by Jessica Geraldo Schwengber

Jessica Geraldo Schwengber is a research fellow in the “Transcultural Competences Research Group” and PhD student at the chair of Institutional Economics. She graduated in Economics and Management from the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, individuals´ lives have been turned upside down: the imposition of new rules has thwarted human beings going about their usual everyday lives. The social sphere of the self has been particularly affected: social distancing and lockdown have become integral parts of a worldwide shared vernacular.

Josef Wieland´s Relational Theory, a theory that represents one of my theoretical pillars, not only from an academic perspective but also from a personal viewpoint since it has affected the way I observe the reality that surrounds me, defines the self as the relational self. Nevertheless, the current global situation seems to curb the relational nature of human beings. Is this really the case?

It seems clear that since the beginning of the outbreak, two contrasting tendencies have emerged. One the one hand, solidarity around the world supported by the evidence that everyone is in the same boat, that everyone is sharing a common fate, and on the other, egotism, both at individual and collective levels. Supermarket shelves are empty. Face masks are jealously guarded. European leaders seem to be unable to find a common solution to a common crisis, because it seems that they, or rather we, every single individual, seems to be pursuing our own self-interests. In the face of coronavirus, at first sight someone may claim that “weness” is fading away. Once again, is this really the case?

This analysis should begin by clarifying “weness”. On this point Michael Tomasello has endeavoured to explain why human beings communicate and collaborate and, in an attempt to offer answers to such questions, has developed the interdependence hypothesis to explain the emergence of “weness” (Tomasello 2008, 2016, 2019). According to this theory, human beings collaborate because “I” depends on “you” (and vice versa) to reach a specific goal. While collaborating, “I” and “you” pursue their own individual goals as well. From this ontogeny perspective, the evolutionary emergence of “weness”, seems to not have its roots in altruism. Nevertheless, to recognize the relational nature of the self does not require one to classify the nature of cooperation as egoistic or as altruistic. Transactions between individuals do exist and, although moral judgments serve to classify them as good or bad, they do not eradicate them.

This argumentation sheds light on the discussion about human nature which, whether originally good or bad, has not been concluded in the philosophical diatribe between Mencius and Xunzi. Nevertheless, the relational view is not aimed at contributing to such a philosophical debate, rather it claims a non-normative approach, requiring moral judgements to be put aside. Regardless of judgments, transactions do exist. The relational theory does not claim a utopian view of the self. Regardless of such a philosophical discussion, the current global challenges require an approach based on collaboration, otherwise the negative impacts of coronavirus will probably be worse. In a situation where the vulnerability of single individuals and of social systems cannot be denied and where everyone and every system is potentially under attack, to combine efforts towards a common goal could be an astute strategy. But how can individuals and systems collaborate if social distancing and lockdowns curb interactions? Or to put it differently, are individuals really practicing social distancing? Are individuals capable of living in isolation? And to what extent does the current global situation challenge cooperation and therefore relational view of the self?

I would begin by reflecting that, to ensure social distancing, authorities all over the world have had to come up with new regulations, and with appropriate sanctions, in order to persuade individuals to respect lockdowns. One could argue that this depends on our predisposition to ignore simple advice, which then leads to the need for sanctions, rather than on the human instinct to relate with others. Dialectic and rhetoric seem not to work as a means of persuasion in many cases. But even if everyone practices social distancing, whether for reasons of common sense or as strategic behaviour to avoid sanctions, can it really be argued that coronavirus has curbed interactions? One may answer in the negative, while thinking about the digital revolution that has taken place in recent decades and that provides all manner of tools enabling us to stay connected despite physical distance. What a predictable answer, someone may exhort, claiming that it does not have a connection to the relational aspect of human nature but rather to the opportunities offered by new technological developments. If, on the one hand, technology definitely supports interaction among people despite lockdowns, on the other, the innovative use of such tools to foster interaction supports the thesis that connection among individuals, whether for personal or professional reasons, is unavoidable. It is not difficult to find some everyday examples of this. In just a few days, Zeppelin University, for example, has been able to shift from providing face-to-face classes to being an e-learning university, representatives from various EU states held discussions via videoconferencing. Of course, coronavirus has challenged our common understanding of social interaction, which is commonly understood as physical, while forcing us to keep our (physical) distance. On one hand, physical distance does not preclude communication; on the other, physical proximity does not ensure effective interactions. On this point, it is worth underlining that this is not an attempt to reduce the relevance of face-to-face encounters but, on the contrary, to highlight the fact that human beings continue interacting, and if physical interactions are discouraged or even forbidden, we find innovative ways to relate with others.

Apropos, during the plague that hit Europe in the 14th century, which was probably much more devastating than the current one, given the historical period and the medical progress that humanity has witnessed since then, Bocaccio wrote the Decameron, which describes the daily lives of some young people who, isolated from the rest of the world, lived together during the period of the plague. In the 14th century there were not all the technological tools that we have at our disposal nowadays; nevertheless these stories bear witness to the desire to keep living together, to keep sharing our existence with others. It can be argued that Decameron is a fantasy but does fantasy not represent human beings´ deeper desires?

Looking at the current situation from another perspective, the coronavirus outbreak has underlined human beings´ interconnection at a global level. The fact that the plague in the 14th century did not reach the American continent highlights the role of interconnectedness in contemporary society, whether for good or for bad reasons. The fact that we are all living in an interconnected global setting has never been so obvious as now, and coronavirus has also brought out the negative side of such a state of affairs. Nevertheless, I would argue that this virus can potentially strengthen ties around the world. Suddenly the whole world has a shared challenge that has the potential to affect everyone, regardless of nationality, culture, social or professional background. We are all in the same boat! This challenging situation paves the way to what relation theory calls transcultural management, a transaction-based approach that focuses on existing and new commonalities and that aims to achieve mutually beneficial results. In fact, efforts from many different parts of the globe have already been made to contribute to a common project, namely the defeat of the virus at global level. To this end concerted action applied in different contexts has already been undertaken, without neglecting the differences in terms of social, cultural or health systems among the different players. A thin global necessity has been translated into thick local actions. While facing a shared concern, the whole world is trying to develop innovative practices, such as social and medical measures, aimed at coping with a common enemy, while maintaining a non-normative approach.

No, coronavirus has not led to a reduction in social interaction, or at least not in a broad sense. On the contrary, it has highlighted our interconnection, it has demonstrated that individuals are capable of innovating and changing the way they communicate in order to keeping interacting. Human beings are not isolated beings and coronavirus has offered an empirical support to the relational nature of the self. Whether all parts involved will be able to continue cooperating, whether the shared measures will work, whether mutual benefits will be achieved and distributed, whether in the end our ties will be really enforced is not clear and every attempt to answer these questions is mere speculation, but it is worth keeping in mind that the history of humanity has demonstrated that a crisis can be a new starting point to create something greater, more innovative, revolutionary. The French revolution led to a new era, from the modern to the contemporary age, the great depression paved the way for new economic models, the catastrophes left by the Second World War led to new constitutions based on new values, even our natural world seems to be the result of an explosion, the Big Bang. Let’s capture the opportunities that can be derived from this period of uncertainty, let’s keep our eyes open to innovation, let’s reflect on the role of our interconnectedness, let’s reflect on the role of transcultural approaches.