Saturday, June 24. 2006
This item from the Wichita Eagle's page one non-news section caught me a bit by surprise. It's by Ely Portillo, called "Why are we losing friends?":
Further down they speculated a bit on reasons:
This trend has been going on all my life. It's easy to think back to the '50s and '60s when people actually worried about this -- you don't hear much about alienation any more, but it was so much on the mind that existentialism was invented to salve it. The arch trends all date back to the '50s: the move to the suburbs, the envelopment of passive entertainment, the time demands of careerism. More recent is the notion of Quality Time, another time encroachment that has come about as parenting has been shaped by the career ethic. Another factor is fear: the threat of nuclear destruction dates back to the '50s, but everyday fear of your neighbors has built up slowly over time. (The current obsession with tracking "sex offenders" is a good example.) But then fear may also be a consequence of having fewer friends: as you lose the knack of making friends the rest of the world becomes unapproachable.
The consequences of this for politics are almost too obvious to point out. The more isolated and self-contained people's lives are, the less appreciation people have for others not like them. Passive intake of news and information leaves you vulnerable to manipulation -- especially the sort of manipulation that's become the stock and trade of the new right in America. Most of this nonsense would fall apart at the first dissent, but if you avoid anyone who might think differently, you can wind up convincing yourself of any fool thing.
Aside from the politics, this isn't all for the worse. It is much easier nowadays to sustain long-distance or virtual friendships. Personal support networks seem to be less critical as long as there are public resources -- government, other charities, businesses if you can afford them -- that pick up the slack. (Of course, politics hurt here, especially the Right's preference that one have to look to the churches for relief.) Greater mobility makes it possible to meet more people, so those who take advantage can experience a much greater diversity of people. Such relationships are more superficial than friendships, but they may satisfy the same needs.
The trick to progress is to recognize the costs as well as the benefits, and find the proper balance. This scarcity of friends indicates that we haven't yet found ways to balance its underlying trends. The sour politics of the new right is likely to make this worse, but it's less a cause than, more ominously, a consequence.
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