Loneliness is a growing problem in modern societies. Political polarization is also a noteworthy trend. Could the two phenomena be linked? Could loneliness, in fact, cause political polarization?
According to numerous sources, loneliness is a serious health problem – not just mental health but physical health as well. Several recent studies have documented the physical effects:
Additionally, the problem of loneliness is growing. The Harvard Business Review reports that, “Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.” The BBC reports that half of adults in England experience loneliness. And it’s not just old people. Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s study suggests, “ the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old.”
Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, describes loneliness as an “epidemic”. The United Kingdom has now appointed a minister for loneliness. And Natalie Proulx asks in the New York Times, “Does Every Country Need A Loneliness Minister?”
Shifts in demographics and joining behavior have contributed to loneliness. People today are less likely to belong to church or fraternal organizations. Enrollment in trade unions has declined sharply. Men’s clubs have all but disappeared. Long-term employment with a single company has also declined. The gig economy is perhaps the ultimate expression of the atomized workplace.
If we can no longer find a sense of identity and belonging in traditional identity organizations, where do we turn to alleviate loneliness? Two trends suggest that we may have already moved in loneliness-alleviating directions.
The first trend is that we have sorted ourselves into what might be called “identity neighborhoods.” (Neal Stephenson, in his novel Snow Crash, calls them “burbclaves”). As Bill Bishop pointed out in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, we now segregate ourselves by political identity as much as by class or ethnic identity. Liberals live here; conservatives live there. Our neighborhood can give us a sense of identity and belonging. It also insulates us from opinions that differ from our own. Bishop points out that, “The clustering of like-minded Americans is tearing us apart.” Bill Clinton adds, “Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks.”
The second trend is the rise of identity politics. We’ve moved away from broad-based political parties and towards “…political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”
Is identity politics driven by loneliness? Simon Kuper thinks so. Writing in the Financial Times, Kuper notes that people are increasingly joining political parties to signal, “…they belong to the same tribe …with a shared identity … and something to talk about. In other words they are doing something that is usually considered positive: they are forging a new kind of community.” If Kuper is right – and I’m inclined to think that he is – then loneliness is the root cause of identity politics.
Loneliness then is not simply an individual issue. It affects the way we organize ourselves in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and political parties. Many observers suggest that identity politics is bad for America – click here, here, and here for representative examples. If we want to stifle identity politics, we first need to work on the problem of loneliness. Perhaps we need a minister for loneliness, after all.
Most historians would agree that the arts and sciences of persuasion – also known as rhetoric – originated with the Greeks approximately 2,500 years ago. Why there? Why not the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Chinese? And why then? What was going on in Greece that necessitated new rules for communication?
The simple answer is a single word: democracy. The Greeks invented democracy. For the first time in the history of the world, people needed to persuade each other without force or violence. So the Greeks had to invent rhetoric.
Prior to democracy, people didn’t need to disagree in any organized way. We simply followed the leader. We agreed with the monarch. We converted to the emperor’s religion. We believed in the gods that the priests proclaimed. If we disagreed, we were ignored or banished or killed. Simple enough.
With the advent of democracy, public life grew messy. We could no longer say, “You will believe this because the emperor believes it.” Rather, we had to persuade. The basic argument was simple, “You should believe this because it provides advantages.” We needed rules and pointers for making such arguments successfully. Socrates and Aristotle (and many others) rose to the challenge and invented rhetoric.
Democracy, then, is about disagreement. We recognize that we will disagree. Indeed, we recognize that we should disagree. The trick is to disagree without anger or violence. We seek to persuade, not to subdue. In fact, here’s a simple test of how democratic a society is:
What proportion of the population agrees with the following statement?
“Of course, we’re going to disagree. But we’ve agreed to resolve our disagreements without violence.”
It seems like a simple test. But we overlook it at our peril. Societies that can’t pass this test (and many can’t) are forever doomed to civil strife, violence, disruption, and dysfunction.
The chief function of rhetoric is to teach us to argue without anger. The fundamental questions of rhetoric pervade both our public and private lives. How can I persuade someone to see a different perspective? How can I persuade someone to agree with me? How can we forge a common vision?
Up through the 19th century, educated people were well versed in rhetoric. All institutions of higher education taught the trivium, which consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Having mastered the trivium, students could progress to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium provided the platform upon which everything else rested.
In the 20th century, we saw the rise of mass communications, government sponsored propaganda, widespread public relations campaigns, and social media. Ironically, we also decided that we no longer needed to teach rhetoric. We considered it manipulative. To insult an idea, we called it “empty rhetoric”.
But rhetoric also helps us defend ourselves against mass manipulation, which flourished in the 20th century and continues to flourish today. (Indeed, in the 21st century, we seem to want to hone it to an even finer point). We sacrificed our defenses at the very moment that manipulation surged forward. Having no defenses, we became angrier and less tolerant.
What to do? The first step is to revive the arts of persuasion and critical thinking. Essentially, we need to revive the trivium. By doing so, we’ll be better able to argue without anger and to withstand the effects of mass manipulation. Reviving rhetoric won’t solve the world’s problems. But it will give us a tool to resolve problems – without violence and without anger.
Red people and blue people are at it again. Neither side seems to accept that the other side consists of real people with real ideas that are worth listening to. Debate is out. Contempt is in.
As a result, our nation is highly polarized. To work our way out of the current stalemate, we need to listen closely and speak wisely. We need to debate effectively rather than arguing angrily. Here are some tips:
It’s not about winning, it’s about winning over – too often we talk about winning an argument. But defeating an opponent is not the same as winning him over to your side. Aim for agreement, not a crushing blow.
It’s not about values – our values are deeply held. We don’t change them easily. You’re not going to convert a red person into a blue person or vice-versa. Aim to change their minds, not their values.
Stick to the future tense – the only reason to argue in the past tense is to assign blame. That’s useful in a court of law but not in the court of public opinion. Stick to the future tense, where you can present choices and options. That’s where you can change minds. (Tip: don’t ever argue with a loved one in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.)
The best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing – the other side wants to know that you take them seriously. If you immediately dismiss everything they say, you’ll never persuade them. Start by finding points of agreement. Even if you’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, you can find something to agree to.
Don’t fall for the anger mongers – both red and blue commentators prey on our pride to sell anger. They say things like, “The other side hates you. They think you’re dumb. They think they’re superior to you.” The technique is known as attributed belittlement and it’s the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.
Don’t fall into the hypocrisy trap – both red and blue analysts are willing to spin for their own advantage. Don’t assume that one side is hypocritical while the other side is innocent.
Beware of demonizing words – it’s easy to use positive words for one side and demonizing words for the other side. For example: “We’re proud. They’re arrogant.” “We’re smart. They’re sneaky.” It’s another old trick. Don’t fall for it.
Show some respect – just because people disagree with you is no reason to treat them with contempt. They have their reasons. Show some respect even if you disagree.
Be skeptical – the problems we’re facing as a nation are exceptionally complex. Anyone who claims to have a simple solution is lying.
Burst your bubble – open yourself up to sources you disagree with. Talk with people on the other side. We all live in reality bubbles. Time to break out.
Give up TV — talking heads, both red and blue, want to tell you what to think. Reading your own sources can help you learn how to think.
Aim for the persuadable – you’ll never convince some people. Don’t waste your breath. Talk with open-minded people who describe themselves as moderates. How can you tell they’re open-minded? They show respect, don’t belittle, agree before disagreeing, and are skeptical of both sides.
Engage in arguments – find people who know how to argue without anger. Argue with them. If they’re red, take a blue position. If they’re blue, take a red position. Practice the art of arguing. You’re going to need it.
Remember that the only thing worse than arguing is not arguing – We know how to argue. Now we need to learn to argue without anger. Our future may depend on it.