Humans are deeply social creatures. It is the essential fact of being human. We are part of a group from the moment we are born. We live with others of our kind (and some not of our kind) more prevalently than most animals. Few of us thrive without friends and family. Loneliness is far more deadly than heart disease or cancer, especially among older people; and there is reason to believe that isolation can strengthen other health problems. Even purported loners are often in communication with others through art or literature or music.
This past year has underscored just how essential our group is to our well-being. Many of us have been separated from loved ones for the entire plague year. We haven’t hugged our children. We worry about our aging parents. In my people, we had cancer strike — one survivor, one not — and we could do very little except spend hours online, wishing we could reach through the screens, wishing there was some more tangible way to say goodbye. I’ve talked with my distant son more than was normal before the plague year, but it is no substitution for being together. We all need our groups put back together.
I would like to think that perhaps we’ve learned that all this distance between us is not a good thing, that if there is to be a building back better it will include bringing family and friends back within easy traveling distance. I’m afraid we’ve learned no such lesson though. I’m certain this will not be the only disaster that will isolate us from our people. So I do fret about the future.
However, the other lesson we’ve learned is that group thinking and confirmation biases are growing stronger in this time of physical isolation. It’s as though our personalities are being reduced to these two-dimensional screens, all the complexity bled out. That complexity — holding conflicting ideas, understanding more than one side of a debate, experiencing multiple effects from any given cause — tends to restrain impulsive actions and make us think. We are more reflective when we must face opinions other than our own. But this plague has given us the option of hiding behind technology rather than dealing with actual people and their messy divergences from the world inside our heads.
This is highly problematic coming at a time when we are already loosely tethered to any part of the world that does not conform to our own opinions, when we are increasingly disposed to demonizing other ideas, when the very idea of a factual world is in question, and when we are spending many hours a day mediated by algorithms that are specifically designed to divide us according to our beliefs and reinforce those beliefs no matter how irrational. In fact, it seems that the more irrational an idea is, the more traction it gains in online media. (I give you QAnon.)
I’m writing this just before St Patrick’s Day, the one day of the year when everybody wants to join my group. People who manifestly know nothing of the origins of this celebration — given the watery green beer and corned beef in Lent and a decided lack of respect for Catholicism — wear green and develop an evanescent passion for bagpipes and step dancing. This year the parades are cancelled and the bars will be filled with drunks under leprechaun hats only in benighted places like Florida and Texas. But it will still be cool to be Irish for a day.
My wish is that, this year, go deeper than the superficial caricature that sells beer and Dropkick Murphys music. Being Irish — in Ireland or in diaspora — is a constant balancing act between the deep desire to meld into our insular group and the knowledge that we’ve done some pretty nasty things when we have given in to group-think. Many of us have, in that balancing act, learned to celebrate our people while opening up the boundaries to include new ideas and cultures. (Witness the Afro-Celtic Sound System.) If you want to truly be Irish for a day, then get out of your silo and embrace complexity.
Mind you, there’s no particular injunction against irrationality in my culture… but leprechauns never follow orders, especially from some nameless man-baby on the other end of a computer connection. Reflect on that while I go get us another round.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
How have you been coping with isolation this year? Do you feel that you are giving in to your confirmation biases? If you’re on screens (and of course you are), are you making attempts to counter algorithms that feed those biases? What are your coping strategies? And how do you feel about Guinness?
It’s time to talk. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I like it. Most days.