Is the COVID-19 Pandemic an Existential Crisis?

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Leighton Grey

Since we’ve recently celebrated Christmas, I decided to approach a poignant topic from a religious and philosophical perspective. In this vein, I recalled a great theologian whose work I studied as an undergraduate at Lutheran College, and marked its application to the present global crisis. Martin Buber was one of the most brilliant religious thinkers of the 20th century. He has perhaps had more influence upon Christian thinking than any other Jewish philosopher in modern times. His ideas have transcended the spheres of education, literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, ethics, and even political philosophy.   

Buber was born in 1878 and lived most of his early life with his grandfather at Lemberg in Galicia. Under his grandfather’s influence, he discovered Hasidism, a Jewish protest movement that was to greatly impact his own interpretation of life. He died in 1965.   Buber studied at the universities of Vienna and Berlin before rising to become the chair of Jewish Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. The Nazis’ rise to power interrupted his teaching. He resigned from his professorship in protest once Hitler came to power in 1933. From 1933-38, he taught in Jewish schools in Germany despite obvious persecution, helping to strengthen the identity and courage of his people.  

In 1938, Buber settled in Jerusalem and lectured in anthropology throughout the Second World War. After the war, he became professor of social philosophy at Hebrew University and the pre-eminent Israeli philosopher. Buber retired in 1951, but still lectured in the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, extending the understanding of and interest in his profound ideas. Martin Buber’s classic work is entitled I and Thou. Though he does not ignore the darker side of the human condition, Buber was most concerned with exploring the positive, constructive dimensions of human experience. He introduced the fundamental insight pervading all of his later work, i.e., that a person may be oriented to the world—to nature, to mankind, to the products of human creativity—in two basic ways. The crucial question in individual life and in culture is which of these orientations will be dominant and controlling? Both are important and necessary for human fulfilment; but if one is dominant, human life will be impoverished; if the other is dominant, then fully human life becomes possible. 

The Two Basic Attitudes or “Orientations” 

The two basic attitudes that one may take toward others are either as a “Thou” (subject) or as an “It” (object). These are crucial distinctions in Buber’s understanding of mankind and lead to his further distinction between a life of monologue versus a life of dialogue. Perhaps the simplest way to get at the meaning of Buber’s distinction is to look at our own experiences. How have you been treated by other individuals? Have you sometimes been treated as a thing and sometimes as a person? The first kind of treatment would belong to the I-It dimension, the second to the I-Thou. My 16-year-old son once explained the distinction in these terms: “My mother treats my dog like a dirty old shoe that gets in her way. I treat him like a member of the family.” When I treat the other as an It, the relationship might be considered as that of a subject to an object. The other is no more than an object to me. This means that what happens in such a relationship really happens within me. I have the relationship in my control, in my own experience. I can ignore what I want to about the other. I control whatever of myself I let enter into the relationship. I may only be interested in the other with a part of my being—what I see in them, or what I will do for them, or what I think about them. They are for my experience and use. I act toward them with a part of my being and I am interested in only a part of their being.  

Furthermore, the relationship is one way—it goes out from me to them. In the case of an I-Thou relationship, I relate as a subject to a subject, as a person to a person. What happens in the relationship is not in me or in you. It is between us. It is mutual. I enter into the relationship with the whole of my being and relate to the whole of the other. The experience is not exclusively mine, it is ours; I am not interested in using the other. The relationship exists for its own sake. The I of the I-It is the I of individuality. The I of the I-Thou relationship is the I of personality. A person comes into being by entering into relations with other persons. Each of us is both kinds of I. The individual here is more or less personal. Buber illustrated the difference by pointing to the I that Jesus and Socrates were, as opposed to the kind of I that Donald Trump and Canada’s prime minister possess (more on them later). 

The Two Consequent Ways of Human Life: We Lead Either a Life of Monologue or of Dialogue   

The difference is between seeming and being. In dialogue, the relationship proceeds from what one truly is. It is a relationship of being. In monologue, there is pretension and hypocrisy. One is interested in the impression given others of what one is. Seeming involves contriving looks and speech to create an image we want others to have of us.  Interaction is therefore one of appearances, so that individuals are not communicating their real being. Another important differentiation between monologue and genuine dialogue is that which Buber draws between the role of propagandist and educator. A relationship in which we try to impose our opinion and attitude upon the other, even if we want the other to think the result is really their own, represents the propagandist’s role. This sort of manipulation by an advertiser, salesman, or especially a politician, stands in the way of genuine dialogue.   

Application to the Crisis Facing Canada and the World Today 

It would be fascinating if Buber were around today to observe how technology has driven human beings away from dialogue into a state of nearly perpetual monologue. First, the internet, then email, then cellular phones, text messaging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and now, the ultimate—pandemic social distancing. Everyone knows that human beings are social creatures who naturally and universally organize themselves into groups, be they families, villages, towns, cities, or nations. As Buber properly recognized, we were made to live in a state of dialogue with each other and with the world. Neuroscientists have even discovered that mundane interactions with others cause our brains to release serotonin, the naturally occurring “happy drug” that determines our mood, our level of satisfaction with our lives, and even our general state of physical or mental health. In fact, most prescription anti-depressants are designed to regulate serotonin levels and keep us in a sophrosyne state of mind. 

A generation or two ago, our parents and grandparents would have experienced these serotonin-inducing interactions every single day: at work, at the bakery, at the butcher shop, at the barbershop, at the general store, or at any of the places where humans come together in a community. Technology has gradually removed us from the social essence of our existence, to the point where parents communicate with their teenagers via text message —from different rooms in the same house.  

As a gym rat 30 years ago, I remember the sound of the iron clinking, the grunting, the occasional nod, or bit of conversation. Today, everyone has headphones, listening to their own private soundtracks in a monologue experience. Actual friends have been replaced by Facebook ones. Kids used to get together and play games outside like road hockey, football, or baseball. Today, they congregate via headsets and webcams to play Fortnite and Overwatch. I would love to see a comparison of serotonin levels between kids actually playing Twister together versus connecting virtually to play a video game. I rather suspect that one of these things is not like the other. 

And then there are our leaders. Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” harkening back to the halcyon days of Reaganomics. But Ronald Reagan was a master communicator, a professional actor in fact, trained and experienced to play to an audience in a manner that was more than just soliloquy. Trump, by contrast, was the imperious, numismatic boss on The Apprentice. There was no dialogue between him and the other cast members on that show. Instead, Trump epitomized the individual in monologue, barking orders, making threats, setting expectations which, if not met, meant that you would hear those famous words: “You’re fired!”  

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump did not give speeches in the traditional manner and method that we have all come to expect of candidates for the office of the head of the free world. Instead, he delivered meandering monologues: conversations with himself, about himself, and about what a great president he was going to be. Finally, as president, rather than participate in dialogue with the punditocracy generating “fake news,” his chosen medium to reveal his foremost thoughts was the ultimate one-way conversation: Twitter. In this sense at least, he truly was a novel president. But, we must ask, at what cost? When the president does not engage in true dialogue with his own people, then what message does that send to the rest of America and to the rest of the free world? 

And then there is our own Canadian supreme leader, who in 2015 filled many Canadians with sanguine hopes of “sunny ways,” promising an approachable, transparent, responsive, and ethical government; in short, a leader in full Buberian dialogue with his people. There were a few noteworthy town hall meetings (“peoplekind”), but once elected, he retreated into a full monologue. He imposed unprecedented tax increases, decreed gender equality in his cabinet, made sweeping changes to the Criminal Code, sacrificed the western Canadian oil and gas sector upon the altar of climate hysteria, put obscure faces on our currency in the name of inclusion and diversity, and unilaterally changed the words to our cherished national anthem. He robotically repeated soundtrack answers in Parliament during Question Period that did not even relate to the questions posed, and now, he has been hiding in his cottage for months during a national emergency. He only comes out to descend the stairs, peer smugly into the unmanned camera, and then deliver his “moistly” monologues, mandating “social distancing” and even threatening prison time for those with the temerity to gather in groups of more than six or fail to stay at least six feet away from each other.  Here is a leader in monologue, in isolation, in self-quarantine, modelling the new way for us to relate to one another. Rather than submit to our better nature as social creatures, our leader is telling us to avoid each other on the off chance that we might make each other sick—or worse. 

So what then is the societal cost of living in monologue? Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote that “any society that would give up a little liberty to gain temporary security will deserve neither and will lose both.” His contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, author of the infamous Declaration of Independence, similarly mused that he would “prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” How much freedom must we surrender in the name of safety from COVID-19? Tech messiah Bill Gates would have every single man, woman, and child vaccinated and digitally marked, as with a tattoo at Auschwitz. The Canadian prime minister would order each of us to stay in our homes until a vaccine is found and universally administered. Meanwhile, his government is spending Canada into certain oblivion as it invokes emergency powers which flout democracy and ignore our constitutionally enshrined civil liberties.    

When the police interrupt your pleasant springtime bicycle ride through the park to ticket you for not staying home, will that not be a monologue? When they stop your car on the street and ticket you for having too many people in your car, will they listen to you? And when they come to your door and want to arrest your phlegmatic 80-year-old father on what is likely your last Easter Sunday with him, will you let them in, or will you try to engage them in a dialogue, to make them understand that the sharing of this social gathering with your family far outweighs the risk of someone getting the flu? 

Of one thing we can be sure: our governments see themselves as Buber’s existential “I” and the rest of us as the “It.” We are objects to be controlled and ultimately enslaved. Freedoms surrendered for the sake of public good or need, especially legal and economic ones, become powers in the hands of the governments most reluctant to restore them once the impetus of societal danger dissipates. To my mind, that is something much more to be feared than viral infection, illness, or even death: the very state of being which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described as “nasty, brutish, and short.” 

Happy Easter, and take care.

Leighton Grey is a research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash.