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Rebuilding trust and arresting cultural deterioration to counteract an “irrational society”

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Rereading Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts) is always beneficial – it especially helps when contemplating the deeper meaning arising from the ideas held by our “irrational society”, a snapshot of which has recently been captured by the Italian socio-economic research centre CENSIS in its 55th Report on the social condition of Italy. In fact, ignoring the specific context of Pascal’s thought – the relationship of humankind with Truth and thus with God – his words actually encourage us to go past the tendency to condemn so-called “magical thinking” and, rather, question the reasons that gave rise to such widespread irrationality.
Indeed, we need to find some answers and try to bring back to the side of rational thinking, scientific knowledge and understanding of “true facts” and data – and thus also to the side of a public dialogue based on critical thinking and notions of liberal democracy – as much public opinion as possible, retrieve as many people as we can from the clutches of bizarre beliefs that the earth is flat, a “Great Reset” of our minds is coming, powerful conspiracies, “enemy” deceptions.
And we need to look beyond the antagonism of those who shield themselves behind No Vax ideas, of extremists and agitators, of unscrupulous exhibitionists looking for easy fame. We need to actually tackle these currents of opinion, even when they don’t affect too many people, and get to work in order to restore a feeling of “trust” based on positive, rational critical thinking. And “trust” being a feeling, it indeed encompasses expectations and emotions, passions and appraisals, interests and values – it comprises those “reasons of the heart” that occur within a different sphere than that of rational progress, efficiency and decisions based on technological and scientific reasons – a different sphere than that of rational thinking.

“Reasons of the heart”, like poetry and literature, can express the deeper feelings that envelop human unrest. But they become political when they end up keeping a community, a polis, together and become a volatile mix of lofty feelings, idealistic choices, emotional pulses and self-interested calculations, yet also “sympathy” (from the Greek, sun and pathos, to share strains and sorrows) and community values.
This is why, now that data concerning an “irrational society” has been appropriately illustrated by CENSIS’s excellent research methods and social commentary (5.9% of Italian people don’t believe that Covid really exists, 10.9% thinks that vaccines are useless, 12.7% affirms that science causes more harm than good, 19.9% finds that 5G technology is a “sophisticated tool to control people”, 5.8% states that “the earth is flat”), we need our social and political stakeholders – as well as anyone with an academic job – to learn how the root cause of unease and social rifts causing marginalisation can be tackled. And also to show how improved work and life conditions can actually be possible,
as it’s precisely amongst marginalisation and cultural degradation that “magical thinking” more easily thrives, where sovereignism and populism spread, with a rebellious spirit at times. And that’s where unscrupulous individuals sow fake news, through which international political groups attempt to rip the fabric of public opinion in European and Western countries.

Of course, in Italy, widespread decline and unease have ancient roots. According to the 2013 CENSIS Report, that year Italian people felt “dull and unhappy” – though some more “colourful” emotions were also recorded. Then, in 2017, Italian society was “resentful”, while 2018 featured “malice”, with phenomena of “mental sovereignism” that betrayed feelings of isolation, as well as a loss of trust and sense of civic belonging. In 2020, the initial reaction to the pandemic centred on “fervour”, which has now become an “irrational society”. It’s true that the Italian identity is a very complex one, bristling with multiple, conflicting tensions – and the traces left behind by previous crises, feelings of disorientation, painful uncertainties, are still palpable. Moreover, in the long term, as ideas (or illusions?) of continuous progress and growing general wealth wanes, a significant part of the population has given in to pessimism, to that “magical thinking” that only sees conspiracies, enemies, persecution, rather than face the ups and downs of a difficult season with pragmatism. And this frame of mind is exploited by unscrupulous and irresponsible political and social groups with a strong presence on social media, through messages laden with hostility.

How, then, should we respond? To keep on denouncing “magical thinking” and “irrationality” is, of course, necessary. Just as it is important to remember that, when providing information, “you can’t compare a scientist with the first shaman you come across” and thus “we need to rely on competence again” because “not all opinions have equal weight”, rightly states Monica Maggioni, director of the Italian news programme TG1 (la Repubblica, 5 December).
But it’s not enough. True, the vast majority of Italian adults (85%) has been vaccinated, showing an admirable sense of responsibility and a smart understanding of ethical and civic duties towards themselves and society. It’s also true that companies and workers, excepting a few, have handled the pandemic and the recession crises very well, through innovation, work and production, thus generating a remarkable economic recovery (6.3%). Finally, it’s true, too, that we are seeing extraordinary evidence that strong civic spirit and solid positive social capital really exist (starting with volunteer activities).
Yet, all this doesn’t exempt us from taking responsibility for the sense of unease that’s been going on for quite some time now. Unease generated by the gap between growing expectations of wealth and a low rate of economic development, especially in Western societies; by breakdowns in social mobility, which have seriously overshadowed the hopes of the younger generations; by the new technological, cultural and geographical disparities that are worsening the life conditions of the middle class.

The pandemic, and the ensuing recession, have exacerbated all this, and thus unease has festered. Here are some figures we might all find interesting: the number of families in abject poverty has doubled in one year, almost reaching 2 million. Employment opportunities remain scarce, especially for young people and women. The employment market shows a glaring contradiction: companies would be glad to hire 400,000 new employees, but they’re failing to find them, while hundreds of thousands of people say they’d be happy to have a job, if only they could get it. Both parties have a point, that’s why we need to implement serious employment policies related to training programmes, as well as better ways to more efficiently match job offers and requests.
What it all boils down to is that we need an employment policy that has been long overdue, a fact that especially affects local authorities and Southern Italy; we need to “mend” our social fabric; we need to rebuilt trust as part of a shared effort.
Since last February, Italy has enjoyed good governance, with prime minister Mario Draghi, an influential and renowned figure at international levels, at the lead. And thanks to the current government (and after the severe shortcomings of the previous ones) and to the reliability and credibility shown by the Quirinale and by president Mattarella, Italy has ultimately succeeded in handling the pandemic rather well, identifying how to best use the Recovery Plan’s European funds and restarting the economy by encouraging companies to invest and develop.
But we need to keep on moving forward, with clarity and a forward-looking sense of responsibility, and, sadly, the latest intrigues and skirmishes concerning Italian financial laws and what might happen at the Quirinale after the elections are not exactly encouraging.

Yet, regaining and strengthening trust remains the main goal, in order to revive Italy and consolidate its recovery, and we can start by healing the social wounds that cultural deterioration, disillusion, resentment have inflicted –
in essence, we need to reconcile feelings and rational thinking and, going back to Pascal, find compromise and understanding between the reasons of the heart and those of the mind. In life, one of the most important thing we can do is plan for the future and build bridges, through ideas and words, through real – not “magical” – thinking.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Rereading Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts) is always beneficial – it especially helps when contemplating the deeper meaning arising from the ideas held by our “irrational society”, a snapshot of which has recently been captured by the Italian socio-economic research centre CENSIS in its 55th Report on the social condition of Italy. In fact, ignoring the specific context of Pascal’s thought – the relationship of humankind with Truth and thus with God – his words actually encourage us to go past the tendency to condemn so-called “magical thinking” and, rather, question the reasons that gave rise to such widespread irrationality.
Indeed, we need to find some answers and try to bring back to the side of rational thinking, scientific knowledge and understanding of “true facts” and data – and thus also to the side of a public dialogue based on critical thinking and notions of liberal democracy – as much public opinion as possible, retrieve as many people as we can from the clutches of bizarre beliefs that the earth is flat, a “Great Reset” of our minds is coming, powerful conspiracies, “enemy” deceptions.
And we need to look beyond the antagonism of those who shield themselves behind No Vax ideas, of extremists and agitators, of unscrupulous exhibitionists looking for easy fame. We need to actually tackle these currents of opinion, even when they don’t affect too many people, and get to work in order to restore a feeling of “trust” based on positive, rational critical thinking. And “trust” being a feeling, it indeed encompasses expectations and emotions, passions and appraisals, interests and values – it comprises those “reasons of the heart” that occur within a different sphere than that of rational progress, efficiency and decisions based on technological and scientific reasons – a different sphere than that of rational thinking.

“Reasons of the heart”, like poetry and literature, can express the deeper feelings that envelop human unrest. But they become political when they end up keeping a community, a polis, together and become a volatile mix of lofty feelings, idealistic choices, emotional pulses and self-interested calculations, yet also “sympathy” (from the Greek, sun and pathos, to share strains and sorrows) and community values.
This is why, now that data concerning an “irrational society” has been appropriately illustrated by CENSIS’s excellent research methods and social commentary (5.9% of Italian people don’t believe that Covid really exists, 10.9% thinks that vaccines are useless, 12.7% affirms that science causes more harm than good, 19.9% finds that 5G technology is a “sophisticated tool to control people”, 5.8% states that “the earth is flat”), we need our social and political stakeholders – as well as anyone with an academic job – to learn how the root cause of unease and social rifts causing marginalisation can be tackled. And also to show how improved work and life conditions can actually be possible,
as it’s precisely amongst marginalisation and cultural degradation that “magical thinking” more easily thrives, where sovereignism and populism spread, with a rebellious spirit at times. And that’s where unscrupulous individuals sow fake news, through which international political groups attempt to rip the fabric of public opinion in European and Western countries.

Of course, in Italy, widespread decline and unease have ancient roots. According to the 2013 CENSIS Report, that year Italian people felt “dull and unhappy” – though some more “colourful” emotions were also recorded. Then, in 2017, Italian society was “resentful”, while 2018 featured “malice”, with phenomena of “mental sovereignism” that betrayed feelings of isolation, as well as a loss of trust and sense of civic belonging. In 2020, the initial reaction to the pandemic centred on “fervour”, which has now become an “irrational society”. It’s true that the Italian identity is a very complex one, bristling with multiple, conflicting tensions – and the traces left behind by previous crises, feelings of disorientation, painful uncertainties, are still palpable. Moreover, in the long term, as ideas (or illusions?) of continuous progress and growing general wealth wanes, a significant part of the population has given in to pessimism, to that “magical thinking” that only sees conspiracies, enemies, persecution, rather than face the ups and downs of a difficult season with pragmatism. And this frame of mind is exploited by unscrupulous and irresponsible political and social groups with a strong presence on social media, through messages laden with hostility.

How, then, should we respond? To keep on denouncing “magical thinking” and “irrationality” is, of course, necessary. Just as it is important to remember that, when providing information, “you can’t compare a scientist with the first shaman you come across” and thus “we need to rely on competence again” because “not all opinions have equal weight”, rightly states Monica Maggioni, director of the Italian news programme TG1 (la Repubblica, 5 December).
But it’s not enough. True, the vast majority of Italian adults (85%) has been vaccinated, showing an admirable sense of responsibility and a smart understanding of ethical and civic duties towards themselves and society. It’s also true that companies and workers, excepting a few, have handled the pandemic and the recession crises very well, through innovation, work and production, thus generating a remarkable economic recovery (6.3%). Finally, it’s true, too, that we are seeing extraordinary evidence that strong civic spirit and solid positive social capital really exist (starting with volunteer activities).
Yet, all this doesn’t exempt us from taking responsibility for the sense of unease that’s been going on for quite some time now. Unease generated by the gap between growing expectations of wealth and a low rate of economic development, especially in Western societies; by breakdowns in social mobility, which have seriously overshadowed the hopes of the younger generations; by the new technological, cultural and geographical disparities that are worsening the life conditions of the middle class.

The pandemic, and the ensuing recession, have exacerbated all this, and thus unease has festered. Here are some figures we might all find interesting: the number of families in abject poverty has doubled in one year, almost reaching 2 million. Employment opportunities remain scarce, especially for young people and women. The employment market shows a glaring contradiction: companies would be glad to hire 400,000 new employees, but they’re failing to find them, while hundreds of thousands of people say they’d be happy to have a job, if only they could get it. Both parties have a point, that’s why we need to implement serious employment policies related to training programmes, as well as better ways to more efficiently match job offers and requests.
What it all boils down to is that we need an employment policy that has been long overdue, a fact that especially affects local authorities and Southern Italy; we need to “mend” our social fabric; we need to rebuilt trust as part of a shared effort.
Since last February, Italy has enjoyed good governance, with prime minister Mario Draghi, an influential and renowned figure at international levels, at the lead. And thanks to the current government (and after the severe shortcomings of the previous ones) and to the reliability and credibility shown by the Quirinale and by president Mattarella, Italy has ultimately succeeded in handling the pandemic rather well, identifying how to best use the Recovery Plan’s European funds and restarting the economy by encouraging companies to invest and develop.
But we need to keep on moving forward, with clarity and a forward-looking sense of responsibility, and, sadly, the latest intrigues and skirmishes concerning Italian financial laws and what might happen at the Quirinale after the elections are not exactly encouraging.

Yet, regaining and strengthening trust remains the main goal, in order to revive Italy and consolidate its recovery, and we can start by healing the social wounds that cultural deterioration, disillusion, resentment have inflicted –
in essence, we need to reconcile feelings and rational thinking and, going back to Pascal, find compromise and understanding between the reasons of the heart and those of the mind. In life, one of the most important thing we can do is plan for the future and build bridges, through ideas and words, through real – not “magical” – thinking.