Vulnerability and Responsibility (Stefano Biancu)


I am a Professor, I work with words. I know how to fill in any kind of space or time gap with words. I know how to catch the attention of an audience through funny words or emotional phrases. I know how to skirt issues smartly when I do not have all the answers. I have learned all of that, these are the tricks of my job.


But now I have no more words. The words I used to have are not enough to express what I am witnessing, what we are going through. They are not enough and they even bother me. I would like to escape from all this, but I do not know where to go, for we are all in the same boat: the neighbour next door and the faraway neighbour who lives in the other hemisphere.


The only word still left in my mind is “why?”. Why all this? Why in these proportions? I have no answer to this question, and this time I cannot skirt the issue smartly.


Who is responsible for that? To my students I always explain that an action is not a “mere fact”. It presumes a free and responsible agent, someone I can hold responsible for their action, someone I could ask to justify their action, to make it fair to my eyes.


But today there is no one we can hold responsible for what is happening to us. All attempts to find a culprit – someone who can answer for what is happening – seem to be vain. The virus is not even a living creature. It kills and destroys even lacking the motivation – questionable but understandable – of having to survive: mors tua, vita mea.


We have tried to find some culprits: pollution, some kinds of husbandry practices with animals, the lies of the Chinese government, the inefficient organisation of our country, the cuts in the healthcare system budget, and even the runners. At some point, it looked like it was them – the runners – the cause of the catastrophe. If you run while people are dying, you must be the one to blame. I must confess that, as long as it was permitted, I was one of the runners, too. I used to run to feel alive and I did it without putting anybody’s life at risk. Because of this, I know runners are not the ones to blame. We are very mean to each other, desperately searching for a culprit. Let’s find that someone and the problem will be solved!


Here lies the tragedy: this time there is no one to blame. There is no one who can answer for all this. Some choices – wrong or delayed – may have made the situation worse, or may not have sufficiently limited the damage, but no one is really guilty of all this death and destruction. And in lack of a response, we do not even have words anymore. And yet we need words as much as we need the air that the virus takes away from those who are attacked by it.


It is not true that everything will be fine. This time the cure will inevitably have some very serious side effects. We are saving lives by putting others’ at risk. The choice between pandemic and famine is an unsolvable dilemma, just as it is having to decide who must live and who must die. At the moment the most important principle is to concentrate on the most urgent threat, but this argument will not be valid forever. Very soon hunger and solitude could start killing just like the virus. We do not know what to say, everything is so uncertain.


Everything will be fine, this is what we have been saying to ourselves repeatedly like a mantra. But now we know that not everything will be fine, at least not for everyone. The human cost of this sad event will be very high for many, and for some it will be even higher. Also in this case the motto we were holding on to – “everything will be fine” – collapsed, dragged away from a trail of military trucks crammed with coffins.


What will ever give words back to us in the midst of this void of answers? In this situation in which it seems that, whatever we do, we are mistaken or at least we do not solve anything? In this continuous killing of illusions for which every day it becomes more and more obvious that not everything will eventually be fine?


Now more than ever, it has become clear that hope is not a passion, not just a feeling. It is the result of a decision, a choice. Today we can choose hope. In what we are experiencing, we are more vulnerable than responsible. There are more things beyond our control than in our control. And yet there is one thing we are responsible for: our hope.


Hope is not the illusion that evil will not strike us, the illusion that we are not vulnerable. It is the confidence that this immense nonsense can make sense. Words will come back to us. But for this sense and for these words we will be responsible.


All of this will make sense if we do not waste this extreme time of isolation and quarantine. It will make sense if we use it to work on ourselves, now that the situation requires that we face our real selves without any social filter. The manager, the worker, the janitor, the top model are alone, confronting themselves the same way. This time will make sense if we use it to build up on our human relationships, now that the social relations have thinned out. It will make sense if each of us, according to our possibilities, contributes to dream and design a different world. Different politics, different economy, a different Europe, even a different ethics.


A kind of ethics that will have measure up with those impassably vulnerable and responsible beings which the virus has revealed we are. A kind of ethics for beings who do not have everything in their control but who must do the good they can, far beyond what the rights of a third party or the obligations of a law may require.


Everything that in the past we considered supererogatory – that is to say, good but not required – has now become a daily duty. That is the necessary response to the appeal of the most vulnerable ones, and the essential condition to live as humans. The commandment of love – the supererogatory par excellence –, that something that nobody can demand from you – has always been considered valid only for the believers. Today, it has imposed itself as the living core of ethics. Sine amore non possumus.


Perhaps the happy ending will not be what we imagined while saying to ourselves that everything would be fine. We are vulnerable. But another happy ending is still possible and it is within our reach. And for that, we are responsible.