“How did this happen? Why do we allow this? Couldn’t this have been avoided?” – these are probably the most common thoughts we had in 2016, a year that left us shocked and doubting the strength of the values that govern our world. The established international liberal order appears increasingly threatened by resurging authoritarian powers, financial crisis and its prolonged consequences, and populism. Decades marked by cooperation and commitment to progress, peace, and economic growth, following the end of the Second World War, give way now to a generalised lack of trust in government, self-doubt, and anxiety over a globalised word, once promising greatness and fulfilment.
The surge of racism and xenophobia in the West inspired a discourse of separatism and inward-thinking nationalism, of which most visible symptoms are this year´s traumatic events: the British vote to exit the EU, Donald Trump´s election in the US, and rising populist movements in Europe. A geopolitical area credited with the defence of democratic and liberal forms of life and government seems to embrace political divisions that deteriorate democracy and limit human rights: the EU stopped its expansion and is now facing a historic shrinking, Trump´s US promises to be an ally only to a select few nations, while millions are still at risk of war, displacement, and terror in a deeply destabilised Middle East.
The validation of hate speech and race-based aggression by Trump´s presidential campaign uncovered enduring racism and inspired a social rift that seems more and more difficult to close. Violent forms of policing civilians, the militarisation of borders, and the erection of physical and mental walls were this year´s saddening responses to a surging humanitarian crisis. Trump´s America and an increasingly nationalistic Europe embrace the “we come first” type of anti-humanism, which prefers separatism to cooperation, and affect to reason.
Our humanity has been greatly challenged throughout the year, with acts of civil disorder and deadly clashes between police forces and black citizens in the US, marking a crisis of identity at the core of a nation that still stands divided. Asymmetrical wars are still the norm, and this asymmetry is amplified with the normalisation of social forms of warfare: against the foreign, the poor, or the disabled. The war on terror turned into a war on the other, paralleled by a crisis in defining the other, thus leading to the paralysis of empathy and care. Repeated terrorist attacks in Europe reinforced scepticism and uncertainty, enlarging existing cultural and social gaps, and often creating new ones.
The use of technology in establishing digital realities managed to dramatically affect material ones: knowledge is increasingly equated with data – manageable, quantifiable, and easy to manipulate. Rationality and hard facts are no longer the validation tools for truth; tellingly, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is “post-truth,” marking a linguistic and notional departure from the need of objective and empirical evidence. Affect, personal belief, and desire inform contemporary freedoms and meanings; with language itself dislocated from its referents, the border between form and meaning is blurred, and few are those who care, or have the capacity, to apply the type of critical thinking necessary to resisting this sustained rewiring of our reality and, eventually, our consciousness.
What is, then, the expectation for 2017? Where do we take the lessons of the past year, and how do we make sense of the debilitating new realities of the world? Can we find order again in the chaos left by 2016, or do we have to accept post-order as a new form of life?
Words: Elena Stanciu