If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll have noticed that I felt compelled to state my moral position on the conflict in Ukraine, and to condemn Vladimir Putin in the strongest terms. This makes me feel that I’ve done something useful, like signing a petition, whereas, in reality, I have achieved nothing at all.
That’s the zeitgeist: everybody’s trying to establish and express themselves, trying to start or join movements (including me), but far fewer are doing anything of practical use to help our communities and our fellow human beings. (Donate to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, people!)
The famous connectivity of the internet seems, ironically, to have encouraged us to abandon our unsatisfactory real communities, for less awkward online relationships. These are more tailored to our personal needs, but are tenuous, performative and largely fictional. The internet is a powerful atomising force. It leaves us isolated and alone.
Western societies have been heading in this direction for centuries. Who knows when the rot first set in? Perhaps it was in The Renaissance, with the rediscovery of Classical thought and its focus on individual self-development. Then the invention of the printing press allowed for the spread of costs across whole print runs, and the production of many more affordable books. Literacy increased. Bibles started to appear in native languages, rather than Latin. The church’s monopoly on transcendence was broken: the godly could now pursue a personal relationship with their deity in their own words and voices, without the mediation of the priest.
A good thing, surely? But personal autonomy came at the cost of spiritual community. The possibility of coming to your own conclusions promoted personal integrity, and dissent, but it also led to schism and conflict. After the first protesting declarations of personal belief, communities of faith fragmented further as disagreement with authorities became a possibility for everyone. Were protestants the first special interest groups, brought together by a shared vision, across distances, enabled by improved communications? Were they the first to reject the misfortunes of geography, the idiocy of their neighbours, to hope for something better?