The Covid Chronicles
A Stroll Through the Menagerie
I’ll be your guide. Now I feel confident speaking for the whole staff here at the Menagerie of Postnormal Potentialities that it is truly inspiring to see so many of you come out tonight and partake in our mandatory temperature screening and personal data handing over. We will make sure to take good care of that for you! We all have to do our part in these crazy times. Now, we remind you to please make sure to respect social distancing at all times, try best to keep your mask secure, and your germs to yourself. Thanks!
I find its always best to begin these tours with a little bit of fun. Let me begin with a joke!
So, a Franciscan and a Jesuit priest are friends. Both smokers, they find it difficult to pray for long periods of time without a succulent cigarette. One evening, both priests resolved to seek the guidance of their superiors to resolve their dilemma. The next day, the two priests met again. This time, the Franciscan arrived, defeated. “I spoke to my superior,” he said. “I asked if I could smoke while I pray and he firmly said ‘no’”. The Jesuit smiled. “So did I, but I asked my superior, ‘would I be permitted to pray while I smoke?’ and he said ‘of course!’”
We should all find more to laugh about during these times of Covid-19. But this joke speaks to something you should all take to heart. Sometimes the key to getting the answers we need lie in the way we ask the questions. We are going to need to be as clever and creative as our Jesuit friend above if we are to weather Postnormal Times. Creativity and imagination are at the heart of the pursuit of a navigation proposed by Ziauddin Sardar when he introduced the concept a decade ago.
Before we come across our first enclosure, perhaps you would like to give yourself a quick refresher on the various wildlife you will find in the Menagerie. Sardar and Sweeney introduce the Menagerie in “The Three Tomorrows of Postnormal Times” and they are very nicely laid out in the context of Covid-19 in Part 2 of the Postnormal Perfect Storm by Serra, Jones, and Mayo.
Oh, don’t mind the fine print on that disclaimer there. Everyone signed? Good, on we go!
People love the menagerie. After each workshop, conference, lecture, paper, and exhibit the buzz is all black elephants, black swans, and black jellyfish. Who are they, what are they, and where are they? Is this a Black Swan. Maybe it is actually a Black Jellyfish. Upon reflection, it must be a Black Elephant.
The determining of the menagerie is a wonderful exercise in learning that everyone has an important part to play within. The exercise can be made a bit more interesting when it is done both at the onset and after the fact. Like when a primary school teacher has you fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the term, so that by term’s end you can look back and see how your responses had changed. How much you had grown. Indeed, the original thought on what was what in January this year are vastly different now, not event at the mid-year mark! The first problem encountered in determining the roles of the potentialities resides in parsing the general from the special. In attempting to capture the big picture in our analysis we lose sight of the particulars. Your perspective is important. The Menagerie are a tool that help to expose ignorance and uncertainty present in the context of a given situation. In so doing, they also demonstrate postnormal change by highlighting elements of greater complexities, increasing chaos, or compounding contradictions. The exercise itself almost forces you to both consider the general and the special simultaneously. The unknowns revealed do not have to be solely your own, they can also be shared. The most is gained from pursuing this challenge with the simultaneous split mind. This is but one way of thinking that is going to be necessary to grapple with the postnormality of certain situations. Covid-19 is no exception.
The second major problem in dealing with the menagerie is that each one is a potentiality. Potentialities are very volatile. They are subject to change, actualisation, and oblivion in equal parts. Because of this reality, it is advised not to try and place a member of the menagerie in a vacuum. Animals, like us, need air to live after all. And to do this limits what they can reveal that may be vital in transcending the messiness they could bring about. But this can also be a good thing. In potentiality, they can hypothetically indicate hope and the far side of the rainbow. So, one person’s black elephant is another’s black jellyfish, is another’s black swan. And that’s great. In analysis of a potentiality the more mapping of what this means to the greatest amount of people or groups puts more information on the table. Information that can be compiled to determine a navigation. There is an interesting quandary placed upon the analysts at this point.
Can a potential be judged?
Well, of course it can. But should it be judged? Now, the ripples left in the wake of a potential tend to be either good or bad, but in the bad, are there not other goods done elsewhere? Is judging a black elephant, a black swan, or a black jellyfish on its worst outcomes just a lack of creativity? There is a reason that they cast of the 1979 film Alien, entered the chamber housing numerous eggs with some trepidation. It is natural to fear the unknown, especially a potentiality never seen before. But can a child be judged for what they will eventually do. This is the classic ethics question. Is it permissible to kill a child who would grow up to be a genocidal maniac and a tyrant? Is the order upheld by the authorities and precogs in the 2002 film Minority Report fair? It may be possible that there are no clear answers here, but a moral inventory ought to be taken with a certain level of transparency to one’s self and the subject studied. But I leave the questioning to you with one thought. The last few decades of mass school shootings and other forms of mass violence on behalf of lone wolves or terrorists across the world have left us with an interesting notion. We may not be able to see or understand everything. The postmodern tendency may tempt you to stop here. I challenge you to keep going. The random act does occur. But everything has a history and motive may not be as direct a concept as our education has led us to conclude. Particularly in postnormal times, the menagerie helps us unearth the context and history that will help us make sense of what otherwise is lacking.
Okay, we are arriving at our first enclosure. As we explore the Menagerie of Potentialities in the context of Covid-19, we can get a deeper respect of the issues facing us in postnormal times and begin to identify necessary tools for constructing a navigation beyond this pandemic.
The Three Tomorrows paper references the now infamous quote from former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In 2002, while evaluating the threat Iraq and its alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction posed to the US, Rumsfeld noted that there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown knowns. This categorisation works nicely with the menagerie and will help as we review them here.
Black elephants are perhaps the most ignored members of our menagerie, but they will not remain silent. By Rumsfeld’s reckoning, these are the known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. Clear and present for those watching, they tend to be ignored by individuals or even whole societies. Often, they represent a disconnect between experts and the public. Climate change is a wonderful example of this, even having been blow up to the point of farce. When the black elephant makes its move, its impact is high. “I told you so” leaves a bitter taste rather satisfaction on the palate.
The key to exposing black elephants and transcending them lies in seeking out more and more perspectives. This creates a haphazard bridge between the estranged experts and public, exposing contradictions all along the way. The yellow brick road leads to an ordinary man pulling levers, selling smoke and mirrors from behind a curtain. Interestingly, a parable, also about an elephant, can give us a bit more insight into what black elephants mean for postnormal times.
A similar parable is found in Sufi and other mystical traditions dating back to at least the first millennia. A group of blind men happen upon an elephant, each of them touching a different part of the elephant and thus developing a certain understanding of the elephant. The man who grabs the trunk says the elephant is like a snake. This continues for the ear, like a fan, the leg a tree, the tail a rope, the side a wall, and the tusk a spear. Each man has some understanding of the elephant, yet also understands nothing about the elephant. None of them understand the elephant in itself, yet none of them are wrong in their conclusion, per say.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the failures of capitalism to provide a notion of wealth and value or to do anything but exacerbate societal issues is revealed headline by headline, the black elephant in the room. Interestingly, the disconnect seems to be equal and opposite between experts and the public in this example. The experts, whether or not aware of its flaws and evils, need capitalism to carry on, while the public is being shown more and more its horrid realities. But even they in the same breath need the system. The failure of communism destroyed the credibility of many of capitalism’s vehement critics, that is until more recent times when the increasingly frequent waves of crash and booms, despite their sustainability (which many have questioned), are not appearing to fair well for 99% of the globe’s population. And that 1% are learning how much they may prefer to keep the other 99% around. Be it lack of cleverness or imagination, expert or not, we all approach the black elephant of capitalism, ironically equalised in our blindness. Some grab the trunk and see the inequality it feeds upon. Others understand it as rampant consumerism, gender pay gaps, GPD, markets, greed, ethical debates, global divides, under regulation, endless cycles of crisis and a myriad of other equally relevant, but wholly insufficient in grappling the complexity and power behind the greater problem. But despite how much power it holds, the black elephant is not immune from contradictions. If one mouse can stop an elephant dead in its tracks. Imagine the power of a nest of mice.
This will not be easy and it will be a long battle. Despite the overwhelming evidence around today, climate denial still exists. Less than a year ago I was speaking with an individual who uttered the quote “I don’t believe in climate change, but you cannot deny that the climate is changing. I mean (pause), you know…” Luckily, contradictions can be a wonderful opportunity for comedy, and while we all like to deny certain bits of reality that may make us feel inferior, nobody wants to be the butt of a joke.
Consider a slightly less complex black elephant. Have you washed your hands recently? There is a wonderful metaphorical example of the mouse before the elephant, soap and water in being the first, and often quite effective, line of defence against a globe sweeping virus. But, water is not always instantly available and often the time to suds up, not allowable in our fast-paced world. So we turn to the convenient holy hand-grenade we can keep in our purses and backpacks. Hand sanitizer. You must be familiar with it? It is now an essential item beside every door. Why not take two pumps, just for good measure! And for those keeping score at home, you may recall that particularly after the avian flu and H1N1 scares in the first decade of the 21st century there has been a proliferation of hand sanitizer dispensers in public facilities. Of course, once the fad wore off, those dispensers found themselves getting refilled less and less. And as these dispensers went up, a fiery debate followed. Not over their unsightliness or cost, but whether or not they were the tools for a greater, long term self-inflicted destruction. This is antibacterial resistance and super bugs. Now that Covidy times have us applying hand sanitizer at the rate teenagers apply fragrance in order to attract a date, are we not shifting the potential for superbugs into hyperdrive.
This predicament is complicated. The measures taken at doors around the world, often including a temperature reading (which have been found to determine little in the way of viral infection), hand sanitizer application, and contact data collection, all stand more as social unifying tactics and piece of mind than effective viral defence. But this is vital in keeping everyone cool through this crisis and in its own way indirectly fighting transmission. So, you may be seen as an unpopular opinion holder if you begin a debate with a doorperson who is probably underpaid, underappreciated, and frankly putting their neck on the line so you can wander about. Never the less, the superbug threat is very real. A solution that is abused beyond its purpose often has a counterintuitive effect, especially in the realm of medical sciences. And even if we are all making like Thelma and Louise in our disinfecting adherence, it is always harder to see beyond the immediate when speeding down the road.
Alright folks, we mustn’t dillydally! Fear not, those elephants won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, onto the next enclosure!
Black swans can be hard to see but once they have been revealed, it all seemed, in retrospect, so obvious. For Rumsfeld, they are the unknown unknowns. The things we don’t know we don’t know. They exist beyond what our worldview allows, but once our worldview is expanded, of course! They are the ultimate spoiler. They reveal a hidden complexity we may have been overlooking which opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities. Once the killer is revealed in the who-done-it film, the clues become overwhelmingly clear on a second viewing. After Westerners had found black swans in Australia, one could ask “how could we have let such a silly characteristic as pigment concentration be such a global determinate when it bears little to no functional difference from one to another?”
Consider Wittgenstein’s Duck. Or is it a rabbit? This image, like other optical illusions represents more than a language game. It exposes the limitations of our ability to see, and thus understand. It appears to be human tendency to simplify, even normalise, the world around us, yet as we do, we limit its potential and set ourselves up for possibly very dangerous traps. Chinese philosophy can help us here as well. Think of the Dao. Just by thinking about it, or writing it, I limit it. It is a totality beyond comprehension, something to be sought after, but that can never be completely comprehended by humans who themselves are very limited creatures. Here, outliers are important, they may just tell us something about complexity that will up-end the conventional methods. Ignore at your peril.
As different parts of the world attempt to come to the terms with Covid-19’s being here to stay, the latest buzzword is the new normal. What will it be? When will we get there? Well, there is a theory that the more an adjective needs to be emphasised, the stronger the possibility that it is not what it purports to be. This point is made exceptionally well in the HBO series Game of Thrones where the grandfather of the King of Westeros makes the statement “any king who has to say ‘I am the King!’ is no true king…” The ‘new’ normal is anything but. The new normal may be a product of lack of imagination and creativity. In fact, it carries on the current trend of remaking and rebooting seen across entertainment. The new normal is a normalisation, how little can be changed so that we may go back to what we always did. This process of normalisation sets up history to repeat itself and ignores the problems that were already bubbling prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. To truly move on from the pandemic, we need to change many things and the changes required demands a less limited worldview.
To progress, we need to seek out the black swans roaming about this crisis. They will present with positive and negative opportunities if this is done with creativity and a closely held sense of ethics. The new world we forge can prevent yesterdays mistakes from being made again. Technology can be both a beautiful and deadly black swan. Perhaps we have been too limiting in our sense of global responsibility and global citizenship. Elements of nationalism and authoritarianism have been given perhaps a dangerously favourable shade of light. The outliers need to be scrutinised, not cast aside.
An interesting black swan lies in the truly new normal. This is not normalisation. This is a proper new normal. Perhaps a transcendence, definitely a lesson learned. Often, they will be directly opposed or avoided due to the emotional stock we place in normality. These will be cultural changes. The smallest ones, are language changes. They seem rather ineffectual, and often happen so gradually, that you didn’t even notice they had occurred. The changes we are seeing (and it remains to be seen if they will stick or how they will be otherwise normalised or adopted), include how we greet, how we show affection, how we show love. This includes how we treat strangers. How we see ourselves. How we meet with others. Religious centres, cultural products, tourism, entertainment, and travel all stand on a line between becoming a new normal and being normalised. These present with a variety of opportunities on a rage of preference and comfort. No doubt, little will go back to exactly how it was, but how familiar will the impending futures appear?
Please don’t feed the birds, this situation is not one that you can bribe your way out of! Onward!
Black Jellyfish are chaos incarnate. They are the harbingers of postnormal times. They further reveal hidden complexities and hidden uncertainties. To Rumsfeld, they are his unknown knowns. They are that which we thought we understood, yet turned out to be far more complex and uncertain than previously imagined. Positive feedback allows them to radically throw the scale off, very rapidly creating instability throughout the greater system. To an extent, the black elephant and black swan exists within the black jellyfish as the black jellyfish simultaneously exists within all the other potentialities. Again, the problem of potentialities is that almost anything can show characteristics of very easily becoming a black jellyfish. Afterall, even jellyfish can move from dormancy (potentiality) into bloom (full blown actualisation) almost instantaneously.
A legion of black jellyfish threatens democracy as we know it. Democracy itself is very nearly the antithesis of a pandemic like that brought on by SARS-CoV-2. For democracy to flourish it requires the social and community-oriented structures lain to waste by the virus. Social distancing and staying at home are the worse nightmare of early democratic thinkers. Not to mention the authoritarian micro-abuses (particularly local policing bodies having to uphold Covid-19 instigated draconian policies) that have been occurring everywhere and with fear reinstalling xenophobic sentiment into the people’s modus operandi. All of the old problems of inequality and injustice have been put on hold, which has resulted in them being exacerbated over the term of the crisis. Two months into a nearly global lockdown and only now are governments beginning to explore new ways of conducting their business. Meanwhile in other places elections have been held while in still others they have been postponed. This will have dramatic consequences on the next few years which will have to answer for any mishaps that occur. And while a vast majority of state policies in response to the pandemic have been categorical failures, greater discontent could undermine the already fragile state of democracy. Local leaders are looked to with greater respect than national leaders (particularly in the US, the UK, and Malaysia, to name a few) where they either hesitate to follow state policy or directly oppose it in their jurisdiction. No doubt political participation is equally under threat and propped up, but in a variety of directions. Especially when we take into account technological transgressions, fake news, a global population that will need a new approach to welfare, wellbeing, and mental health as all our lives will have to change after Covid-19.
And if a second (or more) wave is to hit, then can the current structures of the globe be able to keep the ship afloat for another two months or more?
But all hope is not lost. Slowly, things are changing. Adapting. Legislative bodies are finding ways to assemble while maintaining social distancing. World leaders are finding new ways to connect to their people. In being apart, we are learning to work together (and that’s a nice reversal of how social media used to bring us together to drive us apart). Technology and a little creativity are nudging this along. But what is being seen is occurring more at the local level while the efficiency and competency of various governments is far from a certainty. The real test will come as larger scale elections, which have already suffered from growing pains of innovation and technological hiccups prior to the pandemic, and more substantive government action becomes necessary.
In the two and a half months since countries all over the world began various forms of lockdown, many interesting phenomena have been occurring. The phase “nature is healing” sums up the major shifts in air quality, water cleanliness and the overall return nature is having in our absence. Even wild animals have been spotted wondering around urban areas they would never dare tread in normal conditions. There may be a temptation to go about taming nature once again. A sense that all this madness needs to be controlled and managed. This is folly. As the potentialities reveal a deeper complexity than we care to consider, our attempts to command it will result in the unintended consequence of gross neglect and incompetence. Change has arrived and it will continue whether or not we are ready. In seeking deeper understanding, we may empower ourselves to shape a more desirable future. As naturists have been trying to say for decades, we should study and appreciate these beasts and maybe we could stand to learn something new in the process.
Unfortunately, we are out of time for today, but I along with my fellow employees at the Menagerie hope you enjoyed our tour and most importantly had fun. I’m sorry, that we have to leave you so abruptly. Please don’t forget to show your appreciation as you navigate your way out!
Have a few black elephants, black swans, or black jellyfish of your own? We would love to hear them. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and maybe the your menagerie analysis can help us broaden all our understanding.