A guest post by Tal2.
In response to The age of loneliness is killing us.
In his article The age of loneliness is killing us, George Monbiot criticizes individualism, competition, greediness, the pursuit of money and the limited options for socializing in the current age. There are definitely many problems and difficulties that come when times change and technology and society move forward. Saying that loneliness is the biggest problem sounds like an excuse to me.
The author claims humans were always social and only recently sacrificed their social life in favor of individualism and competition. Competition as he sees it is one where only one individual can win; where every man is against every other man. He says Hobbes was wrong and humans were always social and in fact could not survive without being a part of a society. He is right in saying people in old ages could not have survived completely alone, which is true for today as well. But what he perhaps forgets is that during most of ancient history and before that, humans were fighting each other all the time. It wasn't every man against every man, it was more like every tribe against every tribe. Hardly a better social life for the average man at that time.
It might be true that watching more TV "speeds up the hedonic treadmill". Although I do not watch a lot of television, I can fully understand this is one of the ways people choose to cope with their loneliness that the author claims is so deadly. These people might be making a mistake, but it is their choice. No one is forcing them to watch it, which is a point that cannot be stressed enough. A way to "save" these people from their own choice would be to impose on them a different solution, a world view which is not their own. This is actually one thing the author dislikes so much about the television shows he mentiones. This age, I argue, offers many more ways to deal with loneliness than ever before.
These days people have more free time. One would think it is a good thing, because they can spend it in ways that would bring them more happiness. But this is a difficult task, happiness is something one should actively look for. No one knows or even can know what would make a person happy more than they do, even if they are struggling or giving up in favor of mind-numbing television shows. With more free time come more possibilities to pass the time in a fun and meaningful way. Today, there are more social activities of all kinds available to people of all ages. One doesn't need to make much effort to find people with similar interests. The age of communication made it so easy. Social networks make it easier to make new connections with other people. How meaningful these will be depends on who’s looking. Is technology not for everyone? No problem! There are countless activities that require a group of people to meet together face to face, some of those are more specialized and might require money, others are completely free. You only need to open your eyes and make the bold move of asking to join. That is, of course, if that particular group is not advertising its openness. If loneliness is such a problem every group in the park or in the pub should readily accept new members. If they don't the author should ask himself why don't people want to solve their own issue of loneliness.
The author is talking about the pursuit of money as if it is a huge problem, and as if it drives the growing problem of loneliness as a result of competition. First of all, he presents a study of British children who answer in a survey that they want to be rich and famous. (And I have to point out these are not "the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed" simply because if you follow the link you will see these are the top TWO answers, these are two different answers, and they do not necessarily go together). Do we count on children's opinions on these huge subjects? Do children know what it means to be famous or rich? 14% in the survey want to be zookeepers, do they know what it takes? Adults understand that money is a means to an end and not an end in itself. He did mention a single person who claimed 1B$ is a goal for him as an example in the next paragraph and I am sure there are a few more. I say there's nothing wrong with that, maybe it does bring him happiness, but more to the point, a single person's preferences tell us nothing about the rest. Adults understand better what money is than children up to 10 years of age. Children under ten can undoubtedly be happy but hardly understand what happiness is. Probably not all adults do.
So that leaves us with the greedy assholes who "earn, no, take" so much money and are still not happy. Well, if they have so much money and they are still not happy why does the author bother to mention them? Could it be because he knows money does have something to do with happiness? Having more money helps you solve or altogether avoid a lot of problems on your happiness road (happiness is not the end of the road, it is also the road itself), but it certainly does not make you happy by itself. Money does not taste good, money is not capable of affection, a pile of money cannot give you an adrenaline rush. Money can help you create opportunities and have great experiences in life with your family and friends. It can help you cultivate your hobbies and interests, alone or with other people who share your interest. It can help you go through hardship. First of all, all that can be achieved to some degree without money, and second, some people with a lot of money can miss all that potential. Money in itself does not guarantee anything, let alone happiness. On that I agree with the author. Moreover, I think almost no one really believes that it is even though this fictitious idea is so widely criticized in the western world.
The author suggests "if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced." This system he refers to seems to be the real subject of criticism that underlies the whole article. It starts with criticizing the current state of education which leaves "a void filled by marketing and conspiracy theories." It goes on talking about living life vicariously through television. Misusing the economic term "competition" as if it was a bloody one, when in fact this kind of competition is only a borrowed term; in reality it means people trying to improve society and be better off themselves at the same time, not at the expense of the other (even if, at the micro level, it sometimes seems like it is). He goes on blaming the super rich. Some of them are, admittedly, in the current world where too many big corporations are in bed with the government, responsible for some horrible things happening. However, that does not mean all of them or even a big part of them is to blame. In fact most of them are really hard-working people who contribute to society with their knowledge and skills and take on a lot of responsibility while still making mistakes like all human beings. The author in fact criticizes the free market system and carefully avoids the term. But more fundamentally he criticizes freedom. He criticizes the taste of people regarding television shows, he criticizes the choices people make in their efforts to be happy. He criticizes the recently achieved longevity (only a few decades now) and leisure simply because other people choose to use them in their own ways. Of course, some people make mistakes. Some people don't know how to be happy, but the options and possibilities for them to learn and find out what makes them happy are greater than ever. One only needs to choose to use them if they feel lonely or for any other reason. He criticizes television, but people freely and individually choose to watch the shows. If they simply would stop watching them because they realize these do not contribute to their happiness, these television shows would go away by themselves. It is a matter of choice.
In other words, the system the author criticizes is the system that makes society better and gives the people the freedom to choose how to pursue their own happiness. How it does that is a subject on which many articles were written about, for and against, and I urge you to read both sides critically. Even without reading anything you can open your eyes and see our lives are longer, which is something humanity always strived for, we are more productive than ever, which makes a bigger portion of our lives a leisure and our lives are filled with opportunities to socialize.
If our lives "are becoming nasty, brutish and long," as the author claims, we should ask ourselves why so many people choose their lives to be this way when almost everything around them makes it easier to find happiness.
1. I am talking only about sane adults, not about children and people who genuinely cannot take care of themselves.↑
2. In the Western world where this system is relatively practiced more than in other parts of the world that would benefit from having the same system (or even a more free system) for themselves.↑