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Instead of Bowling Alone, Let’s Argue Together
The key to curing the loneliness epidemic is being vulnerable enough to share our true selves with others—and therefore to have genuine disagreements
By Andrew Jason Cohen
We now have a loneliness epidemic in the U.S. The dominant thinking seems to be that the recent pandemic and our digital devices and social media are to blame. The digital world, people seem to think, rules out real connection with others due to the lack of in-person, face-to-face contact. While I think there is something to such claims, I want to suggest an alternative cause for whatever increase in loneliness there actually is. This is simply the fact that we tend to steer away from genuine discourse with others.
As is well known, the U.S. has seen an increase in affective polarization, where people hate anybody who they think disagrees with them about substantive issues. As is also well known, we often overestimate how much actual disagreement there is. Part of the reason for the disparity in actual disagreement and felt or affective disagreement is that we refuse to engage in discourse about topics that some might find controversial.
I’ve written elsewhere that we’ve become a society where people raise children to think it’s rude to disagree with others and where we give children so much space that they never come into any conflict with anybody, including siblings. In homes where all household members have their own bedroom, their own TV, their own computer, their own phone and even their own bathroom, they simply don’t have to negotiate the use of these things with others. In the past, we had to get into the single shared bathroom while still making it to school on time, or use the phone or computer for our own purposes without being hounded by our siblings. But all that sharing and squabbling and negotiating is receding more and more to the past.
Of course, this new order has benefits, but it also presents a new problem. When children are taught not to disagree with others, especially their elders, they grow up thinking that disagreement is antisocial, rude or otherwise bad. They thus become adults who avoid engaging with people with whom they might disagree. When children grow up without needing to negotiate the use of household space or entertainment devices, they grow into adults that have no practice in that sort of engagement.
A related phenomenon is that whereas children of my generation were expected to interact with adults when they were present, today’s parents do not seem to expect this of their young children. I might run into a colleague at a store with their child and say hello, but the child stays quietly in the background until I address them directly. My parents would have expected me to say hello pretty much immediately. Or if I accidentally (or intentionally!) bumped into someone in the grocery store while out with my mother, I would have been expected to politely acknowledge the accident with an apology. Today, though, it frequently seems that parents apologize for their children’s problematic behavior rather than teaching the children to do so. It’s as if we think children should have no interactions with adults at all. If that is right, it’s no wonder that children grow up incapable of interacting with others and genuinely connecting with them.
In light of how we raise children to refrain from disagreeing, negotiating—or sometimes interacting at all—with others, it’s hardly surprising that people feel lonely. If you want not to feel lonely—if you want not to be lonely—you need to seriously engage with others. This engagement should occur, of course, in safe and respectful ways but will also hopefully be intellectually productive. If we aren’t willing to get past superficial talk so as to open ourselves to criticism while we also are willing to criticize others, we can’t expect anything other than disconnection and loneliness.
To really connect with others and prevent loneliness, we need to engage in genuinely open, prodding and meaningful discourse with others, including people with whom we disagree. That means, unsurprisingly, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, not only to criticism but also to condemnation. Without that, though, we cannot expect others to know who we really are. We can’t expect to know who they really are, either. In other words, we can’t expect to have genuine friends.
Friends should be free to disagree with each other. Obviously, as friends, they will have plenty to agree about too—at least, I find it hard to imagine being friends with someone with whom I have nothing in common, with whom I disagree every time we speak. Yet I find it equally hard to imagine someone other than myself with whom I always agree. I consider myself fortunate to have some great friends, and these are people who I know share my basic values or agree with me about the basic principles we ought to live by. We nonetheless don’t agree about everything. This cannot be surprising. We have different backgrounds, religions, families, cultures, nationalities, skin colors, sexes, genders, sexual orientations and on and on. Those differences matter because they lead us to think differently.
Honest conversation with anyone, if it is sustained or repeated often enough, will always lead to some disagreement—perhaps minor, perhaps not. The important point is that unless we want to wall off parts of ourselves from our friends, we have to be open to disagreement. That, in fact, makes our relationships stronger. We realize we can disagree without hurting each other. We realize we can disagree—proclaiming something our friend may find silly, mistaken or even offensive—and yet be accepted. We don’t have to worry about rejection with such people. Only in this way can we have genuine connections with others.
Of course, we can still have decent relationships without the sort of intense and deep connections forged when we are free to agree or disagree. We don’t need—and probably can’t sustain—those sorts of friendships with many people, and we want to be comfortable with coworkers, acquaintances and casual friends even if we must avoid certain topics with them. But if we prefer genuine connection to the less substantial camaraderie that is easier to find but less able to stave off loneliness, we need to have genuine friends—friends with whom no topic is taboo and disagreement is welcome.
If we keep all talk at a superficial level where no serious disagreements are possible, we keep our real thoughts to ourselves and present only a facade to others. I thus encourage people to take seriously the idea that refusing to engage with others is a real cause of loneliness and to recognize that the path out of loneliness is to get past the facades and present our real thoughts to others. With the exposure of our honest thinking, we will be confronted with opposition—but that opposition should be seen as an invitation to genuine connection through open and honest discourse. Let’s open the gates.