We have long lived in a hyper-relativistic time in which each individual follows his or her truth. While this has made us free to live and think as each of us considers best, it has also made us lonely and denied us the platform of a common worldview or set of values that makes for a cohesive society. However, this may be changing. Christine Lind Ditlevsen argues that, after an individualist golden age, community is coming back into vogue.
When one talks about truth today, one has to use the plural. This isn't merely a result of the more-or-less banal psychological conclusion that "what is true for you isn't necessarily true for me". It also has deeper, existential significance. The fact that we have the freedom to walk around in different realities makes us fragile and strange to each other. Hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote.
Before the science of the Age of Enlightenment truly began to make truth relative, our Western society mainly had a single metanarrative, a single conception of the world, monopolized by the Christian church. What was good and evil, how life had to be lived, ethics and morality, what constituted a good excuse for war, the definition of knowledge, gender roles, child rearing, school systems, taxes, work life, freedom, and love - all was dictated by the Christian church.
Truth could be understood simply as this Christian story that society told about itself.
The remarkable thing about such monopolized truth is that it also affects people who don't believe in it. The truth permeates the entire societal structure - the choices available to the individual and the way we speak of reality - to such an extent that it creates what we could call a hard-to-grasp metaphysical framework around consciousness.
All-encompassing monopolized truths are of a religious or ideological character, exemplified by belief systems such as Christianity, Islam, Maoism, and fascism. Today, it is difficult to grasp that religion can define the entire truth and not just spiritual life and the belief in higher powers. This is because truth has become truths - because it is a lifetime since most of us in the West have been subjected to a monopolized truth. The GDR is the exception - and now during the 20th anniversary of the fall of communist ideology, symbolized by the Berlin Wall, you can read everywhere about how the liberation from monopolized truth and the realization of freedom wasn't an entirely positive process.
The fact is that monopolized truths exist because they make sense; at first for a few people, later for an entire society that begins to live by, verbalize and organize their community according to the given truth. What at first is an idea held by a few people ultimately becomes a shared worldview, and hence life becomes difficult to imagine otherwise.
Truth has splintered into more and more truths, both shared societal narratives and personal beliefs. This has occurred along with a sequence of social processes that were initiated by driving forces such as urbanization, globalization, individualization, and digitalization. Christianity, conservatism and social democracy, all of which have been strong in many European countries, no longer monopolize our perceptions of truth. There is no longer a single story or a few stories that make us who we are. This means that we now live our lives in parallel with each other rather than running on the same track. A man becomes a doctor because he wants to - not because his father or grandfather was one. You get married because you want to - not because the church requires it. And you get divorced if you want to - because there are no moralizing institutions that can prevent you from doing so. You have a political view because you agree with a party or group - not because your workplace, class or family shares this view.
The disintegration of monopolizing truths very much has its basis in the rise of natural science. This breakthrough was among other things made possible by the monopolized truth of Catholicism, since it was actually the Catholic Church that hired scientists to clarify the Catholic worldview by examining the heavens. The Church could not imagine that these scientists would discover that the world is in no way ordered the way the church preached. Science discovered natural laws that persist no matter under what conditions they are tested and no matter how often they are tested. Unlike the Mosaic Law, the Law of Gravity can be tested.
This verifiability is what distinguishes a scientific truth from an ideological or religious one. Science also differs from ideology and religion in that it doesn't rest on its laurels. Scepticism towards one's own truths is an integral part of scientific thought. For instance, the message of the philosopher of science Karl Popper was that scientific truths are hypotheses that haven't yet been falsified. This means that enlightenment only lasts until it is replaced by new enlightenment, hence truths simply last longer under religious and ideological monopolies.
An illustration of this can be found in the familiar rebellion against the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe - a hypothesis that was gospel for thousands of years until Galileo Galilei in 1632 deconstructed it with his studies of the phases of the planet Venus. It took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to publicly accept that Galileo was right - that the Earth orbits the Sun - not the other way around. Not until Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, did the Church acknowledge its error.
Through the course of the 20th century, many of the institutions disappeared that kept the great Christian narrative alive. This narrative had certain necessary ingredients that could support society as we knew it: the nuclear family, social classes, the well-determined course of life, nationality, authority, hierarchy. Knowing thy place…
What did we get in return? The following industries have flourished in Europe in the last decade: coaching, consultancy and media. Why? Because they are the ones that construct and communicate truths. Even though we have been given free choice, sensitivity, equality, and influence, we still miss the truths, because they bound us together.
The communal 'we' has suffered over the last ten years. Individuals have been left to themselves and have hence had to seek meaning, truth and cohesion on their own. We may have attempted to use virtual networks, but these networks are based on the same individual freedom as everything else. The members' interest in the network - or what they could get out of the network - was thus the only thing tying them together. Associations, parties, clans, and clubs lost members. The stories such organizations could tell couldn't compete with the attractive, obligation-free stories that individuals could tell about themselves, on Facebook, in the Talent Show, to the coach and at work.
However, there are limits to what an individualized story can handle. In a sense, one man's morals make no morals. The individual is capable of a lot, but lacks the dimensions necessary to create meaning fully. He lacks the ability to feel naturally responsible in the way that one can when one talks and acts for a community. He cannot determine what is right and wrong without either going by his gut feeling or existing legislation - and he lacks a truth not of his own making.
The future is about to become de-individualized, and community is coming back in force.
It is obviously difficult, not to say impossible, to illustrate the new future communities - they don't exist yet. However, some present-day examples point into the future and provide an idea of what we can expect. The re-actualization of the idea of the commune is a good example. While the old, socialist production commune Svanholm Storkollektiv in Skibby flourishes in its 30th year, the modern large-scale co-housing project Lange Eng in Albertslund is an updated example of the idea of living in a community that goes further than the common, relatively obligation-free neighbourhood in suburbia. This co-housing project is interesting because relatively early (in 2006) it formulated a value set and a vision pointing towards the 2010s. In this value set, the co-housing is described as an "obligating community" and, when entering the community, members must "accept this value set". The association can "exclude households for breaking the association's rules/regulations", even though this is owner-occupied housing! This is far from the individualist focus of the 1980s, 90s and 00s. However, Lange Eng is also a very modern housing development with a large, modern community house with rooms for various activities and different types of togetherness. The project, which finished construction in 2008, consists of individual owner-occupied apartments, designed by one of today's hippest architectural firms, Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter. Lange Eng is a modern hybrid - a pioneering example of something we may see more of.
Lange Eng is interesting because it emphasizes the obligating community. In a way, it is a return to the family as a centre of truth, except that the family members you live with are chosen. They are not a 'network', however, because the connections are neither loose nor virtual. In the modern commune, you are forced to live with and look at each other all year round. This is a true community - whether or not you actually have something to say to each other.
Something similar can be imagined in worklife. It is possible that in the future we will see more truly meaningful communities at the workplace. Either where the employees are co-owners - everybody is joined in a community to earn money and get a share of the profit - or where you work for 'a higher cause', which isn't a commercial value community ('the company's five core values') created by company consultants. This can, for example, be a political goal or managing an interest.
However, the movement towards a stronger focus on community will also be visible in daily life and at a more down-to-earth level. For example, it is conceivable that the common meal will be far more on the agenda in the years to come. The zeitgeist already has a strong focus on food and health, and there will be a natural coupling of this with the sense of community experienced through eating food. This will be a move away from the lonely TV dinner, the quick snack, and functional food (which mainly presents food as body fuel) towards food as social action and community.
As Jens Ulrich, PhD of social science at Aalborg University, describes in his article Måltidet kan redde vores smuldrende fællesskaber, the meal involves both the collective and the individual. We eat the same, but from each our own plate.
"The meal can be lifted from just being a framework for our community to also being the content of our community," Ulrich writes, and continues: "If we dare acknowledge our pleasure, the conversation about the content of the meal can be a platform for a community that goes beyond what we eat and drink. If our conservation begins with what we eat and drink, it's an easy step to move onto organic farming, GMO food, or vitamin-enriched cereal products. Then, suddenly, we've moved into topics with a political content that matters for what decisions are made regarding the structuring of the larger community."
In this way, new communities can form on a large, as well as a small, scale.
Christine Lind Ditlevsen has a Master in Religious Studies from the University of Aarhus. Her primary fields of work are individualisation, consumption, value-based communities, and religion in the secularised society.