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As a lonely century gets lonelier, elites are busy canceling working class writers, promoting luxury beliefs, championing single living and bemoaning bigotry against...wait for it...robot romances
The New Yorker ran a longform piece this week, “How Everyone Got So Lonely,” pointing out that Americans have been having less sex during the pandemic. And that, in fact, they were having less of it to begin with.
The trend is apprently driven by young adults — and, honestly, we don’t have to look too far for reasons why. New Yorker writer Zoë Heller notes:
One partial explanation for this trend — versions of which have been observed across the industrialized world — is that today’s young adults are less likely to be married and more likely to be living at home with their parents than previous cohorts. In the U.S., living with parents is now the most common domestic circumstance for people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four.
Like many social issues, the underlying issue here seems to be economic.
But Heller breezes past this point, and then overlooks a few pretty obvious related drivers of the sex recession, like how exhausted the vast majority of adults are just trying to make ends meet, in a world of unstable, astronomically expensive housing, low wages, precarious work, and rising inflation.
Heller then moves on to The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz (scroll down for my interview with Hertz), which, again, draws attention to economics.
…she describes “a world that’s pulling apart,” in which soaring rates of social isolation threaten not only our physical and mental health but the health of our democracies. She cites many factors that have contributed to this dystopian moment — among them, smartphones, the gig economy, the contactless economy, the growth of cities, the rise in single-person households, the advent of the open-plan office, the replacement of mom-and-pop stores with anonymous hyper-chains, and “hostile” civic architecture — but she believes that the deepest roots of our current crisis lie in the neoliberal revolution of the nineteen-eighties and the ruthless free-market principles championed by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, et al. In giving license to greed and selfishness, she writes, neoliberalism fundamentally reshaped not just economic relationships “but also our relationships with each other.”
This explanation doesn’t quite do it for Heller, as you might gather from her tone. So she opts for a blithe dismissal: Hert’z “suspiciously baggy definition makes it easier to claim loneliness as the signature feeling of our time, but whether it’s useful to conflate sexlessness and political alienation — or accurate to trace their contemporary manifestations to the same dastardly neoliberal source — is questionable.”
Turns out Heller would rather talk about, sigh, female empowerment:
Sociologists who are skeptical about whether loneliness is a growing problem argue that much modern aloneness is a happy, chosen condition. In this view, the vast increase in the number of single-person households in the U.S. over the past fifty years has been driven, more than anything, by affluence, and in particular by the greater economic independence of women. A similarly rosy story of female advancement can be told about the sex-decline data: far from indicating young people’s worrisome retreat from intimacy, the findings are a testament to women’s growing agency in sexual matters.
The book that Heller references next is telling: Elle magazine editor Aimée Lutkin’s riveting memoir, The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken. I read it yesterday; I can assure you that the portrait Lutkin paints of modern love is far from rosy. (And, indeed, an opinion piece in The New York Times this week concluded that the contemporary dating game is in full-on crisis mode.)
Perhaps that’s why, having dispensed with Lutkin, Heller moves on, bizarrely, to a discussion about robot romances and sociologist Elyakim Kislev’s book Relationships 5.0.
Among the establishment figures whom he quotes discussing robo-relationships with equanimity and approval is a British doctor who, in a recent letter to The British Medical Journal, described prejudice against sex robots as no more reasonable or morally defensible than homophobia or transphobia.
All of this reeks of something that American scholar Rob Henderson (who just joined Substack) calls luxury beliefs — “these are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” Here is an example of what he means, in the arena of romantic relationships:
A former classmate from Yale recently told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. So I asked her what her background is and if she planned to marry.
She said she comes from an affluent family and works at a well-known technology company. Yes, she personally intends to have a monogamous marriage — but quickly added that marriage shouldn’t have to be for everyone.
She was raised by a traditional family. She planned on having a traditional family. But she maintained that traditional families are old-fashioned and society should “evolve” beyond them.
Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, elite marriage has held pretty strong — conferring emotional, financial, and social stability on the wealthy — while working-class marriage has completely fallen apart.
The pandemic has of course underscored this, as a great many unattached people found themselves in mandated solitary confinement, without any companionship to buffer the stress, or any help paying bills, as they rode waves of lockdowns, job losses, and sickness.
Dressing this up as radical empowerment is beyond ridiculous.
A few notes from the news this week:
The New York Times has implored its reporters to stop spending so much time and energy on Twitter. Ha!
Free speech absolutist Elon Musk has bought a nine percent stake in Twitter, and the liberal media is in meltdown mode. Personally, I would prefer not to have my speech rights in the hands of an unelected billionaire, regardless of his pro-free speech stance. On the other hand, as Katie Herzog pointed out this week on the new Nellie Bowles podcast at Honestly, it’s not like Twitter could get any worse…
The Globe and Mail recently ran a fabulous piece by Clementine Morrigan about American author Lauren Hough, who recently lost a Lambda Literary Prize nomination over Twitter beef. Here’s Morrigan’s powerful meditation on the medium:
Literature is not about being good. It is not about being right. Literature is about human things. It’s a space where writers grapple with the messiness, complexity, and nuance of being alive. It’s a rare opportunity to step inside the vantage point of someone else, to see the world through their eyes, and to think about things in ways you don’t usually. Literature is slow. It takes time and it requires an attention span. It can’t be consumed or understood in the space of a soundbite, or even the total time required for reading alone. Literature is debated and discussed at length, by eager minds who come to the same pages and leave with different conclusions. Literature is not religion and it is not law. It does not offer or follow a set of rules for how to avoid sin, how to seek absolution, or how to escape punishment. Literature, at its best, will empower the reader to ask hard questions rather than provide easy answers. It will challenge the reader to pause, be curious, and be humble.
Twitter is a storm of condemnation and offence. It is fast and it demands immediacy. It is the epitome of alienation, the human beings behind the screen reduced to the span of 280 characters. Empathy is scoffed at and discouraged. Calls for empathy are framed as fragility and even violence. Twitter has no time for or interest in messiness, complexity, or nuance. Twitter is too busy with the hunt for sin, crime, injustice. It seeks these out with ruthless fervour, attacking anyone who seems to step out of line. Twitter does all of this in the name of justice, or so it says. It claims that these attacks are rooted in love, in an attempt to restore humanity to those dehumanized. But it does this in the most dehumanizing way possible. It strips its targets of their human complexity, offering them no grace and no good faith. It does the same to the groups it claims to represent, by flattening the great diversity of thought and perspective that inevitably exists within any group of human beings.
When a writer is cancelled on Twitter, I will often head straight to the bookstore and buy their book. Which is what I did last weekend, devouring Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing in 24 hours. Pretty sure Hough’s detractors on Twitter did not read it. Hough is working class, grew up poor, in the Children of God cult, served in the military (and was kicked out for being gay), and went on to become briefly homeless, eventually clawing her way to literary stardom, after having written her magnificent debut in her work van between calls. (You can support Hough’s writing, here on Substack.)
Lastly, a development here at home. Looks like Canadian independent outlet Blacklock’s Reporter filed an access to information request and obtained CBC’s race-based booking form for guests, which I wrote about in my resignation post. In the Toronto Sun, Lorne Gunter points out:
The policy has also not led to any ideological diversity at the CBC. There may be a great deal of superficial diversity based on race, national origin, gender and sexual orientation, but a “woke,” “progressive” black or Indigenous activist in Victoria or Halifax believes and voices pretty much the same, standardized viewpoints as a “woke,” “progressive” transgender woman of colour in Winnipeg or Toronto or Montreal. The CBC projects many different faces but very, very few different voices.
Here is my reprinted Globe and Mail interview with British author Noreena Hertz for your Sunday reading pleasure.
‘With The Lonely Century, British writer Noreena Hertz dives into our global epidemic of isolation — and what can be done about it’
After more than 18 months of rolling lockdowns, it’s hard to imagine a more timely book than Noreena Hertz’s latest. The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart represents years of research into social disconnection and its attendant consequences, from poor physical health to populist politics — all of which has been accelerated by the pandemic’s extreme isolation. Here, the bestselling English author, broadcaster and University College of London professor speaks to The Globe about the unravelling of community and connection, and how we can come together.
In this book, you write about loneliness as something that’s political as well as personal. Tell me about this expanded definition.
The way that I define loneliness is not only feeling disconnected from your friends and family and colleagues at work, and feeling unseen, or unheard, or invisible. But also as a sense of feeling disconnected from your employer, your politicians, your government — the institutions that have relevance for your day-to-day life.
You make the case here that loneliness is a public-health emergency. Many will understand that loneliness can impact mental health, but what can it do to physical health?
There are clear correlations between loneliness and the rising levels of anxiety and depression that we are seeing across the globe, but loneliness also has a very profound physical impact. We were never designed to be alone. In evolutionary terms, if you think about hunter gatherers operating in tribes, being together was really a matter of safety. Our bodies have evolved so that when we feel lonely, we go into a state of high alert. Our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate goes up, the levels of cortisol coursing through our veins go up. All of this signals to our body that loneliness is not a good state to be in, and we should do something about it. But in contemporary life we all too often don’t — or can’t. And so we remain in this protracted state. Which is why loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There are clear effects on heart disease, stroke, life expectancy.
You explore a range of factors driving loneliness. Why did you include neoliberalism?
We don’t always acknowledge the role that the political and economic environment in which we live in plays on our emotional state, and yet it clearly does. The form of capitalism which has become dominant across the world since the 1980s — the dog-eat-dog, me-first form of capitalism promulgated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — has a lot to answer for when it comes to the contemporary loneliness crisis. Firstly because of the way that it has hyper-valorized qualities like competitiveness, self-interest, the hustle, at the expense of qualities like thinking about the collective interest, caring for others, collaboration, helpfulness. Of course, a world in which we see ourselves as takers rather than givers is inevitably going to be a world that feels lonelier. But also, while anyone can feel lonely, rich or poor, we do know that if you are economically disadvantaged you are more likely to feel lonely.
You wrote and researched most of The Lonely Century before COVID-19. What do we know about how the pandemic has exacerbated the loneliness crisis?
What we’ve seen through the pandemic is a further acceleration of loneliness, with some recent surveys suggesting that as many as 50 per cent of the population is currently feeling lonely. There are three groups that have been disproportionately impacted: the young, who were already the loneliest generation, people on low income or unemployed, and women.
What’s one surprising response to loneliness that you encountered in your research?
In Japan, the fastest growing demographic of people being incarcerated is the over-65s. Researchers believe that a key reason for this is extremely high levels of loneliness. Japan was a country where traditionally the elderly would move in with children, and there was care provided by kin. But as that has diminished, there are increasing numbers of elderly people who are committing minor crimes like shoplifting with the sole purpose of finding the care and connection and community that they feel bereft of elsewhere. It’s really quite moving and tragic.
You also interview right-wing populist voters for the book. What is it about loneliness that makes us vulnerable to that ideology?
A disproportionate amount of people who vote for right-wing populists are lonely. When we are lonely, we have a greater propensity to see the world as a hostile, threatening place. We are also more likely to see outsiders as threats. So, the socially isolated are vulnerable to politicians who depict the world this way. Part of it is the political message. But part of it is that they are lonely and craving community, and they are finding it in these right-wing populist parties who deliver a theatre of community. The populists speak to something else, too: the other element of loneliness, this sense of feeling invisible. Right-wing populists have proven very effective at convincing swaths of the electorate that they are the only ones who see or hear the person who feels this way. Often, they feel this way because they have, in economic terms, been forsaken or marginalized. But it’s the right-wing populists who have tended to most effectively speak to this.
You write that “loneliness is not just a subjective state of mind; it is also a collective state of being.” Moving out of the pandemic, what can we do to come together?
There is so much that we can do — and need to do. Consciously put your phone down more and be present with those around you. Nurture your local communities. Our local independent bookshop, our local café, our local grocery store; all of the people who work in these stores play essential roles in making us feel less lonely. Show up at community events. Initiate community events. We also need to think about if there’s anyone in our own network who may be feeling lonely and reach out to them. So, lots that we can do at the individual level. Lots that business can do, too. Loneliness is bad for business. Lonely workers are less productive, less motivated, less efficient and more likely to quit. And then, of course, there’s much that government can do, like better regulating the social-media companies, which we know are playing a very significant role in the loneliness crisis. Governments also need to fund the infrastructure of community, which since 2008 has been massively depleted all across the world — public libraries, public parks, youth clubs, community centres, daycare centres. People need physical spaces to come together. When it comes to trying to heal societal fractures along political, socioeconomic and racial divides, we need events and spaces and activities for different kinds of people to spend time together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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