Monday, July 03, 2006

Loneliness and Our Increasingly Divided Culture

According to a new study in the American Sociological Reviews, Americans are lonely. And we’re getting lonelier. We have fewer close friends and belong to fewer social organizations than we did even just 20 years ago.

Why is this so? The theories include everything from endless and isolating media options to a workaholic office culture to suburban sprawl. But whatever the cause, the effect is a culture battling with dramatic increases in depression and feelings of disconnection.

The question I find myself asking is: to what degree does this rising loneliness influence our political culture? It seems to me that there is an obvious and direct link between a nation of increasingly isolated souls and a nation of increasingly polarized views. When we belong to real-world organizations (whether they be a formal club or just a group of people who go to happy hour every Friday) we are exposed to a much wider range of opinion than if we sit at home alone, watching the news channel we most agree with and reading the blogs that mirror our own perceptions of the world.

When you befriend Bob in your bowling league and later discover he’s a Bush supporter, it makes it that much harder to believe that all Bush supporters are idiots or jerks. After all, Bob is a nice guy who’s intelligent and enjoyable to be around.

Is it that simple? No. But it may not be too much more complex. When we isolate ourselves, we stop exposing ourselves to new ideas. At that point, we open ourselves up to exploitation by politicians who can only win elections through divisiveness—by making us believe the other side is not merely mistaken but fundamentally abhorrent. If you are friends with no one on that “other side” it makes it really easy to fall for the bait.

As for how we reignite sociability in our society, I don’t think there is any one solution or even a single collection of solutions. But we should be thinking about how we can encourage more people to join more real-world (and not just online) groups. And we should each be making a personal effort to get out from behind our computers, away from our televisions and into a more sociable atmosphere—whether it’s a weekly poker game or happy hour or quilting bee—anything that brings us together with people who may open our eyes to new ideas or at least temper our outrage towards those on the “other side.”


Blogger Joe Weedon said...

Interesting take on this, Alan.

Putnam's Bowling Alone is actually the basis for the course I'm teaching on American political involvement. While I think his theory is fairly simplistic, he does have many valid points. If we spend all our time in the car or in front of the TV, we don't get to know our neighbors or understand local politics.... we don't engage.

9:50 PM  

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