Scotsdale, AZ. With a vaccine on the horizon, it is time to think hard about how our country should look when the pandemic ends. The state of America under the coronavirus has been a window into liberal democracy left to its natural inclinations. While all countries have faced challenges created by social distancing, the unique political organization and national character of Americans makes many of us particularly inclined to feel that social distancing is not so bad after all. Yet if we make permanent the necessary preventative isolation measures that we have taken during the pandemic, we could tear the fabric that holds together our democracy.
Americans have been practicing social distancing since they stepped off the boats and planes from their native countries, putting an ocean between themselves and their former communities. A century and a half ago, in his classic book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explained how the beliefs in equality and freedom that democracy engenders also promote an unhealthy tendency towards social isolation. Democracy erodes the ties that had bound people together in former societies. Without the existence of multi-generational families tied to hereditary land, the fabric of time is torn, and it becomes easy to forget about those before as well as those after you. When class status is no longer fixed, individuals can rise or fall out of the social class of their parents. As Tocqueville says:
Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.
In this context, an ethos of self-sufficiency arises. One’s station in life is viewed as a reflection of hard work or laziness, rather than the class of one’s parents. People become less likely to feel indebted to other individuals or to society at large for their successes or failures.
In a more recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, political theorist Patrick Deneen echoes Tocqueville’s concern about how liberal democracies encourage isolation. Deenen argues that the theoretical bedrock of liberalism—the social contract theory of Locke and Hobbes— considers humans to be fundamentally autonomous and nonrelational creatures. By framing our laws and mores around this understanding of man’s nature, people are in turn shaped according to this standard. Whereas in traditional societies relationships to family, town, and country were considered natural and unbreakable, in the liberal democratic society these relationships are considered voluntary. Deneen argues that:
Liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships— to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism encourages loose connections.
In practice, these loose connections form deracinated individuals, living far from their birthplace and families, prepared to move again and again for greater economic opportunity. Lacking the intricate web of social relations that comes only from generations spent in one place, individuals turn inwards, as Tocqueville says, towards the solitude of their own heart.
Pandemic as Democracy Heightened
The coronavirus has mirrored this shift away from other people. But rather than a slow drift away from others, we have been drowning in a tsunami of isolation. Office buildings have been shut down indefinitely. Restaurants are either takeout only or have limited seating that positions people far away from other tables. In-person encounters have been replaced by video calls and email. One can no longer go to a coffee shop to work or read or chat with a friend. For many, Thanksgiving was travel-free and celebrated with immediate family only. Casual encounters with strangers have become much rarer. The encounters that we do have that involve friends and strangers are now obscured by face masks, which hide the facial expressions that account for so much of our non-verbal communication. It has become normal to walk around a grocery store, confronting a sea of expressionless shoppers differentiated only by their choice of a blue cloth over their face or one with polka dots.
Yet the problem is not only that the virus has pushed us away from other people, but rather that many Americans are not so troubled by this. As Joshua Mitchell points out in a recent essay, “what has been most troubling about the rapid adjustments we have made as a society is not how difficult they have been, but rather—let us dare to admit it—how comfortable many of us have been in making them.” Opinions on teleworking illustrate this point. According to a recent IBM poll of 25,000 adult Americans, 54% of employees would prefer to primarily work from home, while 75% said that they would like to work from home occasionally. If the IBM poll is representative of the larger American working population, more than half of all Americans claimed that they would prefer to work from home. At the same time, early indications suggest that rates of homeschooling will rise even after the pandemic ends. Parents who have spent previously unimaginable time at home with their children will question whether in-person school is really superior to homeschooling options that utilize many of the same tools deployed in the pandemic to make school remote. And who could blame them? Spouses, children, and pets must be left daily, time is wasted commuting, and lunches must be prepared in advance. These reclusive behaviors conform to our democratic instincts to increasingly withdraw from one another. What would be the consequence of large numbers of Americans continuing to stay home from work and school after the pandemic subsides?
The Perils of Isolation
Isolation results in narrow-mindedness, which takes two forms: moral and intellectual. In isolation, individuals forget about the well-being of others and look only to the gratification of their own needs and desires. Many writers have described man’s moral sense as being as much intuitional as it is rational. Morality is something that we feel rather than something we scrupulously reason to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes that in the human soul there exists a principle that “inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer.” This repugnance to suffering, according to Rousseau, only happens when we actually see other beings suffer. Most thoughtful meat-eaters know that their burger would taste less appetizing if they had to eat it at the slaughterhouse where it came from. We know it is better not to see the suffering that was necessary to turn the cow into lunch. Moral sentiments are not felt equally at all times. They are triggered by the experience of injustice and can be either forgotten or willfully ignored when injustice is not directly witnessed. Consequently, in isolation, one gradually forgets about the suffering of others because it is witnessed less often. Instead of wishing to improve the lives of one’s neighbors, one retreats inward to the pleasures of the self.
The second form of narrow-mindedness that comes from seclusion is the atrophy of the mind. Isolation turns the mind into a hermetically sealed chamber into which no contrary opinions enter. In his classic work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes at length about the effect that isolation from contrary opinions has on the intellect. He warns that positions “will be held as dead dogma, not living truth” when they are not “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed.” Ongoing engagement with divergent opinions is a requirement of deep thinking. “When the mind is no longer compelled,” Mill writes, “to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent.” When unchallenged, we forget why we even hold the beliefs that we hold. The mind is ossified when left by itself. More time spent at home means less time out in the world encountering other opinions that could challenge and strengthen our own opinions.
While at home, contact with the outside world is mediated through television and the internet, which exacerbate the problems of an isolated intellect rather than ameliorate them. While we might encounter a larger diversity of opinions online than we would in-person, these views lack the human connection that prompts us to charitably read diverse views in good faith. It is much easier to assume that someone holding an opposing view is ignorant or immoral when we do not encounter them face to face. At the same time, the public nature of social media raises the temperature of political disagreements. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci notes, hearing opposing views on social media is “like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium.” Knowing that an audience is watching gives social media interactions the character of a team sport with winners and losers, rather than an opportunity to learn.
The Power of Association
For Tocqueville, associations were the primary check on individualism that prevented Americans from moral and intellectual decay. Religious institutions, office buildings, workout classes, and book clubs all push Americans towards socialization and community. Describing the effect of these associations on us, Tocqueville writes that “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed.” Through these associations we are reminded of the world outside of ourselves. The heart is enlarged, and our moral intuitions are sparked when we see the hardships that others grapple with. One remembers that other people have interior lives as complicated and rich as our own when we see them laughing with a friend or hashing out a business agreement at a table adjacent to ours. The human mind is developed when our beliefs are challenged at school, work, or church. These gatherings were the first to be dropped during the pandemic and were replaced by emails and video conferences. While these tools can simulate community, they can never fully replace the actual event of in-person human contact.
Looking Towards the Future
None of this is to suggest that we should not have committed to social distancing and wearing masks for the sake of our own health and the health of those around us. The alternative to social distancing and masking would have been an unprecedented loss of human life. But now that the end is in sight, what will we go back to after the virus ends? We should be worried that the anti-social tendencies that have become commonplace during pandemic times will become normalized and carry over into non-pandemic times.
Even before the current pandemic, some other countries have normalized mask-wearing to reduce the spread of illness. While well-intentioned, the social costs of normalizing masking are too high to justify. Continuing the practice of mask wearing after the pandemic ends would continue to detach us from our neighbors and amplify our retreat into ourselves.
Many have prophesied that even after the virus ends many companies will not go back to the workplace. Why pay for high-priced downtown office spaces when employees would rather be home anyway and the company could continue to function with two-thirds of its communication taking place on Zoom or over email? There are obvious benefits to working from home—less time commuting, more time with family—but there are also consequences to dramatically reducing the number of personal encounters that Americans have each day. Working from home encourages a retreat away from social behaviors that is endemic to our democratic nature. The benefits of not leaving the house are so close-by that they cover up the downsides, which are diffuse and distant.
At the start of the pandemic, we were introduced to the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses. With millions of lives at stake, we may reasonably categorize many businesses and other forms of association as “non-essential” for a period of twelve months. But over a longer time horizon, the encounters that come through “non-essential” forms of association are absolutely essential to overcoming the perils of small-mindedness that can plague a democracy. When the pandemic ends, we cannot afford to lose the development of the human heart and mind that results from what Tocqueville calls “the reciprocal action of men upon one another.” Very little is more essential than that.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press), p. 484 ↑
- Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, (Yale University Press), p. 34 ↑
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, trans. Donald A. Cress (Hackett Publishing Company), p. 14. ↑
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, edited Elizabeth Rapaport (Hackett Publishing Company), p. 34. ↑
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press), p. 491 ↑
- Ibid, 491 ↑
I agree with the thrust of this piece, especially the way we have adjusted so comfortably to changes (I am in England, by the way). I share your view that social fabric is in danger because of these accommodations and the possibility of our being so used to them as to not want to give them up. I’m less sure about Rousseau and Mill as points of reference – wouldn’t they be intellectual causes of the problems we face to some extent? I confess too that I keep coming back to the question of how governments can lock down societies for so long and with so little protest – this seems to be the big scale accommodation to me, even though the small scale ones are also vital. In fact, the two are interlinked – how can I see more than my immediate family when the British (conservative) government has locked the country down for a vaguely specified period? How can I carry out the most basic duties of care for an elderly relative who I am not ‘allowed’ to visit? I am still not seeing much in FPR at this level and can only assume that the editors want to keep ‘liberty’ and ‘libertarian’ far apart. If so, fair enough, but I would like to see FPR doing and saying more. At any rate, thank you for the points you do take up in this writing.
Very well considered and referenced piece, however I’m inclined to think that more families spending time with each other in homeschooling is a net positive for a society where families are fractured beyond recognition. Children are picked up for school in the morning, and come home in the evening to sit in front of TV and Ipads. The only time spent at home together is to sleep. Home is no longer what it once was and teleworking and homeschooling have possibly helped bring families together a bit.
Once again though, well done.
If the pandemic and the draconian lockdowns that came with it have proven anything it’s how willing people are to distance themselves from one another and how much further apart and isolated people have become. As far as working remotely or engaging with others on some social media sewer, that has just exacerbated the problem even further as people become more comfortable talking to a screen or a disembodied voice on the phone rather than engaging in person to person contact as members of a socially stable society should do.
We had already lost the “development of the human heart and mind that results…from the reciprocal action of men upon one another” well before the advent of COVID, it happened when a stable, cohesive society along with its leadership became a bunch of insular, self-absorbed, dysfunctional parasites whose self-gratification is their end-all/be-all. It’s going to take a lot more than a sunny disposition, or happy thoughts to stave off America’s impending culture death, what it’s going to take is a massive cultural upheaval the likes of which this country has not seen and (let’s face it) most people are too cowardly to want.
That’s a good point about our preparedness for isolation ‘well before the advent of Covid’ – when do you think the change came? What kind of cultural upheaval are you thinking of?
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