Monday, April 13, 2020

Social Disconnection in the Time of Pandemic

Yesterday, Niall Ferguson wrote in the Times of London that we are facing “a new anomie,” a social disconnection that has been enforced in order to save us from the virus, but that will not easily be overcome.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim conjured the concept of anomie in a book about Suicide over a century ago. Strictly speaking, the terms means, rulelessness or normlessness. It refers to situations where we do not know our place in society, do not know the rules or the players, do not know where we fit or even whether we fit. Durkheim declared that anomie was one of the three reasons people commit suicide. The other two are egotism-- to punish other people-- and altruism-- to do the world a favor by exiting it.

For further discussion of anomie, and to show that I did not discover it yesterday, see my book: The Last Psychoanalyst.

Today, George Friedman offers a more detailed analysis of what we are losing socially. Few have really grasped the psychosocial aspects of the current social distancing, so it is worth our trouble to study Friedman on this issue.

On his first point, I will take slight exception. He says that the root of sociability lies in the family:

At its core, the social is the family. The functioning of the family assumed that children would go to school, one or both parents would go to work, and all would have periods of being alone, or being in other places with other people. 

He adds that homes run according to rules. They follow rituals. And yet, they were not designed, and have never been designed to be a place where people could spend all their time.

Human beings mediate their relations with other people through rituals — sometimes called manners and sometimes having no name at all. We know the rituals in our home. We know what will make mom and dad sad, we know how to come to dinner, and we know when we may disappear into our rooms to chat online. When we look at social organization, the family, dysfunctional or robust, is the most intense experience we have, and that experience is filled with safety valves, ritualized opportunities to be free of the family. This may be school, work, parties, whatever.

But then, the effort to make the home the unique center of our lives has produced conflict and friction. Home is not designed to educate children, to do business… all the while sheltering and feeding people. 

Friedman explains:

If social distancing and the economic crisis will have a social impact, it will be sensed first in the most delicate seismograph humans have: the home. Nowhere are the stresses so intense and continuous, nowhere are the safety valves so essential and rigidly prescribed. So when the medical structure requires that families dramatically alter their behavior, and the economic system generates such fear and uncertainty, the pressures are first felt in the family. Outside the family the pressures can be diffused, but now the family is the only sphere there is, and it becomes the sum of all fears, a place whose releases have been closed down.

The social system, including the family, has endured through the first month of social separation quite well. Gallup polls show happiness and contentment at normal levels. But under the hood, we can see the first signs of dysfunction. The secretary-general of the United Nations, for example, has issued a warning that domestic violence is surging. There have been scattered reports coming in as well, from Italy to Ohio.

When home rituals have been designed to function in the absence of certain family members, their presence is disruptive. Some people will feel as though their territory is being violated by alien invaders. Some people will have difficulty producing new rituals and new routines.

Friedman continues his analysis:

Family violence, normally man against woman, secondarily either against children, is a constant reality. Individuals who are psychologically dysfunctional, and families that are fractured, cause a constant and predictable level of family violence. When violence surges globally, it is unlikely that the numbers are being cooked, and unlikely that the violence is coincidental. There are two forces at work. First, homes and apartments are frequently built with the expectation that a substantial amount of time will be spent outside. They are not designed for constant occupation by all. The pressure of 24-hour intimacy coupled with a situation that has no clear endpoint can create tension between even the most loving families. And many families are not particularly loving. These are the ones that explode first, most without violence, all with a high degree of rancor that can’t be escaped. In some cases both parents are home without work. The parents must finally face each other, along with their unruly children. The family explodes inside of walls from which there is no escape. Family violence is not the norm. It is simply the first statistically collectible indicator. Many or most families will accommodate with love. But some won’t.

My only difference with Friedman is that I do not believe that the family is not the cornerstone of social life. We are being forced to make it thus, during the pandemic, and the fallout suggests that it is not.

At its core, the social does not begin within the family, then to branch out into the world. I would say that, at its core, the basis for social life is interfamilial, not intrafamilial. It lies in the relationships between families. After all, marriage, to take the obvious, is an alliance between families. By definition, people are not allowed to keep marriage within a single family.

Among the most important things we lose during social distancing is social connection. Depriving people of their everyday interactions with friends, colleagues and even strangers makes them slightly crazy. Depriving them of their bearings in the outside world will also make them slightly crazy. It undermines their mental health because it disconnects them from others and makes them feel like outcasts, like pariahs. Thus, it produces the peculiar anomie that arrives when people do not receive the moral sustenance that they gain by leaving the home, going to the office, interacting with the porter and assistants and managers… these affirmations of one’s social being get lost when we all shelter in place.

Friedman notes the importance of social interactions. More importantly, he sees that they function as a series of ritual behaviors, formal gestures that show us that we belong to a group and are among friends. If we do not have constant affirmation that we are among friends, we might be among enemies. And if we are among potential enemies, our default will be distrust, not trust. And when our default is distrust, things fall apart.

On the broadest level, the social is our mingling with strangers, from going to the movies, to standing in line and chatting, to discussing the purchase of a computer with a salesman. There are a billion kinds of social interactions, and each has its rituals. We know how to find a seat in a movie, and how to excuse ourselves as we pass by those already seated. We know how to appear amiable and unthreatening when standing in line. We understand the rituals when buying a computer, the carefully crafted pretense of knowing what you are talking about.

I will also recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, for its clear presentation of the importance-- and the risks-- of defaulting to trust. As Gladwell puts it, we assume and have an interest in assuming that people are telling us the truth, even when we suspect that they are lying. The reason is: that if we don't place social connection ahead of individual self-fulfillment, nothing will ever get done.

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