Werner Stegmaier

Orientation in Times of Crisis

Translated by Reinhard G. Mueller

Read the original German version here

20 March, 2020
The world is experiencing the Corona pandemic and needs new orientation. Everything can change, everything will change, some things from one day to the next. Completely unexpected things will happen. From one situation to the next, quick reorientations are necessary. This also changes our orientation as such. We know a lot about what is happening, but nothing is certain. We depend on plausibilities that can be shared by most people in the world. Our values shift, are suspended, and revalued. It is possible to statistically calculate how many people in which population groups will die under which conditions, and we have to take these calculations into account. One has to make a lot of difficult decisions, including decisions about the life and death of an incalculable number of people, depending on how much of the world is contaminated. These decisions are made under uncertainty, without sufficient knowledge of the conditions and consequences. Nobody knows how this crisis can be overcome or how it will end. But to orient oneself generally means to make decisions under uncertainty. Therefore, orientation is always provisional. Nevertheless, the consequences of decisions are final. Orientation is the achievement of finding one’s way in a new situation so that one can make decisions in order to master it. In such a crisis, which will end deadly for many people and institutions, we switch from the knowledge mode to the orientation mode – we deliberately decide for the orientation mode.

This crisis has quickly shown that it involves the whole complexity and unsurveyability of the modern world; it permeates all areas of life, all functionally differentiated social systems, and stirs them up, not only the health care system, but also the systems of economics, politics, media, law, education, science, art, ethics, and probably even religion. The crisis changes their well-established interactions which are now being readjusted. Binding decisions for a society as a whole must be made by each government; it now receives, or rather takes on, widely expanded decision-making powers, which are accepted in this emergency by the population and the other social systems. In emergency situations, morality usually revs up: its first impulse is to immediately help those in need and now also includes the economy that is in need so that people are able to buy food and keep working and producing. By appealing to the emergency situation and its moral demands, the limits of the law are partly being restricted, partly expanded or temporarily disregarded. Political opposition is largely suspended; politicians must now exhibit unanimity to avoid creating additional confusion. The scientific community must now put aside professional disputes so as not to undermine its own authority and provide politicians with data, diagnoses and forecasts with the greatest possible plausibility. The media have to report even the most ominous news in such a way that they do not create panic. Art has to find ways how it may still be entertaining or creatively disorienting, religion how it can still be edifying and consoling. For the time being, everyone is working in an emergency mode. In all places, sacrifices are demanded and made. Some will use the situation for their own advantages. Everyone, however, is now forced to look at the nearest things and refrain from the more long-term consequences. Allegedly timeless moral principles are temporarily suspended. If we are better able to get through the crisis without them, they will lose some of their credibility in the future.

Since the Corona emergency affects the entire world population and could mean death for each individual, a new sense of community is developing across social classes and nations and states; personal and national egoisms now seem particularly unpleasant. At the same time, the containment of the spread of the Coronavirus requires social distancing. All of a sudden, people all over the world are in an extraordinary but equal situation; they must all stay at home. Human communication must largely do without actual face-to-face interaction. The cultural differences in public social life, appreciated by some and hated by others, decrease. The standardized digitization of communication is rapidly expanding. Where it proves successful, people may continue to rely on it more even after the crisis. The crisis mode may create permanent reorientations.

As a reflex, the uniformity of all measures is insisted upon. From the vantage point of successful orientation, uniformity creates a quick overview. But it can also be counterproductive: with uniformity, we no longer consider the specific situation. Decisions in favor of certain measures such as travel bans or the restrictions of public life may also be implemented through different means: by orienting oneself to the decisions of others and self-responsibly adapting them to one’s own situation, in short: by orienting oneself to other orientations. Uniformity is not the top priority, even in times of need.

The concept of crisis involves the confidence that it will be overcome. A crisis can bring about the end, but it does not have to. In a crisis one needs the confidence that resources of any kind – health, economic strength, science, political decision-making capacities, legal powers, moral values, religious consolation, but also and above all our abilities to orient ourselves – will be sufficient to overcome it. Above all, it is routines that give confidence. They suggest: things have gone well so far, and everything will continue to go well. Routines are habits of orientation; they develop by themselves, consolidate, and calm us down. Many routines of our everyday life remain unaffected by the crisis; they can also carry us through it: our daily routine, taking care of the household, looking after others, keeping up with the news. As far as the crisis disrupts our routines, new ones establish; after we are unsettled, we will calm down again. Especially in a crisis, one must gain new routines. These can become routines in dealing with crises. They consolidate from day to day, so long as the crisis lasts and so long as one can successfully deal with it. Even in the crisis mode, the routine mode is maintained. It provides ever-new hold in orientation.