Somewhere amid the past year’s COVID-19 disruption, national political division and social media stratification consequently erupting real-life human violence and frustration — and what all that means to us in our cozy little mountain valley — there must be a sensemaking singularity. Or at least something that vaguely ties this swirling madness together and helps us make sense of the current societal maelstrom. Let’s explore…
Could it be our concept of national unity? E pluribus unum? From many, one? I think not. Disunity has grown into a cornerstone, a kind of cultural badge of honor, like a field promotion for social media warriors and disaffected politicians. Disagree with me, and you’re a Nazi or a Commie meriting cultural cancellation. Our ability to discern and account for the subtleties and complexities of the matters before us — and act accordingly — is overwhelmed by the self-reinforcing algorithms to which most of us subject ourselves in our relatively emergent virtual lives. Tolerance fades further from the realm of public discourse with each violently erupting real-world example of our growing division.
What about personal accountability? Whatever happened to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror?” Now I’m dating myself. That was 1988. No internet. No social media. So, remind me of a more recent pop celebrity invocation of personal accountability; there must be one, yes? Or has personal accountability been replaced, terrifyingly, by a battle for an overarching ideological imperative based upon group affiliation?
Maybe it’s our evolving understanding of injustice that explains all of this? Consider Apple, Inc. While the corporate giant virtue signals its domestic group allegiances of choice, Bloomberg and Forbes, among others, reported that in December one of its manufacturing subcontractors — Wistron, a Taiwanese company operating in India — had basically stopped paying its workers to make their products, putting as little as $8 a month in their bank accounts for manufacturing Apple’s products.
How does Apple stand for such injustice to workers in its own international supply chain while signaling its intolerance to racism and other forms of injustice in the United States? Well, in the past few months during the COVID crisis Apple’s stock price has increased 148%, to $132.05 from its 52-week low price of $53.15. I’m just spitballing, but I would hazard to guess that stock price and accountability to shareholders have got something to do with it.
But Apple is simply an obvious example of a broader systemic issue. We have all, in some way, subjugated ourselves to the international supply chain, with its “out of sight, out of mind” economic and human rights externalities, which at this point mostly only exploit people on the other side of the planet. The domestic jobs it displaced are, after all, long gone. Besides, Apple did launch an investigation into Wistron’s employment practices after the workers basically burned the factory down. That reaction might have been a tad late. So no, it’s not our shared understanding of injustice.
What about our moral principles? Can we not always fall back on those to make sense of the world around us? If you mean the principles found in ancient texts like Moses’ Ten Commandments that provide the original foundation for much of today’s western law, you might want to think again. Yes, those texts are all about individual accountability, and their stories recount over and over the dangers of misguided and overzealous allegiance to group affiliation. But today they are often ridiculed by our societal leaders as elements of ancient superstitions, conjured by peoples far inferior to modern thinkers and our technological achievements and scientific understanding of the universe.
To which I would ask: if we belittle the foundational moral and legal principles upon which we rely to live collectively in peace, what is to become of the law itself? As cities move to defund police departments in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco — decriminalize crime itself — I think we might be in the process of finding out.
All the while, locally, the in-migration continues. Urban dwellers with the means to relocate continue to leave cities in droves for the perceived relative safety of rural regions like our pristine little valley. Our roads and stores are busier than ever, and our real estate market booms. But is it safer here? Pitkin County reports the second highest COVID-19 infection rate in Colorado, a rate far higher than major urban areas like Los Angeles and New York City.
Finally, perhaps it’s COVID-19 itself that provides that singular, sensemaking catalyst. On Monday, Pitkin’s health board finally capitulated to the pressure to do something other than demand visitors carry around a piece of paper swearing that they had a COVID test before coming here. Now that the busy holidays are over, they’ve moved from the “orange-plus-plus” COVID category — which has proven to be roughly equivalent to Dean Wormer’s “double secret probation” in “Animal House” in terms of its effectiveness in stemming the virus’ spread — to the red category, closing indoor restaurant dining in the process. Never mind that Aspen’s visitors have been, and will continue to, eat and drink inside somewhere. It is January in the Rockies after all.
So no, it’s not COVID-19, or cultural unity, or personal accountability, or injustice, or our moral principles, or even the law that provides for sensemaking of and sanity from the crazy disrupted world around us. At one time, ending about 10 months ago, they all would have provided their part of the sensemaking answer, but they don’t seem to anymore. The only thing that seems to make sense is the idea that nothing is supposed to make sense. I suppose that’s what long-term societal disruption does.