Lonely society

05 Oct 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

MANY causes have been sought for increasingly divisive politics: the false promise of neoliberalism and globalisation; resource scarcity; the 24/7 news cycle; soaring displacement, etc. But what if the answer lay in the human condition that these factors have collectively produced?

Writing for the Financial Times, Noreen Hertz argued that loneliness was making the world a “more aggressive, angry place”. That the Western world is increasingly lonely is known. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, one in 20 adults in the UK report feeling lonely often or always. More than three in five Americans across generations also describe themselves as lacking companionship and feeling misunderstood.

Linking pervasive loneliness with political polarisation is not novel. Hertz cites the work of Hannah Arendt, who wrote that for people facing “isolation and lack of normal social relationships… it is through surrendering their individual selves to ideology that [they] rediscover their purpose and self-respect”. In other words, for those spending days alone, staring at screens, being a part of something — even if it’s a far-right or extremist group — is appealing.

I wondered how this argument applies to societies such as ours. Pakistan has many problems but, on the surface, loneliness is unlikely to be among them. The strength of familial and broader kinship networks, rarity of one-person households, and prevalence of the gift economy seem sufficient counterpoints to the loneliness in developed economies. And yet we too struggle with viciously polarised politics and rampant sectarianism. Are we lonelier than we realise?

Alienation can contribute to toxic politics.

A 2018 essay by Natasha Japanwala on loneliness among Karachi’s youth explores the distinct experience of loneliness in our country. She argues that people feel lonely even though they are surrounded by family because they cannot be their authentic selves. As one of her interviewees eloquently put it, “Loneliness is a feeling like you can’t express who you are… I feel a crisis because I just can’t be myself.”

While Pakistanis interact with lots of other people, their social circle is likely to be homogenous: hailing from the same family or kinship group, socioeconomic class, ethnolinguistic background, and thus the same expectations and aspirations. This homogeneity is further enshrined within other restrictive social structures, eg patriarchal or tribal.

If one’s identity or ambitions don’t fit the mould, they are unlikely to be readily welcome elsewhere, producing feelings of detachment and loneliness. And that marginalisation could drive one to seek belonging among any group, even if it is intolerant or hateful.

While compelling, this scenario is not common enough to explain Pakistan’s social fragmentation. Hertz’s argument becomes relevant to Pakistan when she expands the definition of loneliness to include “feeling disconnected from our fellow citizens and political leaders, and detached from our work and our employer”.

For most Pakistanis, work is a compulsion, saddled with high levels of exploitation, and scarce access to labour rights. People rarely love what they do — they do what they have to in order to feed themselves and their families; many risking injury, disease, sexual assault or worse when they enter the workplace. The resulting alienation can contribute to toxic politics and polarisation.

Moreover, Pakistan is plagued by corruption, nepotism and cronyism, and a lack of meritocracy and accountability. Shadow puppetry defines our political sphere, where what you see is never what you get. All this can drive frustration, despondency and even feelings of hatred.

The lack of vision in our politics, and poor service delivery by the state in the absence of accountability, means there are no productive channels for negative energies. People lose faith in state and society, and start to buy into conspiracy theories. The outcome is heightened feelings of hostility.

In the West, such feelings are exploited by far-right groups that create what Hertz calls ‘tribal experiences’ (large rallies, festivals) to draw in the alienated. In our context, this space is filled by religious, extremist and hyper-nationalist groups, and tribal experiences range from anti-minority rallies to widespread support for stifling dissent and mob violence.

Using the loneliness lens means we cannot address rising intolerance only through law enforcement or legislation, curricula reform or censorship. We must seek to restore individuals’ sense of self, and provide people with opportunities to reconnect on a human level. Practically, this means more investment in sports, cultural and community centres, safe spaces for self-expression, mental health resources and hyper-local government. But it also means more transparency and accountability at private institutions and across the state, for anxiety that breeds in the shadows leads to the politics of hate.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2020