Puzzling, isn’t it, that as advancements in communications and transportation make it possible for us to interact with so many more people, our psychology prompts us to resist.
Two recent news stories brought this realization home, one about loneliness and the other about caustic political disagreements.
A study released this month by the American Psychological Association warns that a growing epidemic of loneliness could be as deadly as obesity or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It estimates that nearly 43 million Americans over age 45 suffer from what medical researchers call chronic loneliness.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.
It’s fashionable to chastise the young for keeping their noses stuck to a cellphone screen rather than engaging in personal conversation, but this research shows no generation is immune to withdrawal from human contact.
Even in a place like Newnan, the signs are everywhere. Transplanted residents are in closer touch with friends in their former home through social media than they are with their next-door neighbors, whom they don’t even recognize on sight. Membership in many churches and civic clubs is on the decline.
And we’ve outgrown the small-town habit of strangers exchanging greetings when meeting on the sidewalk, in a checkout line or a post office.
For years, certain groups have stressed programs for contrived interaction as a prescription for better understanding. From forced busing to student-exchanges to Jimmy Carter’s Friendship Force, the idea was that people would get along better if they simply spent more time together.
The political correctness movement was rooted in the same idea, that enforced civility would result in reasoned discussion, but it has had the opposite effect.
Last weekend’s news from Charlottesville, Va., shows the violent extreme of the arguments that have become so common on social media and cable television. One group motivated by racism showed up to protest the removal of Confederate statues, and a much larger group showed up to oppose them with violent resistance, supposedly motivated by peaceful harmony.
"That form of protest is not meant to look good. It's not meant to be diplomatic," said Louise Rosealma, an antifascist and anarchist quoted in Time magazine. "It is meant to physically disrupt and shut down things that need to be shut down immediately."
It’s not just people who attend riots or participate in political arguments with strangers. I got an email last weekend that seemed initially motivated by human kindness but somehow veered into a profane attack. The author said that he had wanted to add his condolences in a comment to an online NTH news story of a tragic, premature death, but he objected to enrolling in Facebook to do it because of a political disagreement with that company’s founder.
How does a warm gesture turn into a rant so quickly?
I blame it on the reaction to “contact overload” in which we’re dehumanizing the people we interact with.
As a society, we’ve been heading to this point for some time, long before today’s leaders were at the helm. Indeed, this convergence is the very reason some of them are at the helm.
Let’s hope our society will figure out a way to reverse these trends soon.
Walter Jones is the publisher of NTH, which includes The Newnan Times-Herald, times-herald.com, Newnan-Coweta Magazine, Xtra and Coweta Living.