All the Lonely People
April 24, 2012

There’s a whole subgenre of pop sociology and social psychology dedicated to enumerating all of the causes and consequences of the modern American’s crushing loneliness. The latest entry is Steve Marche’s Atlantic article blaming Facebook and other social networking sites for isolating us all from one other, replacing meaningful interaction with pokes and Farmville.*

Sociologist Claude S. Fischer begs to differ. He writes:

Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation.

Fischer, being a sociologist with a plethora of empirical research to back him up, seems to have the upper hand here. But if he’s right, then what explains the peculiarly modern anxiety about loneliness? What are we actually anxious about? Will Wilkinson has a theory:

The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.

“Increasing awareness of a problem” is one way of looking at it. A related (and not entirely mutually exclusive) possibility is that we’re seeing something that’s always been true, and, for the first time, turning it into a problem to be solved. Facebook may not make us lonelier, but it certainly promises to salve the loneliness we already carry around with us. Same with other social networking platforms. If we have the theoretical ability to remain in perpetual play and discourse with our friends and loved ones, then what right do we have to be lonely?

Maybe we’re looking at the whole problem backwards. Maybe loneliness isn’t inherently a defect to be fixed by more social interaction. In fact, social interaction can sometimes exacerbate it — even face-to-face meatspace social interaction. In those cases, introspection and solitude can be a balm. A controlled exploration of loneliness may be more healthy, long-term, than resorting to social distraction. You might not be able to construct a permanent bulwark against loneliness, but when it rushes past your defenses you can at least acknowledge it as an old and familiar acquaintance.

This doesn’t sound crazy or counter-intuitive to me. In fact, it sounds pretty obvious. But this whole discussion seems to be predicated on the popular assumption that loneliness is always an enemy from whom you should flee. That assumption, I would argue, is the true epidemic.

*My words, not his. But as far as I can tell, poking and Farmville are both over now.

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Culture Crit War
August 24, 2010

El Rey Theater in Los Angeles on Wilshire Blvd...
Image via Wikipedia

My friend Emily has a thoughtful response to my earlier kvetching about the state of left-leaning criticism, but it’s one that I think must be less about the actual charges I made and more about issues Emily was already thinking about and wanted an opportunity to discuss. Either way, we’re clearly talking about different things.

For one thing, I think there’s some confusion over what constitutes left-leaning criticism. In defending its current state, Emily points to “the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the ObserverHarper’s, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice, the Paris Review and countless other publications,” that, she says, offer up “very good cultural criticism coming more-or-less from the left.”

I’m not exactly sure what more-or-less from the left means, but most of the good arts criticism I’ve read from these sources (and make no mistake, I’m a fan of most of the publications she listed) doesn’t have much of a political slant at all. In almost all cases there’s a very good chance that a certain review was written by someone who holds liberal views, but the privately held opinions of the author alone don’t necessarily make all of her work “from the left.” My critique was targeted at some of those pieces that are, first and foremost, left-leaning political readings; they were from the Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine, and they were really, really bad.

I should also note that they were not, as Emily implies, written by Boomers—Katie Roiphe, Sady Doyle and Justin Miller are all members of Generation Y. None of them can critique Mad Men’s accuracy based on firsthand experience with its setting. (Aside: Funnily enough, Roiphe’s whole shtick seems to be based around a conscious rejection of her mother’s second-wave feminism.) This isn’t about some young whippersnapper spurning the wisdom of his elders. If anything, I’m arguing for a more traditionalist approach to literary and pop culture criticism—an approach that refocuses on some of the actual components of storytelling. To paraphrase Dara, co-author of my original kvetch, I would be delighted if Tony Judt were still alive and writing about Mad Men. But of all the people I’ve kvetched about, none of them come remotely close to being Tony Judt.

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