Beyond Arguments: Reversing Social Breakdown

Building a strong society means strengthening local institutions and in-person interactions to better embed relationships

Strengthening in-person institutions such as after-school programs and summer camps will foster communities. Image Credit: Pauline St. Denis/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Americans are reducing their embedded commitments (that is, deep, loyal and long-standing relationships) to each other just when such commitments are most needed. Yuval Levin’s article for The Dispatch titled “The Changing Face of Social Breakdown” acutely observes the changes in relationships and family formation patterns over the past decade. Levin is right that risk avoidance—“a failure to launch, which leaves too many Americans on the sidelines of life, unwilling or unable to jump in”—is a growing problem. And he’s right that the pursuit of happiness can also bear bad fruit when it is spurred by unrestrained passions.

But Levin doesn’t offer many practicable ideas for what should be done about these twin risks to social life in America. He talks about making a “deeper, warmer argument” than in the past, but this prescription brushes past the core problem. A social order sustains itself only when its institutions (and the norms these foster) are engaging, robust and thick enough to structure our outlook and relationships. Our current social order does not do this.

Levin concludes, “A fuller understanding of flourishing would see it as achievable not by a proper sequencing of solitary choices but by a proper layering of embedded commitments to others.” He is correct—but how might our social order practically encourage us to become embedded in “relationships of obligation”? What might help us reconsider our self-identities and priorities so that commitments to family, children, community and faith become central?

While many of our activities are intensely social, they no longer involve the same long-term commitments to relationships. To encourage embedded commitments, we need to strengthen local institutions so that they can better foster in-person socialization, especially among young people.

The Importance of In-Person Socialization

If young people are focusing more on their individual concerns and the pleasures of their smartphones, it’s not because they are naturally lazy or inert. On the contrary, it is because they have been increasingly socialized to act this way. The rewards of “virtual life” have become their horizon of happiness. If we want to increase their interest in making and ability to make commitments to others and to their communities, we must change how people are socialized, with an emphasis on place-based socialization, and we must seek innovative ways to thicken the institutions and norms shaping this process.

In-person socialization, especially among youth, is essential not only for developing an appreciation for strong relationships and the commitments that come with them, but also for developing mores essential to a healthy society—everything from civility to a sense of responsibility for others to professional and interpersonal risk-taking. This socialization should ideally occur among various types of people (with different views, backgrounds and incomes) on a regular, even daily, basis.

Neighborhoods and local institutions are best placed to achieve this because they embed us in a set of long-lasting relationships involving repeated interactions in a way that no other social context can. And relationships that are long-lasting; that involve frequent, positive interactions; and that are structured in such a way as to encourage stability, care and concern are essential to our well-being, as psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary describe.

I have seen in my own Orthodox Jewish community how thicker ties allow for flourishing in spite of the cultural headwinds. While most of American society features fractured relationships, my community, with its demanding commitments, has grown rapidly. While some of the Jewish community’s growth is due to high birth rates, a key factor is people’s desire to stay immersed in or join a community where our commitment to and expectations of our neighbors are much greater than in U.S. society generally.

Unfortunately, many of the place-based institutions, practices and norms that once structured our lives have withered. How can we thicken these such that they build stickier, longer-lasting commitments? How can we move beyond “warm arguments” and into welcoming practices?

Renewing Institutions

A famous Jewish maxim says, “More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.” If we want greater commitment to religious customs and communities, we should be looking for what new practices might make this so. Restoring the Sabbath as a true day of rest, communion and celebration, with clear rules and customs that support this goal, would strengthen religious communities and make their attractiveness more obvious to outsiders. Orthodox Jewish rules require members to live within walking distance of each other (no driving is allowed on the Sabbath), to isolate themselves from the surrounding society (no smartphones or televisions), to pray and eat together (families with families) and to celebrate our unique history and culture (through Torah readings, speeches and classes). These practices bond and interweave the community in a way that no newly invented practice can do.

Similarly, if we want youth to commit to traditional institutions (e.g., marriage, family, local civic associations), they need to experience such institutions as lived communities, not just as buildings and rhetoric. They must be part of a place and group of people. This entails investing substantial sums in everything from schools to summer camps to neighborhood after-school activities, as is done in Orthodox Jewish communities.

While Jews are famous for their focus on education—a product of a faith that makes studying Torah the central element—there is another rarely stated reason why we want to control our own schools and activities: They are key to transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations. The alternative is assimilation into the broader society—and its weaker commitments.

Right now, the primary place-based social activity that is growing is youth sports, and while such activity has benefits (e.g., learning to follow rules and work with teammates), it is less relationship-based and communal than the social institutions that have withered in recent decades. John McKnight and Peter Block write, “If we don’t know our neighbors, aren’t active in local community life, pay for others to raise our children and service our elders, and try to buy our way into a good life, we pay a larger price. We produce, unintentionally as it might be, a weak family, a careless community, and a nation that tries hopelessly to revive itself from the top down.”

We need creative investment in initiatives that can restore the appeal of in-person clubs and activities that can have a substantial impact on the choices people make in the short term and the commitments they seek in the long term. Encouraging more youth volunteering in our neighborhoods through after-school and weekend programs would help, as would greater government investment in national service.

Lastly, to change the calculus society makes when using technology, we need more controls—government as well as parental—on how we use it. Embedded relationships can certainly be maintained virtually, but they are substantially less likely to be created virtually than when incubated in person over a good length of time. Government could set much tougher limits on what content youth can access, and parents could go further than this minimum based on their knowledge of the effects of social media and smartphones.

As it stands now, technology is hindering in-person social engagement, not only by providing a frictionless, always-available form of engagement, but also by providing unconstructive alternatives (e.g., pornography) that warp and crowd out social activities. Facebook groups might supplement real-life interactions, but they can never replace them. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen observed during her Senate testimony:

[W]hen you and I interact in person, and I say something mean to you, and I see [you] wince or I see you cry, that makes me less likely to do it the next time, right? That’s a feedback cycle. Online kids don’t get those cues and they learn to be incredibly cruel to each other and they normalize it. And I’m scared of what will their lives look like, where they grow up with the idea that it’s okay to be treated badly by people who allegedly care about them? That’s a scary future.

Whether youth are failing to launch or rushing recklessly in the wrong direction, there is no argument or app that will redirect them onto a more virtuous path. On the contrary, they need a lived understanding of what it means to be a person—and not an autonomous individual. Embedding our youth in in-person relationships and commitments early will give them a social sense of self and help them yearn to serve their communities. People thrive when they understand what it is to live in a particular place and time. They are free not because they are isolated individuals but because they are embedded in deep relationships.

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