out, depends on a fragile social contract to work. Things we take for granted - aren’t. Keep these glasses on for as long as you can, questioning everything.
2. Take a break from your heroes. Stop listening for a while to people to whom you are primarily a newsletter recipient, a viewer, a customer. They don’t have it all figured out, and their guesses are not better than yours. Go easy on following the news. Put your favorite athletes in perspective - they are a useful distraction that doesn't matter when crunchtime comes. Here’s a rule: don’t look up to anyone with whom you haven’t spoken during the quarantine, or preferably shared the isolation with!
3. Use this time to decide where you stand. You might have finally had the time to pick up one of those thick volumes you’ve been meaning to read for the past few years, and began grappling with the big questions. Well, go ahead. Now is the time to decide on, and write down, where you stand on the main issues of your time. Is climate change real and should you personally do anything about it? While you’re at it, should you do something about poverty, hunger, women’s empowerment, inequality? Or are all these secondary matters, because you have enough trouble making ends meet for yourself and your family, or just making peace with your parents? Do you believe in a god and does the answer make a difference to you? What about gun rights, the EU or the position of the US as the dominant global power? Homeless people in your neighborhood? Foreigners? Eating meat? Bioterrorism and AI? Is there, perhaps, a completely different set of important topics that has been neglected all along?
Pronouncing yourself is not a daunting task, because you’ve been thinking about these matters all your life; on some of them you already have clear views, others simply don’t interest you. Now it’s just a matter of writing your positions down, along with concrete actions you are prepared to take. Then let your positions evolve as you expand your horizons. But start somewhere.
4. Resolve to improve the world, not just yourself. You have read all the expert advice about how to adapt to self-isolation and working from home. All very useful tips. This situation indeed feels unnatural and makes us appreciate freedom of movement and human contact. But be weary of the broader trend that has been for some time now pointing us inwards, towards meditation, mindfulness and adaptation to the world around us. Maybe the world which requires so much mental adaptation to cope with, not to mention an exploding amount of prescription medication, is what needs changing? Don’t wait to be in perfect equilibrium before you take on the world, because that day will never come. Your wonderful neuroses and anxieties are your friends.
5. Become the arbiter. Listen to all points of view and decide what the best course of action is. This is not the same as pretending that all opinions are equally valid and that solutions must be win-win and preserve the power structures, but it does mean believing that people’s motivations are genuine. This is often very hard.
Just a small example. The funding of improving the world, the business the League is in, is a mess. When funding social causes, wealthy people can be well meaning, incisive and strategic, or out of their depth, focused on pet projects and self-serving. Companies may indeed be led by visionary people who care or might be merely after the press release that boosts the brand value or makes a tax break more likely. Even the particularly courageous donors might refuse to fund a cause that will undermine their privilege. Stories about how you can “do well by doing good,” which have grown into a separate industry (impact / sustainable / responsible investing and ESG), can be a very realistic aspiration or a cynical fairytale that prevents systemic change. Throw into the mix the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, well-intentioned but clunky and off track. Include the academics claiming that all the world-changers would do much more good by simply paying taxes. Listen to the foundations - perennially in mortal fear that donors will stop giving them money, and loathe to rock the boat. Finally, watch the government trudge along trying to understand what is going on, at times unjustifiably sidelined and at others frustratingly slow to recognize the realities of the 21st century.
There’s an equation for you with twenty different variables that is notoriously hard to solve, and millennials and Gen Z have all but given up on believing it can be. And yet livelihoods of millions depend on an urgent solution. The broad field of “improving the world by using money,” which the League calls “altruism,” is one of a thousand in desperate need of honest, external arbiters, people who will not only point to the problems, or even propose remedies, but find practical ways to inspire people, build coalitions and push the solutions through. As a disinterested outsider you would have a massive advantage.
6. Support tactically sound grassroots movements. The process of changing a society's norms is by now no longer a mystery. Some people start a movement based on an experience they lived through. The movement spreads because of empathy, charismatic leadership, an inclusive message and clear demands for policy changes. It employs nonviolent civil disobedience and manages to capture the moral high ground. The movement reaches a critical mass where 3-4% of the general population count themselves as active supporters, willing to go out and march for the cause. The movement begins to financial support and political representation, at first on the local level and then beyond. People begin to adopt it en masse. The attitudes of the elites begin to gravitate towards the ethically superior position, and the status quo is discarded. Finally, elites themselves boast that they always saw it coming and were “early believers.” We just saw this happen live in the case of the LGBT movement. Hundreds of grassroots movements in the League's portfolio are applying the formula as we speak to all the issues you care about. Join them.
7. Engage in politics. Once you have causes worth defending - defend them! First of all, vote. We've heard all the defeatist reasons for not voting - the system is corrupt, one person’s vote doesn’t count in the grand scheme of things, etc. Indeed, both business and government are distrusted today more than ever in the past. Trust in the US Congress or the EU institutions has been remarkably low for years now. Yet this “crisis of confidence” hasn’t jeopardized the system or discouraged politicians you love to hate one bit - in fact, you not voting is part of their strategy.
Politics is a skill - embrace it. Learn to dictate the terms of the debate. Don’t “leave the room in protest” - nobody cares. Don’t let your opponents define what is “patriotic.” Don’t hope to expose their “populist” rhetoric. Nobody has ever won an election without being populist, nationalist or patriotic - you must define those terms through your values, not just give them up as dirty words. The way to disqualify opponents is not using attributes of which they are proud; expose instead bad track record, cowardice, hypocrisy, damaging policy proposals. Keep your ideas evolving as the status quo keeps trying to co-opt and divert them.
Summary: The winning narratives are not those that merely oppose but those that incorporate all others into a broader worldview that others feel obliged to accept as reality. Before the crisis interceded, there were two narratives clashing before our eyes. The first claims that the world is the best it’s ever been in terms of the numbers, the other that it is the worst it’s ever been, in terms of perceived injustice and inequality. There has apparently never been more democracy and, conversely, never more oligarchy and plutocracy. Can all those broadly believed stories be true at the same time and part of a bigger picture? Yes. They not only can - they must. The historian looking back 30 years from now will only see one thread coming out of all this. She will scold us for not seeing it coming, given how “inevitable” it was. Your job is to take action and create that thread.