Monday, 15 February 2016
Bonds of community
We become moral animals when we care about others as we do ourselves, and in most eras that wasn’t a problem. Whether in Stone Age tribes or bucolic villages, we lived in the constant presence of people like ourselves, with whom we shared a lifetime of memories and on whom we depend. You might have had conflicts with your neighbour, but after sharing three sacraments, a football championship, the rights to the nearby pasture and two great-grandmothers, you learn to get along. Relationships like this civilise us, and thousands of such threadlike connections, layer upon layer, cushion the weight of the world.
Today, though, we spend much of our lives alone even in a crowd, often insulated by headphones and absorbed in a screen of some kind, whether a lap-top, television or phone. In this protective bubble we find it easy to treat the icons on Facebook like the icons on a video game, or the cars on the road like moving images on a screen. We can fill online comment boxes or the space between our cars with language we would never use over a cup of tea, because we can now live in a world free of identity and consequences. As individuals we default to being self-absorbed, and now we have technology that allows us to stay that way.
People had drifted apart long before the digital revolution, though; 16 years ago sociologist Robert Putnam, in his seminal book Bowling Alone, compared survey data from across the decades, exploring how often people ate together, joined clubs, talked to neighbours and so on. Putnam looked at the USA, but his conclusions apply here as well, and they were dramatic and sweeping: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished.
Read that again: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished.
“Human interaction” covers quite a bit of ground, of course, and Putnam goes through hundreds of pages of examples – any of which might seem tiny in isolation, but fit like mosaic pieces to portray a crisis. Over two decades, for example, the number of times people entertained friends at home had fallen by half. “Time diary” studies show that people spent a third less time socializing in 1995 than in 1965. Instances of family members vacationing together, going to church together, or “just sitting and talking,” as one poll put it, have all declined. Gradually and silently, hundreds of millions of neighbours became strangers.
Putnam’s 2000 work spawned a decade of journal papers and studies looking at various kinds of “social capital” and hot academic debates over its definition. Most of us, though, know it when we see it, and when we have it we live longer, feel better, are stronger, healthier, and have more meaningful lives when we are part of a close family or a loyal group of friends.
It’s more than your best mates, however – our lives are made up of thousands of tiny gestures like this every day, and ninety-nine out of a hundred fly right by us. We don’t think much about the pedestrian who shifts to one side to let us pass, the clerk who smiles at us, or the kids who walk around our property instead of through, but we coast on a sea of such courtesies, and where such moments disappear – say, in a violent inner-city neighbourhood – we immediately feel their absence.
“Members of a community that follows the principle of generalized reciprocity – raking your leaves before they blow onto your neighbours' yard, lending a dime to a stranger for a parking meter, buying a round of drinks the week you earn overtime, keeping an eye on a friend's house, taking turns bringing snacks to Sunday school … find that their self-interest is served,” Putnam wrote.
That’s why I like to chat with people I meet; I’m putting pennies in a bank of social trust, from which we can all withdraw someday. When we do that we help regrow an older and real social network, the one that you don’t leave when you die.