Make yourselves vulnerable
by Boris Nikitin
One of the main reasons given for the lockdown over the past few weeks has been the protection of the ‘most vulnerable members’ of our society. This referred first and foremost to the elderly and the ailing, who are entirely at the mercy of the virus and, therefore – so the argument goes – entirely defenceless. But what has struck me is that these people’s voices have largely been absent from the public debates surrounding the pandemic and that, if and when they are heard, then merely in private. My mother, for instance, recently expressed the view that she felt she had suddenly been ‘made elderly’ by politics and had discovered the notion of ‘age discrimination’. And for weeks, a friend’s 90-year-old grandmother, for her part, had been concerned that, were she to fall ill, she would no longer be deemed relevant. My severely and chronically ill landlord has, of necessity, been holed up in his apartment for weeks now as, presumably, any contact with the virus would be fatal. But his voice, too, does not feature in the public discourse on Covid-19. So while there is much talk about the ‘most vulnerable members’, they themselves barely have a say. Through public media, vulnerability is therefore reduced to an almost childlike state of the need for protection, which is hardly compatible with the characteristic of mature autonomy, in other words the ability to express oneself and make one’s own decisions. Why is that?
In our competitive society, we have learnt to see our vulnerability more as a shortcoming and a drawback that we are required to hide from others. Our sense of personal vulnerability is linked to what we fear and whatever we try and protect ourselves from. Vulnerability itself becomes an object of fear: the fear of others, the fear of reality, the fear of ‘that which lies ahead’. The result of it all is asense of impotence. Where people are consumed by fear, they withdraw their corporeality, leaving a silence behind. Vulnerability as a form of loss of sovereignty.
No doubt that’s one way of looking at this. However, in the current situation, it is important not to forget that vulnerability can be seen not just as a short coming, but also as an important – if not the most important – ability that makes someone a political being and therefore a human being.A characteristic feature of this vulner-ability is the ability to express oneself publicly, to expose oneself physically or verbally to others, to make oneself visible and vulnerable, to out oneself, to exercise social and ultimately political involvement – and, in doing so, to overcome one’s own everyday fear, even if only a little. This sharing of individual and collective vulnerability is the mainstay of the solidarity that has been demanded by so many in recent weeks. People have to be able to talk about themselves so that others can say: that’s how I feel, too.
It is doubly problematic that those people now regarded as particularly vulnerable – and no doubt they are – also find themselves more or less excluded from the public discourse and therefore deprived of any possibility of exercising their vulnerability and seeing themselves as an active part of the community. Those who experience vulnerability merely as a shortcoming and a danger risk becoming invisible.
In the weeks ahead, during which the ‘shutdown’ is to be relaxed more and more, it will be essential for those people who are – and will continue to be – physically the most affected by the pandemic to find a voice and be given the public platform they need.
This original contribution by Boris Nikitin was written for the Festwochen supplement as part of the co-operation with DER STANDARD.