What is this phenomenon that has been happening in our culture leading to outbreaks of violence? Are outbreaks of violence becoming more common and severe or are we just more aware of these events when they happen? Certainly there does seem to have been a coarsening of our culture in recent years, but does this represent a measurable trend or is it only a perception? And are these questions any different from similar ones in previous generations?
These are difficult questions without clear answers. I am not a social scientist (and tend to think of the term as an oxymoron, anyway) but certainly some of the studies from social sciences appear to have some interesting insights into the ways in which we interact. The first aspect I would like to explore is the concept of “familiar strangers” as identified by Stanley Milgrim in 1972. These are people who we see on a regular basis and know by sight, but whom we would not call friends or even acquaintances. This is a concept that has been studied in urban settings such as train stations, but I would say that this increasingly is becoming the norm in suburban neighborhoods as well. We may know the names of our neighbors but do not interact with them regularly.
A recent study examined how distrust among Americans is increasing due to spending less time with neighbors, watching more television, spending more time in cars rather than public transportation, and economic and political self-segregation of our communities.
A separate survey by the Pew Research Center in 2010 showed that while 19% of adults said they knew all and 24% said they knew most of their neighbors, the majority of American adults knew only some (29%) or none (28%) of their neighbors by name.
At the same time we have had the explosion of social media. While some would contend that social media has made us more connected, I would argue that the broadening of our social contacts has also reduced the depth of those contacts. There is a large variation in the number of acquaintances and friends that any given individual may have, but the total network interactions do not change that much over time. Due to the larger number of interactions we are not able develop them as deeply and prolonged interactions. This is to some extent simply a function of time available, but likely also heavily influenced by personal preference. While people change over a lifetime, and personal networks grow and shrink, the amount of time available in a day for human-human interactions stays relatively constant between major life events such as school or job change or retirement. So one would suspect that within any major phase of life the total amount of human-human interaction is relatively constant. The increasing number of contacts leads to shallower interactions, and as these interpersonal interactions become more superficial it becomes easier to depersonalize the ones we are interacting with. We treat each other as less human than we used to.
Another disturbing and likely related phenomenon has been seen in our politics. For a number of different reasons including our party primary process, the sound-bite-driven twenty-four hour news cycle, and increasingly data-driven campaigns our politics have become more polarized. The two major political parties have increasingly built advantages for themselves into the law with the effect of largely keeping third parties out, and this has accelerated polarization into a strict two-sided, us-vs-them system. Within these parties we also see divisions. On the left the division is driven by grievance politics. Groups are identified and divided and encouraged to separate themselves and demand apologies and reparations from others: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, union worker vs. business owner. On the right personal choices are derided, disparaged, and repressed due to a suffocating religious conservatism. Individuals are demeaned as being socially unacceptable by people who are often blatantly hypocritical. Again, all of these political forces lead us to dehumanize each other.
There is a way out of this cycle, although I am not very optimistic about this happening, and that is to start treating each other like human beings again. Just as the old saying ‘you cannot legislate morality’ you also cannot legislate humanity. Humanity requires connections – actually talking to people instead of demanding government correct our grievances. This means taking direct action yourself rather than asking someone else to do your dirty work for you. From a policy standpoint this means less government and less regulation. But from a social standpoint it means more personal responsibility, and in some areas our personal responsibilities have fallen apart. Those that are blessed with skills and opportunities that lead to financial success should give back to their employees and fellow citizens and share their wealth. (Note that I did say give and not have wealth be taken by force.) But for those people who do not give back there should be more of a public shaming and ostracizing. This is our tradition, the American way, but somehow we have lost this sense.
There is a grand philosophical argument to be made between the forces of collectivism and the forces of individualism. The collectivists have had the last eight years in power and the results have been predictable – dehumanization, lack of opportunity, demotivation, and even terrorism. It is time for a return to personal responsibility and rugged individualism.