Against the new normal

Even as lockdown measures are relaxed, we are still passengers in this process.

Matthias Heitmann

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Topics Politics World

‘We are moving towards a new normality.’ This is how Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, put it at a coronavirus press conference last week, alongside Angela Merkel and various state premiers. The government was announcing its timetable to phase out the lockdown measures. Before it began, the conference had an almost religious feel, with those gathered seeming to wait for proclamation and guidance.

During the conference, there was talk of a ‘road map back to life’, a ‘return to normality’, the ‘restarting of society and the economy’ and ‘loosening up’. When the nation has spent the past weeks crammed between the sofa, balcony and bedroom-cum-home office, people start to get hung up on these words. Finance minister Scholz’s statement on the ‘new normality’ almost passed everyone by. Yet sometimes it is precisely the words that get the least attention that are the most noteworthy, and which hide the hitherto unrecognised trends.

What does this new normality look like? Who decided on it? And if we don’t know what this new normality looks like, how can we tell if and when we are there? We the public cannot because we are only passengers on this journey.

We were even told that the exact timings will remain unknown, but any advances will depend on our good behaviour. Keep your distance, fasten your seatbelt and do not talk to the driver while he or she is driving. Then, and only then, can a ‘new normality’ possibly be achieved, into which set pieces of the old normal can be built.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that this planned return to normality is based on a disastrous double error. First, normality is neither a place we can leave or return to, nor is it a state of matter that can be changed. Whoever leaves normality gives it up. Whatever follows it is not normal.

At the same time, politicians have a completely unworldly understanding of how normality arises. Normality does not adhere to plans and blueprints — it is the product of innumerable human processes. It grows from experiences, developments, grandiose victories and painful ruptures. Normality only exists if it is filled with life by normal people.

Today’s situation deprives the public sphere and social life of its usual vitality. Conversely, it has promoted megalomania and fantasies of omnipotence on the part of politicians and state authorities. The successful spreading of fear and terror has strengthened our own willingness to obey, too. The question everyone is asking themselves all the time is: ‘Can I do that?’

In this climate, doubt and dissent are regarded as a source of danger. And suddenly, restrictions that were unthinkable just a short time ago became real. The state of emergency eats away at normality. The mere idea of returning to normality from this anomaly, with the help of a moderately timed timetable, is itself deeply abnormal.

The good news is that a ‘new normality’ will develop – but not in the way that it is envisaged by the government. By moving away from the old familiar normality and finding our way in new realities, we are slowly overcoming the rigidity caused by the initial shock – both in our actions and in our thinking. It is vital for democracy that the democratic, sovereign citizen starts thinking for himself again.

To do this we must leave the comfort zone of prescribed security. Instead of constantly thinking about whether something is allowed or not, we should ask: ‘Why should it not be allowed?’ And we need to keep asking: ‘Does this restriction make any sense at all?’

However, independent thinking cannot be summoned at the push of a button. The first barrier to independent thinking is risk aversion, which has been a dominant feature of society and politics since at least the 1980s. German sociologist Ulrich Beck was one of the main proponents of this thinking. Beck argued in his book Risk Society that traditional democratic processes were unable to incorporate his heightened appreciation for risk into political decisions. But since Beck wrote the book, in 1986, the constant evocation of exceptional situations and fears has developed into a core instrument of modern politics.

Considering the attention given to the climate emergency over the past year or so, it is no coincidence that the media are increasingly emphasising the positive side effects of the coronavirus lockdown on nature. Already, the forced departure from our old normality is being used by politicians and activists to advocate a future of reduced mobility, consumption, energy and living standards. It is surely only a matter of time before the idea of regular lockdowns is proposed as a way to save nature and the climate, like some kind of global fasting cure or eco-Ramadan.

Those of us who strive for a normality in which people are as free and self-determined as possible must first and foremost ‘normalise’ our own relationship to uncertainty and risk. Freedom and self-determination cannot be achieved without a willingness to take risks. Challenging the risk society will do more for our freedoms in the long run than the slow state-mandated journey to normality.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and columnist for the German magazine Cicero where this article first appeared on April 19, 2020. Visit Heitmann’s website here.

Picture by: Getty.

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