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Human Beings, Together and Alone
Benjamin Klutsey and Ian Marcus Corbin discuss contemporary loneliness, understanding the world through relationships and much more
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Ian Marcus Corbin about the difference between solitude and loneliness, how the internet is affecting people’s sense of self, the virtues of ska punk music and much more. Corbin is a writer, researcher and teacher in Cambridge, Mass., where he is currently writing a book on solitude and human solidarity.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Thank you for joining us, Ian.
IAN MARCUS CORBIN: Yes. Thanks so much, Ben.
Effects of Solitary Confinement
KLUTSEY: The first question I have for you is related to your research on solitary confinement. Your research on loneliness, which crystallizes when you’re studying people in solitary confinement, I find very interesting. Can you tell us what happens to an individual’s mind, or the person’s self, while they are in solitary confinement?
CORBIN: Well, it’s wild. I really would encourage you or any of your listeners to look around and find some accounts from prisoners who’ve been in that situation or psychologists who study it.
Solitary confinement was at an early stage—I want to say in the 19th century, but don’t quote me on that—it was actually promoted by Quakers in Philadelphia as a humane way to deal with antisocial behavior. They thought of humans as fundamentally solitary creatures, so that if you were having trouble in society and not acting the way that you should, that the best thing to do to you would be to put you alone and let you reset. Still yourself, reset and then come back into society.
We can get into the distinction between solitude and isolation and loneliness—they’re important distinctions—but in this case, it turns out that this anthropology really led us astray. It turns out that we’re not fundamentally solitary creatures; we’re fundamentally communal creatures. And that if you pull us out of these feedback loops of intersubjectivity—being around other minds, other agents, other people—that our ability to hold a coherent sense of ourselves and a coherent sense of the world in a consistent, solid way just evaporates.
The really garden-variety baseline experience of extended solitary confinement is that prisoners have trouble regulating themselves, regulating their behavior. They have trouble focusing, so they can decide to think about a certain thing and their mind goes wherever it wants. They can decide to try to look at a thing and their mind goes wherever it wants, but they just can’t control themselves. That’s the least of your troubles. That’s what happens to basically everyone.
There’s also a lot of cases that are more extreme, where prisoners lose their ability to tell the difference between themselves and their environment. They lose a sense of selfhood; they lose a sense of what’s real and what’s not. They start to see the wall vibrating in front of them, they hear voices. In some cases, they will do arbitrary violence to themselves. Then if you ask them about it afterwards, “Why did you do that?” They’ll say, “I didn’t know it was me that I was hurting.” Their sense of self, in a word, becomes totally unraveled.
For me, this was a big aha moment because I was very interested in the role we play in each other’s lives and each other’s thinking, and the formation of values. I’ve been convinced for many years now that the modern individualistic framework is wrong in some serious ways. I came in trying to figure out how we would articulate that wrongness. How do we really understand what we mean to each other and what we do for each other?
CORBIN: One point that I found really interesting was the topic of loneliness, because we can say a lot of stuff in a medical context about how isolation is bad for us. If you live entirely alone, that can have adverse health impacts, but loneliness can too, and the two are not the same. We’ve known this for a long time.
You can be devastatingly lonely living in a house full of family members. You can live in a cabin in the woods or you can live in a monastery in a cell by yourself and not be lonely. I had started this project of trying to figure out what loneliness is and why it can be devastating. And the conventional social scientific definition that’s used by everyone since I believe the late ’70s—this is a discrepancy model, where loneliness is a discrepancy between the kind of social life you would like to have and the one you have.
That’s helpful because that doesn’t name a quantity of people you need in your life, which is good, because sometimes you can be lonely with tons of people around you, or not lonely by yourself or not lonely if you just have a spouse. Of course, that’s a very thin definition. There are all sorts of discrepancies in my social life right now. Like, I wish I could hang out with Albert Camus. I can’t. There’s a real discrepancy, but I’m not, as a result, lonely.
Anyway, I am trying to think through all this stuff, trying to think through what we mean for each other. When I came across the literature on solitary confinement, something really clicked and was like, “Oh my gosh.” We need each other just to maintain something approaching a coherent sense of reality. If you pull us out of interrelation with one another, it just melts right in front of us, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Interestingly, what is described a minute ago as the garden-variety impacts of solitary—the failure of self-regulation and the inability to focus—are also two of the main hallmarks of just loneliness, the kind that you can experience, again, in a house full of family members.
That was a big moment for me. I said, “Oh my gosh, these intuitions that I had and these philosophers I’ve read for years talking about how interrelated we are and how we’re the communal animal and all this, gosh, it seems actually true.” [laughs] It seems like it’s actually borne out by empirical research.
KLUTSEY: Really interesting. I’ve just seen some surveys that show the increase in loneliness amongst adults, particularly Gen Z. I think one that I read, it said that more than three in five Americans are lonely, and 73% of heavy social media users say that they’re very lonely. I wonder if [crosstalk]—
CORBIN: I wonder if that’s recently correlating heavy political engagement with loneliness as well. People who are really involved with politics tend to be super lonely. I don’t know which direction the causality runs.
KLUTSEY: Right. I’m just wondering how your research gives you some insights about this moment that we’re in with polarization and conflict and things like that. I wonder—you’re a philosopher. You were observing events over the past couple of years. I’m talking about the pandemic, the protests, we had January 6. What did you learn about the human experience during these times? You did mention in the Washington Examiner piece that there’s a deep discontentment with the modern world. Tell us more.
Building a Sense of the World
CORBIN: There’s a pretty perfect overlap between the period when I was doing the research that we’re talking about here and coronavirus and a lot of the social upheavals that we’ve been seeing. I was reading all of it together. It does look a lot like loneliness to me, a lot of the polarization and the rage that we see.
After coming across this literature on solitary confinement, I ended up going back and looking at some literature on child development and how we give our babies and our children a sense of reality. I became just entirely convinced that, first of all, you can’t develop a sense of a world on your own. You need to absorb it through osmosis from your parents or your caregivers. A world is not just a sense of factual reality that right now I see a couple of brick buildings outside of my window, and those are not going to sprout wings and fly. Probably they’re not going to melt; brick tends to be pretty stable. There’s that. That’s necessary for a world.
Also, every second—when we walk into a room, we take a quick temperature of that room where we intuitively sense, “Okay, that person’s potentially dangerous, that person is attractive, that thing looks unstable.” We take an agential reading of our environment, even before we take a factual reading. Before we start to register and cognize in a more explicit way, we already know what to run away from and what to move toward.
That’s part of how we build a world for our children. They’re constantly—from a very young age, I want to say six months—they can read what it is that their parents hold in high esteem versus low esteem, and they actually will reflect that in their own behavior toward the objects.
All the time, as you’re growing to human maturity, you’re living inside this world where you have a pretty workable sense of what is really important, what is ultimately valuable, what is my role to play, what should I avoid, what must I pursue. The uniquely human way of being in the world or being in reality, let’s say, is to be in a world in this sense. But we can’t build it alone, and we also can’t maintain it alone.
If we become lonely, our ability to make evaluative choices starts to wane. Like focus—I mentioned before that in solitary confinement or in regular day-to-day loneliness, people have a hard time focusing. They have a hard time regulating behavior. Well, both of those are built on a foundation of evaluation. The only reason I can select between the crazy myriad of visual and auditory phenomena around me right now and decide to focus on this conversation is because I think it’s more important than the other stuff. That’s the result of a whole understanding I have of what is important in the world, what’s important for me.
When you’re lonely, your world starts to come apart a little bit, and you get scared and you thrash around and you try to find ways to make your world make sense again, because it’s just not a human way to live outside of that. Does that make sense?
KLUTSEY: Yes, it does. Yes, it does.
Effects of the Internet
CORBIN: I think that lacking co-perceivers and co-actors to firm up and help you develop your sense of reality, it starts to crumble. Also, being around people who think you’re nuts [laughter] and who think you’re wrong and have a totally different set of values and live in a totally different world, in a sense, can also really chip away at your sense of sanity and your sense of who you are.
I think we are in a spot right now where—look, there’s always been disagreement. There’s always been different communities with different worldviews living nearby each other. There are a couple big things. One is that we are uniquely and constantly aware of that fact now. The ubiquity of the little computers that we all have in our pockets keeps us hooked into a huge, huge array of humans. As far as I know, the best estimate of the number of humans we are built to be in relationship with and to be working with and interacting with is about 150, and having access to thousands and thousands and millions of people in our little pocket computer is incredibly disorienting. [chuckles]
You go online, and you have all these people proclaiming their worldview very strenuously, and it makes you feel a little bit crazy for a second. You’re like, “Oh God, what if I’m wrong? [chuckles] What if I’m crazy?” There ends up being escalating nervousness where “I need to find my tribe. We need to reassert very violently that we are correct and these other people are terrible and totally wrong.” But it’s not actually a triumphalistic move; it’s a defensive move. It’s that, “I’m terrified because my world feels like it’s crumbling around me, and I can’t live as a human if my world crumbles.”
I see a lot of that right now, and I do think digital life is a big part of it. I think that if the internet were to get shut off today, you would not find yourself so concerned about the crackup of America in the coming weeks. It would really fade and recede because most of the time, on a ground level, we’re not divided; we’re not clashing in the way that we are if you look at the world through a digital lens. I do think that’s a big part of what’s going on now, but there’s other things.
I watched some of the footage of January 6 and some of the protestors, insurgents who ended up in the Senate chambers. One of the things they did was they were praying. I grew up—had a very strange upbringing as the son of two Pentecostal pastors in the North Shore of Boston, which is a strange place to be Pentecostal.
As soon as these people started praying in the Senate chambers, I recognized this patois of it immediately. “Father God, we just come before you today”—exactly the way people in my church prayed when I was growing up. I was like, “Oh my God. This isn’t some weird new confabulation. This is at least, in some part, a culture that I’m familiar with.”
Distrusting the Default Institutions
CORBIN: I do think something changed. When I’m growing up on the North Shore of Boston in this context, we felt embattled, we felt like outsiders and underdogs and like we were living in the shadow of these giant institutions with incredible authority. In some degree, we were scared of them. We were scared of Harvard. We were scared of The New York Times. We were scared of The Atlantic. We wouldn’t have challenged them. We wouldn’t have charged into the Senate. [laughs] We wouldn’t have asserted—we had a counterculture, but I don’t think we would have tried to engage the dominant culture in open battle like that.
I do think something’s happened to what was supposed to be the mainstream system of truth and authority and morality, that was supposed to be the default placeholder that could keep all of these factions cooperating, more or less. If you study political philosophy from the ’70s onward, especially, there’s this philosopher John Rawls, becomes incredibly influential. And he articulates a vision of liberalism that provides a basically neutral public sphere where we all can have debates as long as we’re articulating our position in language that is accessible to everyone.
I wouldn’t, in that system, go into public and say, “The Holy Spirit led me to propose this legislation.” [laughs] I would be bound to articulate my preferences in language that everyone could accept. Basically, we would all respect the preset, the findings of science. There would be a thin, but commonly acceptable, public language and public reality that we could work with, and then you would practice your thicker version of reality in your church, your synagogue, your Boy Scout troop, your sports team.
There’s supposed to be this détente where we can cooperate on stuff that we understand together, do our little hocus pocus in private so we feel like life is very meaningful, and that would be a stable system. I do think something’s happened since I was a child in a Pentecostal church in the North Shore of Boston, where that public reality is not seeming so credible to people anymore, in lots of ways. And we can talk about why that might be. I think there are economic reasons. I think there’s some really bad mishandling of authority by the people at The New York Times and Harvard and The Atlantic.
Yes, we’re at a spot now where people are really feeling the fact that their worldview clashes with those around them; they’re feeling threatened by it. They’re also feeling empowered to attack. It’s a tough period right now, and I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. I’ll go on record and say that I think the next presidential contest is going to be nuts. [laughs] I don’t think we’re going to return to Obama versus Romney anytime soon. I think it’s going to stay a little bit crazy for a while until we get some of these issues sorted out somehow.
Solitude vs. Loneliness
KLUTSEY: I think you make a distinction between loneliness and solitude. I think there’s a way in which solitude is positive, whereas loneliness may not be. I think when you say solitude you mean a moment of reflection and of trying to make sense of the world around you and the connections you have with others, versus loneliness is a little different. What’s the distinction? How is solitude positive versus loneliness, negative?
CORBIN: It’s something I’m trying to work out as I’m writing this book and doing the work that I’m doing in the lab here. There’s the way I described it before: We’re inducted into a world, in our upbringing. Those worlds are maintained through these intersubjective feedback loops with other people who help us understand, and as we make evaluations, they help us to be confident in those and firm them up and maintain them.
Of course, cultures change, people change, and that wouldn’t happen if the only way of being in the world was to live in these tight feedback loops where you’re affirming and being affirmed all the time. Sometimes we step away—and poets and religious mystics and political visionaries, these people step away for periods from this sort of deep, constant subjective engagement, this membership in a tight, coherent world, and they go back to the well, almost. They go back and look at things anew.
Quite often, you can have a situation where someone steps away and they come back and they’re not trying to have a revolution or overthrow anything, but they’re like, “Look, I’ve reunderstood Christianity,” let’s say. “I have a new vision of it, I got back to the roots of it, I understand how we’ve gone astray, and let’s get back on the right path.” Or thinking about democracy, or whatever world you’re stepping in and out of.
That intentional stepping away from a world, for a period, and quieting yourself and trying to look anew at things is at least one important way that I would understand solitude, where loneliness is feeling your world disintegrate around you. It’s typically not a peaceful, static sort of thing; it’s typically frenetic. You’re dashing around online frantically, you’re stuffing your face with food, you’re trying to feel better somehow, you’re trying to restore some feeling of coherence and sanity. Whereas solitude is a more or less intentional thing where you press pause, step away, quiet yourself and try to look at reality anew.
Implications for Pluralism
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. What are the implications of this for pluralism? We seek to coexist with people amidst very deep divides. That’s been the ongoing American experiment from the beginning. We’ve expanded and included more and more people who were at the margins and incorporated a broader sense of what we think of as being American.
Now with what’s going on—and you mentioned the system breaking down—and there’s this sense of loneliness not being the only thing that’s creating these challenges, but loneliness being an important part of this. How do we go from that to fostering a more pluralistic society? People can’t seem to get along, and other groups and people and tribes kind of threaten other people’s sense of existence and so on.
CORBIN: A, if I knew offhand how to do this, you should make me president immediately. [laughter] I don’t know exactly how to do it, but I would say that there are cases in which coexistence in the midst of diversity is extremely doable and can be a beautiful thing and go really well.
One thing that seems important to me is physical proximity, because the version that people present when they go digital is bullshit; it’s nonsense. Like I said, it’s an amped-up, hyperconfident version of their worldview, which is super-alienating to encounter. “How are you so confident about that? Damn, am I an idiot? You seem so sure of this other thing.”
If you sit down with a human, it’s a much different story, because we’re piecing together these worldviews. At a deep, deep level, most of us know that we’re not entirely confident. We don’t know whether this account of reality that we’re working inside of—we don’t know for sure that it’s absolutely true. We have a lot of reasons to think it is. If you can interact with one other person for some extended bit, maybe with some whiskey, maybe with some music to listen to, usually—
KLUTSEY: Some ska punk, maybe?
CORBIN: Some ska punk. [chuckles] Hopefully not. You can be a little more honest, and you can let go a little bit of this white-knuckle grip on certainty. And you can see that, yes, you can live next to me with your view, and I’m okay. I’m not threatened. You don’t have to destroy me. One thing is physical proximity. I think it’s super important. It’s something we’re seeing less and less of. We’re seeing more people building these little compartments. There’s certain zip codes where people vote a certain way and have a certain kind of education, a certain amount of money and a big pulling-apart of different groups, which is difficult and dangerous.
Confidence and Solitude
CORBIN: I think that a very confident person or a very confident group can just live next to people who don’t agree with them, and they’re fine. And so we should be more confident. [laughs] The different groups that are at war right now should relax and believe what they believe and work inside the world that they understand and speak kindly and like humans to other people, because everyone is trying their damnedest and not being entirely successful.
I was super threatened growing up, because I was in a weird context. I had this really strong, militant worldview that was thought absurd by everyone around me. It was terrifying and very difficult. Now I’ve studied philosophy for like 20 years, and I’m not scared of anyone in that way anymore, because I’m very confident in what I understand and I’ve really tried to think through alternatives. I think someone who’s done that kind of work can live very amicably alongside difference. And not everyone can or should study philosophy for 20 years. [chuckles] God help us.
I think if we could find ways to do some of that solitude and do some of that going back to the well and letting go and looking afresh at reality, I think it would make us all stronger and healthier. Perhaps a little paradoxically, if Americans could get a little better at engaging in genuine solitude and do it a little more often, I think a couple things would happen. There would be ways to renew and expand the different worldviews that we live inside, make them more hospitable to larger swaths of reality and human reality.
Also, I think that experience of pausing and looking at sense afresh for yourself—probably you’ll walk away with some wisdom and some convictions about how to live in the world. You’ll also have a sense that the way you translate that experience of reality into a system of value and action is imperfect.
There’s no way that if you try to say, “Okay, I sat in a meadow for two hours, and I watched the sun set, and here’s how we have to vote in the midterms,” there’s no way that you can honestly believe that there’s a really direct, infallible correlation between what the world is like and how we should act here and now. I think it can tend to make you a little humbler and a little more open to people who disagree. I don’t think that any of that is super helpful.
I think advising Americans engage in lots of solitude is—maybe a couple of people would do it, but we’ve built a—solitude’s always difficult. You read back, for medieval monks, it’s hard. It’s hard to live in reality and to be alone. It’s hard enough not to live in your head and just run yourself in circles. It’s a basic human struggle. Steve Jobs didn’t invent this struggle. He did make some tools for avoiding solitude that are really powerful and appealing. That is a problem. Unplug from your computer, try to talk to people who are real people, be alone sometimes.
The Role of Aesthetics
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, what role do you think aesthetics would play in this? I think you write about this—appreciation for art, music, and how that might translate into our appreciation for one another’s differences that might foster a human solidarity.
CORBIN: That’s interesting. That’s a great question. I think great art tends to be engaging in something that would approach world-making, where if you look at a great painting or watch a great film or listen to a great piece of music, it contains within it a not exhaustive but substantial picture of what is reality, what is truly important, how should we live in it.
These works are, I think, embodying—and this is controversial, and I’d be happy to defend it—but I think great works of art are embodying pictures of the world in this way. I do think there’s something disarming about seeing a worldview put into practice, as opposed to having someone yell at you about it.
For instance, my favorite book, which I talk about almost every time I speak anywhere, is “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky. The book is written as a defense of Christianity as a way of life against liberal, atheist, scientistic, for modernizers. But Dostoevsky’s brilliant, brilliant philosophical mind didn’t write an argument to try to defend Christianity. Instead, he took different ways of thinking, like atheism or hedonistic sensualism or Christianity, and he put them in the person of a different brother of the Karamozov family. He tried to, I think, be quite honest about how he saw them playing out. What does it look like to live as an atheist in the world? What’s it look like to live as a Christian or as a hedonist in the world?
There’s something where, if he just argued at you about atheism, argued at you about Christianity, you’d be like, “Okay, that’s a pretty tight argument. I don’t know,” but he put it in pictures of a human walking down the street. There’s something about that that’s differently appealing and that can override some dug-in philosophical positions that we might occupy, because sensuality and color and sound and all this stuff, it’s so immediately appealing. It’s hard to fake it.
If you take a really evil, corrupt worldview like, let’s say, National Socialism and you try to make aesthetics out of it, it can be shallowly appealing. There’s some art we could talk about from Germany in the ’30s, that at first glance of—“Oh, that’s quite striking”—but you look closer and the corruption is visible. The lie of it is visible. The fact that it’s falsifying what it’s like to be a human and not telling us the truth about ourselves, I think is visible on the screen.
Actually, Solzhenitsyn says this in his speech at Harvard, that it’s really hard to lie in art because on a gut level, you can see through stuff in a way that if you put it in philosophical argument form, it’s much easier to be shifty and sneaky and to fool people.
Ska Punk, Community and Tribes
KLUTSEY: That’s fascinating. Now, what did your experience in a ska punk band in the ’90s teach you about community and tribes?
CORBIN: [laughs] Ooh, very funny thing to be asked about. Yes, I wrote a piece about my teenage ska punk band in Plough journal, which was a lot of fun. I can’t believe I did that. As I said, I was raised as a Pentecostal pastor’s kid but fell in with some other Christian kids in my high school, and we all liked punk rock. We had a band together that was punk rock, but also we were Christians.
I spent maybe three years pretty constantly rehearsing and playing shows in basements and clubs and church basements and little bars. I wrote this piece talking about just how tight and enveloping that kind of a scene is. You mentioned before, I believe, that Gen Z Americans are particularly lonely. It’s an interesting fact that young people are actually the loneliest demographic. I think between ages of 18 and 21 is the trough, deepest loneliness. And it’s not when you’re old, when, in a lot of cases, you have far fewer contacts, far fewer interactions and relationships.
It’s actually when you’re younger and you have, statistically speaking, way more, a much bigger social network than an old person that you tend to be deeply lonely. I think that’s because adolescence is a period when you’re stepping away from your parents’ world that they’ve constructed for you and welcomed you into. And you’re having to reevaluate and it’s scary, and your sense of self and sense of world are really up for debate.
I think it’s no accident in that time period, music tends to matter a lot to people. I don’t know if you have favorite music that you really loved when you’re 18 or 19, but I still do, and I think a lot of people do. There’s a moment in your life where music gets inside you.
CORBIN: I think it’s that moment when you’re trying to build your own picture of the world as an adult. For me, I was welcomed into this underground music scene, and it was incredibly wonderful. There’s a whole everything for you. There’s a way of dressing. There’s a way of thinking. There’s a way of talking. There’s a common set of enemies. [chuckles]
KLUTSEY: You had your tribe, your community.
CORBIN: Yes, I had a tribe. And you could walk into a club in some foreign city, or some city you’d not been to before, and you look around, you’re like, “Ah, okay, here I am.” Right? “All the signifiers are here, I see the way they dress, everything feels comfortable to me.”
And it’s not just like a social club where you dress the same and have similar attitudes, which would be great anyway. But then there’s music that’s very aggressive, and you have ways of dancing to it where you’re thrashing around into some sweaty throng. There really is like something Dionysian where you lose your sense of identity for a little bit. You just become immersed in this larger whole, and it’s totalizing, and it’s beautiful to be part of for a couple years.
I think if you were still part of it at 40, at 50 and 60, and you still lived as part of some big totalizing tribe, that wouldn’t be so good. [laughs] I think it’s something we go through, and we should be grateful for it, but . . .
KLUTSEY: Why not, though? It’s a sense of belonging, and you’re a part of this community that accepts you and you accept them, and you go through your rituals and things like that.
CORBIN: It’s great. Maybe if you lived on Punk Rock Island and you had no exposure to anyone else and you didn’t have to deal with any other ways of being, you maybe could make a life that way. We despised, at the time—this was a long time ago—the mainstream hip thing was to wear hemp necklaces and Birkenstocks and to listen to Dave Matthews Band and maybe Phish or something. We just despised those people. They were so stupid to us and so shallow and pathetic.
I think that really strong sense of us, I think it tends to make—yes, that totalizing sense, it tends to make enemies of other people. I was never violent or anything, but I think you should, as you grow, come to see the value in Dave Matthews. He’s not someone that I would go see in concert voluntarily, necessarily, but he’s got some good songs, and there’s something good about that kind of an ethos that he’s embodying. And life is broad and big and complicated. I think your sympathy should expand over time, and that’s good and beautiful.
I would say, I don’t have many periods of three hours on a Friday night where I feel that integrated and that part of something. Maybe a bit sometimes, but I would say I feel more at home in the world overall now than I did when I was part of that smaller sub-community, because I’d been around a lot and seen the value of a lot of different things. I think I’m able to live with more overall equanimity than 19-year-old Ian.
Totalizing Identities in the Digital Age
KLUTSEY: We had a previous guest, Tara Burton.
CORBIN: Yes, Tara. I love Tara.
KLUTSEY: We talked about her book “Strange Rites.” She talks about the fandom culture that informs new secularized religions that are proliferating in the digital age, giving people an opportunity to extend the types of adolescent tribes that you write about. I find that very interesting. I don’t know whether you experienced some of that.
CORBIN: Oh, that there’s just more of that extending further into adulthood now?
CORBIN: Maybe. [laughter] I don’t know. Does politics count in there?
KLUTSEY: Yes, perhaps.
CORBIN: If you live in the real world around people, and you haven’t just selected them because they have exactly the same taste and outlook as you, and you have to interact with others and people in your family who aren’t like you and all that, then it’s hard to maintain that kind of an integral totalizing identity, I think, if you’re being honest and mature about it.
If a lot of your life is online, then you can find a sub-Reddit that is that, that really does that is kind of totalizing and despises people who aren’t part of that group. I think maybe, yes, politics is that for a lot of people online. I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of the concerns and desires of the left in America right now, but the online left is crazy. [laughs] It really is a punk rock scene or something. It just absolutely owns people’s identities.
I’m sure I don’t have as much exposure to Turning Point USA conservative kids, but I suspect something similar is probably going on there as well. Maybe the internet does facilitate the extension of that stuff into adult life, but I bet Tara had a lot of smarter things to say about it than I do.
Has Politics Taken Over?
KLUTSEY: Yes. We also had a conversation with another guest, Robert Talisse, who I reference a lot. He’s a political philosopher at Vanderbilt. His book “Overdoing Democracy” is a really good one. In that he says, “Look, we are so saturated with politics. It has penetrated into every sphere of our lives, and we are having a hard time separating ourselves from it. It’s almost a lifestyle, how we identify, whether red or blue. The best way forward is to figure out ways in which we can do things that do not reflect our politics.”
If you think about it, you realize how difficult that is, where everything you do, whether it’s you go to the gym, there’s some politics there.
KLUTSEY: Whether you get coffee at a Starbucks versus a Dunkin’ Donuts, people can interpret some politics in there. What can we find to do that can separate us from our politics and just be with people as people? That’s what Robert Talisse talks about. It’s very interesting stuff.
CORBIN: It’s weird because the saturated political person that I was talking about and that you’re talking about—I know some people like that, and it sucks.
You feel like I’m not just talking to a person; I’m talking to like a style or a group right now, or tribe. That’s not that good. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It doesn’t even happen to me that often. I feel like most people are sane in their lives when you interact with them and when they’re picking up a coffee or taking their kids to school or something, aren’t they? Has politics really taken over that much, do you think?
KLUTSEY: Yes. If we think about ways in which it’s on our TV screens every day, it’s on our social media feeds every day. People get really worked up about it. I think there’s an argument there.
CORBIN: Well, online, certainly. A lot of these normal, sane people I’m talking to, bumping into, they pull out their phone or their computer, they turn crazy.
Then they read, and then they see other people being crazy and they’re, “Damnit, the other people are totally crazy.” They become afraid of their fellow Americans and they shrink back and mistrust.
KLUTSEY: I certainly do see a link between the solitude that you talk about and the Robert Talisse point about stepping away from—
CORBIN: Yes, that’s good.
KLUTSEY: —some things. And if you’re volunteering with a group of people to teach kids how to read at the public library, it’s a practice that may have nothing to do with one’s political beliefs and things of that nature.
CORBIN: It’s funny because it sounds a little bit mushy and unserious, but the dialogue around mindfulness and being present does seem to me to be important and related here. I don’t know if people who would talk about mindfulness are present really all the time. I think any experience of being really present with another human or another phenomenon or an environment or a setting, or almost anything, has a really positive effect.
I wonder what’s going on that we talk about mindfulness all the time now. Everyone goes to yoga, and people meditate and see therapists, but we don’t seem to be getting more settled in ourselves. If anything, we seem to be getting more frenetic and divided and distracted and stupid.
Interdisciplinary Efforts to Understand Humanity
KLUTSEY: Tell us, what is The Human Network Initiative? What is the philosopher doing at a medical school?
CORBIN: [laughs] Well, you wonder. I’m still doing philosophy for the most part. I’m doing it in dialogue with neuroscientists who I work with and neurologists and some social scientists. It’s pretty wonderful. It’s hard because oftentimes you find that you’re using words differently, and we have not agreed upon a set of definitions, and so we’re all just talking past each other.
But if you can do the work of understanding and getting on the same page, I think it’s incredibly rich and wonderful. Right now, philosophy is just plummeting as a college major, and therefore teaching philosophy is plummeting as a profession. I found and would argue that—
KLUTSEY: It makes me sad as a philosophy major myself.
CORBIN: It’s pretty bad, and we could talk about why that’s happened, but I think that we have a ton to add to different ways of doing research and understanding the world. Having a philosopher in the room when you’re designing research questions can be really helpful. I’ve been having a great time here.
I’m in the neurology department, and the lab that I’m part of works on human networks of people around you and their impact on your brain health, specifically in relation to stroke. The Human Network Initiative is just a little project that we’ve stood up here to try to convene more and more interdisciplinary conversations and to try to bring in broader and broader considerations when we’re looking at patients, for instance. Then also from our work on the ground with patients and with brains to try to understand much broader things in turn. That’s what I’m trying to do in a neurology department.
KLUTSEY: Great. Can you define for us what human solidarity is?
CORBIN: No. Not super well. I hope to, but I would say that it’s something like being able to use the first-person plural to understand ourselves as a “we” or an “us.” Of course, that’s going to be easier and you’re going to feel more affinity with people who are very much like you and share the world that you live in and can help you to live well inside it. Aristotle, a philosopher who writes a fair share about friendship and who’s influenced me a lot, he says that we also bear some species of friendship towards everyone in our species. It’s not the richest, most integral kind, but something.
I think that’s something we can and should try to water in ourselves. I am a little concerned about where things are going on the large societal level in America right now, but I’m incredibly optimistic about the chances of any two people put in a room together to come to love and understand each other, even if they think differently about a lot of things.
There’s a pretty broad spade of basic stuff—loving your children, wanting well for them, mourning when you lose someone, wanting to be confident, wanting to be successful. There’s a lot of stuff that we all share as human beings. I think there are ways to cultivate that, remind ourselves of that, and try to live more in that reality than in these tightly sealed little communities where I really only can understand and love that little tribe that’s gathered around me.
Getting Back to the Well
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, a question I tend to ask all my guests. It’s about optimism. It’s whether you’re optimistic about our ability to foster solidarity and pluralism. You mentioned initially that you’re very concerned, and you think things are going to get worse. Maybe that’s you saying that you’re pessimistic.
CORBIN: Well, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that a lot of these problems had been there for a while but got temporarily paused or papered over. In the postwar period, we had a period of great social mobility and growth where you can be like, “All right, everybody calm down for a minute. We’re all going to get rich here, and our kids are going to be richer than us.” That’s exciting, and that can cover over a multitude of sins.
For a lot of reasons, that has ceased being super realistic for the broad mass of Americans. It’s become much more concentrated through a number of political decisions that have been made and changes in technology and how the economy works.
Another one is having common enemies. We had the Soviet Union for a long time to be united against, and again, that can cover a multitude of sins. Then we took care of that, and there was a little interregnum period. And then we had 9/11, and there was something—gosh, you hate to say it. There’s something almost gleeful about the way some people greeted that event and greeted America having a mission again, having a common mission that we could all share. That has seemed to peter out a little bit, and maybe a new enemy will jump up, and then we’ll all be able to hold hands for a few years and yell at the enemy.
KLUTSEY: For a minute, I thought the pandemic, the emergence of the coronavirus might have been the enemy there.
CORBIN: No. [chuckles] No, man. It tried maybe, but we’ve managed to find all kinds of domestic enemies in the midst of this battle. Another enemy could come up. I think some crazy things happened in politics in the past five years. I didn’t see Donald Trump coming. I did not see Bernie coming. I didn’t see these disruptive figures coming, and I think our political class is pretty hollowed out in a large part. I could name names. We just have some really useless human beings who you would not talk to at a party, who are in charge of major parts of our country, and they’re terrible.
I think that it’s possible that a politician could come on the scene who could be transformative. I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s possible. I would love to see artists trying to step away from the fray a little bit and go back to the well in that way I was talking about and see if they can picture, can catch a new vision for what America could mean and come back and talk to us about that. I think anything’s possible, but I don’t see, right now, the resources amassing to get us back on stable footing.
KLUTSEY: Getting back to the well, I think that’s a good place to end it.
CORBIN: All right.
KLUTSEY: Thank you, Ian. It’s been great talking to you, and I hope we get to talk again.
CORBIN: Thanks, man. A lot of fun. We will.