7 November, 2018
The deepest truth about human beings also happens to be the sweetest and noblest truth about us: we are social beings. We absolutely need each other. We depend utterly on neighbourhoods, communities, families, groups of all kinds to nurture us, to protect us, and even give us a sense of our identity.
If you want to know who you are, don’t look into the mirror: look into the faces of the people who love you, the people you work with, the people in your neighbourhood, the people who will put up with you and most particularly the people who need you. That’s who you are.
Being members of a social species explains why, in our criminal justice system, the harshest punishment we can think of is solitary confinement. For herd animals like us, the bitterest punishment is indeed to be cut off from the herd. That doesn’t mean we don’t need and enjoy periods of isolation. We all need time on our own but what we need that time for is to replenish our resources for the very challenging task of belonging to a social species.
Now if you bear that in mind and think about contemporary Australia, it’s very clear what our major social problem has become: we are more socially fragmented than we have ever been.
Our households are shrinking. Every fourth household – and it will very soon be every third household – contains just one person. That’s the fastest growing household type in Australia. That doesn’t mean that every household contains a lonely person, but it does mean that in every third or fourth household in Australia the risk of social isolation is greatly increased.
Between 35-40 per cent of contemporary marriages are ending in divorce. That’s a very fragmenting phenomenon, of course, and not just for the couples that are splitting and for their families and friendships, but for any kids.
And while we are talking about kids, another contributor to our social fragmentation is the falling birth rate. Any parent knows if you move into a new neighbourhood it’s usually the kids that act as a kind of social lubricant. They get to know the other kids and the families gradually get to know each other. So when we are experiencing the lowest birth rate in our history, we are producing, relative to population, the smallest generation of children we have ever produced, and that means that that social lubricant is in short supply and we have to compensate. (We are compensating, of course. While the birth rate crashes, the rate of pet ownership is going through the roof. I recently met a dog called Ian and I thought that was a funny name for a dog, except that it was, after all, a child substitute.)
What about our increased busyness? We are working longer hours. People who work in occupations where they are accessible via information technology always say they are never away from work. There are always emails and text messages and other things to be attended to. And when we are busier, of course, we have less time and much less energy available for the business of nurturing the local neighbourhoods. So our busyness also tends to isolate us from each other.
And so does our almost addictive attachment to our IT devices. Here’s the great paradox of the IT revolution: while the new technology connects us digitally, it also makes it easier than ever for us to stay apart from each other. And there’s a huge qualitative difference between face-to-face communication between humans who are present to each other and communication that happens via information technology.
Put all of those things together, and then add in our increasing mobility – we are moving house on average once every six years, and we are also a drive in/drive out society. We tend to go everywhere in the car. Footpath traffic falls away. All of those things contribute to more fragmentation and a reduced sense of belonging to stable and cohesive neighbourhoods.
Now in the light of what we know about the character – the essence – of our species, what is likely to happen next? Pretty obviously, what you would expect is that greater social fragmentation would lead to more anxiety, more emotional disturbance, more restlessness, perhaps even more depression. And that is precisely what has happened. Not only here but around most western societies that we would compare ourselves with.
Happily, there is something we can do about this. We are not simply interested bystanders to all this, nor are we the hapless victims of all these changes. In fact, we are active participants in them. We make these social changes happen by the ways we choose to live, so we must be prepared to accept some responsibility for the consequences that flow from them.
Let me suggest that the starting-point for turning all this around can be captured in just one word: compassion. And by compassion, I don’t mean some soppy emotional thing: I think of compassion as the only rational response to an understanding of what it really means to be human. As members of a species that needs to be nurtured by communities, the one thing we can do to ensure those communities thrive is to treat each other with kindness and respect – especially those we don’t like much, and those we don’t agree with.
In practical terms, that means you wouldn’t dream of failing to smile and say hello to anyone you pass on the footpath or encounter at the bus stop or in a lift. You would never find yourself saying as so many people in our major cities now do say: “We don’t know our neighbours”. You’d go and knock on their doors and meet them.
You’d never say “Gosh, someone in our street died in our house and no-one knew for two weeks”. You wouldn’t allow that to happen because you’d be the kind of person who would be especially alert to the needs of people in your street who are at risk of social isolation – especially the frail and elderly. You’d be the kind of person who would call in every now and then to make sure everything’s okay and perhaps offer to lend a hand with some shopping or household chores.
It’s not rocket science. It’s not even very hard. It’s just a matter of making the commitment to the idea that every human encounter will be handled kindly and that I’ll seize every opportunity available to me to engage with my local community – join a choir, or a book club, or a community garden, a current affairs discussion group, or anything that will connect me to others in the neighbourhood.
I’ll do this, not just because it will be good for my health – nothing gets our anxiety level down like the exercise of compassion – but also because I know it’ll be good for the health of my community.
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of seventeen books – ten in the field of social psychology and ethics, and six novels. His latest book, Australia Reimagined, published in 2018, investigates why Australia’s unprecedented run of economic growth has failed to deliver a more stable and harmonious society. A newspaper columnist for more than 25 years, Hugh is currently an Honorary Professor of Social Science at the University of Wollongong, an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Charles Sturt University, and a Patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre. He was the inaugural chairman of the ACT Government’s Community Inclusion Board and was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia in 2015. Hugh is also an Ambassador for our annual community connection campaign, Neighbour Day.