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Can a Rite of Passage Fix Our Fractured Social Fabric?
At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, Germany banned gatherings of two or more non-family members, France required residents to fill out a form every time they left their homes, and Americans bought a lot of toilet paper in preparation for a long lockdown. All around the world, governments told people to stay home so the virus wouldn’t spread. But not Sweden.
Sweden kept its schools open as well as its borders, restaurants, and even its pubs. People were encouraged to respect social-distancing recommendations and limit contact with at-risk populations (specifically those over 70) but life continued with few mandates. State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell explained the thinking behind Sweden’s light touch in a late March interview: “Closing borders at this stage of the pandemic, when almost all countries have cases, to me does not really make sense. This is not a disease that is going to go away in the short term or long term. We are not in the containment phase. We are in the mitigation phase.”
Deaths per million were higher in Sweden than its heavy-handed neighbors like Norway and Denmark. International ridicule poured in, but Sweden maintained their laissez-faire policy. It wasn’t that Swedes don’t take the virus seriously. They just take other things seriously as well, such as enjoyment of life, freedom to roam, and a commitment to measured response. As journalist and half-Swede Freddie Sayers explained, “To rip up a long-prepared pandemic plan and impose unprecedented measures just because everybody else was would be considered reckless; to close schools would have been considered morally unacceptable.”
In America, conversations surrounding the response to coronavirus were far more divisive. As communities tried to make plans for a new school year, two staunch camps took form. You either believed that returning to in-person schooling was recklessly irresponsible or you believed that the mere suggestion of social-distancing was an infringement on personal liberties and that this whole thing might just be a hoax. You either drove around with a mask on in your car or you made a point of shaking as many hands as possible before chowing down on your McDonald’s burger and fries.
On the surface, Swedes would appear to fall into the latter camp - evidence-averse, individualists who rebelled against anyone who might want to tell them how they should live. But Sayers argued the opposite, or the middle, anyway. According to him, the reason Sweden kept society open was because they had a stronger sense of shared values and a stronger commitment to the common good. Their debate wasn’t between two sides - the scared and the defiant - who held each other in contempt. It was a conversation amongst a unified people who could appeal to unifying ideals. They trusted each other to respect social-distancing recommendations without legal mandates, while sharing a common sense that there were moral concerns that could rival safetyism.
The response to coronavirus is just one example of how Sweden thrives because of the social trust engendered by its clear ideals. With low obesity rates and a life expectancy over 80, Swedes routinely rank among the healthiest people in the world. This starts when they are young. The average preschooler in Stockholm spends six-hours outside each day during good weather and averages 90 minutes throughout the frigid Swedish winter. Kids have access to free preschool, outdoor classrooms, and an abundance of open space to explore. In fact, the Swedes maintain a Right of Public Access that allows people to walk anywhere they like, including the expansive acreage of millionaires, provided they respect the culturally enforced edict “disturb not, destroy not.” This ethos of respectful, communal freedom lies at the heart of Swedish values.
My reasons for highlighting Sweden have nothing to do with my beliefs about tax-payer funded pre-school or the best response to COVID-19, but rather, because Sweden models the power of clear ideals. The Swedes wouldn’t accept a lawsuit culture that discouraged kids from climbing trees or subjected workers to neurotic sanitation protocols and they wouldn’t accept the reduction of recess or a scarcity of public recreation spaces because these so obviously violate their sense of what is morally good for society. Lacking this unifying moral sense, American conversations about coronavirus (and society generally) have tended to be more selfish and combative. As Sayers put it:
“The fragmented and highly individualistic culture of the UK and US, without much by way of universally shared values to fall back on, is a big part of why the response in those countries has been so uncertain and the debate so poisonous. Without habits and values that are commonly deemed morally good and too precious to give up, what remains when a new threat such as Covid-19 arrives? If the only unassailable moral good is saving lives, the “precautionary principle” becomes almost impossible to argue against. Well-meaning people find they have surrendered their whole way of life to its dubious authority.”
In the absence of unifying ideals, American society has grown increasingly fractured. We lack the cultural tools to rally around anything other than convenience and safety. Obesity rates rise, opportunities for child free play decline, and public conversations grow increasingly trepid and inauthentic.
It may appear irrelevant to make comparisons to a homogeneous Swedish culture that thrives because of its shared beliefs, but the core lesson applies even more in the large, culturally diverse America. For people to thrive they must be bonded by more than space and legal codes. There has to be something - a spirit or disposition about the way one should live - that bonds people and gives them a sense of being part of a larger community.
Communal Rugged Individualism
The French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, travelled around America in 1831 and marveled at the distinct American spirit, which he saw as both a byproduct and requirement of representative democracy. It was an adventurous, self-organizing spirit that he found most natural. This has often been labeled rugged individualism, but that individualism was also a proxy for strong community connection. Citizens looked at one another with a sense of recognition. All were participants in this bold new way of life. They saw in each other a common desire to live unencumbered by coercion and stagnant hierarchies.
That spirit led to a proliferation of self-governing groups that united around shared interests. Tocqueville notes the abundance of voluntary organizations that characterized American life. He saw these as the “nursery of democratic virtue.” Just as children learn to socialize through play and freedom, Americans learned citizenship by governing their own communities. If there is anything responsible for the erosion of American cohesion, it is the loss of these self-organized groups and the shared experiences they facilitated.
Around 1960 all those organizations that had become the bedrock of our social lives - the PTA, Kiwanis club, Shriners, Elks, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc. - began losing energy and significance, while, simultaneously, voter turnout, grass roots political activism, reading groups, and participation in adult sports leagues began a consistent decline. Like most of you, I have no clue what you’d do in a Kiwanis club meeting or what would possess a grown man to put on one of those Shriner hats. The point isn’t that any specific organization needed to be preserved per se, but their demise is evidence of a collective social disinterest that has had profound implications on the way we orient our lives. As we spent less time interacting with neighbors, our communities grew more isolated and untrusting. Norms and bonds once fostered through shared projects eroded.
In his groundbreaking 2000 book, Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam addresses this decline in community involvement and identifies its causes. Among them one stands out as the most impactful. Television.
Between 1950 and 1959 the number of U.S. homes that had a television rose from about 10% to 90%. By the late 80s over 75% of homes had more than one television and as of 2001, the average American watched four hours of television per day, not including times where TV was used as background noise (a stark contrast to the outdoor-dominated lifestyles of Sweden). But television didn’t just fill the void, it helped create it. As Putnam wrote, “Nothing - not low education, not full time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress - is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment.” Social disconnection has only been exacerbated by smartphone ubiquity and mass data processing algorithms.
Putnam found that as community engagement declined so did social capital - a measure of the connection and trust within a community. Just as the properties, machines, employees, and inventories that businesses hold are forms of capital that facilitate production, so societies work best when there is a high degree of social capital. For example, ultra-Orthodox Jews, have cornered New York City’s diamond market, because their exceptional trust in one another allows them to operate without expensive security systems. As Jonathan Haidt explains in, The Righteous Mind, “If a rival market were to open up across town composed of ethnically and religiously diverse merchants, they’d have to spend a lot more money on lawyers and security guards, given how easy it is to commit fraud or theft when sending diamonds out for inspection by other merchants.”
Social capital boils down to the trust and intimacy felt between members in a community. In places where social capital is high, people live unencumbered by worries that their cars will be broken into or that children will be lured into a van on their way to school. They are confident in the basic norms of society. One way to look at it is that law and order exist to fill the gaps in social capital. If social capital were infinite - everyone respected the same values, trusted their community, and felt capable of mediating whatever disputes arose - then there would be no reason for a legal code or justice system. As social capital wanes, however, bureaucratic features are called upon to coerce harmony.
Some loss of social capital is inevitable as communities increase in diversity and size. Dunbar’s number hypothesizes that our brains are not evolved to maintain any more than 150 relationships. But societies have adapted by creating many of their own Dunbar-sized community organizations. When organized around a larger cultural myth structure (anything from Greek Mythology to Manifest Destiny) these communities stoke connection in both the immediate environment and the larger national structure. We see each other as similar comrades, with similar competencies, hopes, and dreams. Mild variations stoke friendly regional rivalries that bring dynamism and growth in each community. But when we lose trust in the myths and institutions that bond different communities, divisions grow hostile.
Social trust is built upon confidence that people and systems will operate predictably and that vital information will be presented accurately. As people lose faith in their news, their politicians, the intentions of their police departments, or what they can be held liable for in the legal system, they tend to atomize and draw into their tribes. Today those tribes are often virtual, having no bearing on the connection one feels in their immediate environment.
All of this is interrelated. Social groups once fostered a standard that drove people to be competent, community-oriented citizens and to face the sort of challenging experiences that promoted deeper connection and self-understanding. But with the explosion of consumer media our societies grew more disconnected and selfish. We increasingly looked to material items and diversions to fill the spiritual void in our lives. And as consumer culture was embedded deeper into our lives a milieu of industrial complexes (military, safety, medical, and prison) expanded their dominion proving our institutions to be less trustworthy. The development of cable news, the internet, and smartphones created a battle for attention that led to the devolution of traditional media sources and a culture fixated on the outrageous.
Neighbors now populate entirely different mental worlds. Each turns to a different source, which spouts radically different information. Disagreements no longer stem from different perspectives on the best way to solve problems, but a fundamental disagreement about what is reality and, therefore, what is a problem. Thoughtful citizens struggle to know what to believe. The only thing we all seem to agree on is that corruption is widespread and the bulk of our news untrustworthy.
Our divisions will not be reconciled with rhetoric. To revive a common sense of the common good, we need shared experience. Retired Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal is committed to creating just that. He has suggested a program that pushes every 18-year-old citizen to do a year of service. This isn’t a military requirement but the possibility of taking citizens from all over - people of many different backgrounds, races, and creeds - and putting them together in service opportunities. These would range from mentoring students in poorly performing schools, rebuilding communities in disaster response, retraining workers from dwindling fields like coal-mining, and much more. There is no shortage of projects to tackle.
“The truth springs from arguments amongst friends.”
- David Hume
Something magical happens when you put people together and give them a common purpose. By relying on one-another, they build respect and see each other as fellow humans. They expose themselves to different life experiences and begin to understand how different opinions could take root in other good people. Suddenly the world is nuanced - the solutions complex. We’ve seen this following the military drafts of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, when soldiers returned home disgusted by the racial divisions of their time.
The other advantage of McChrystal’s plan is that it brings urgency to a failing youth development culture and disrupts a dysfunctional college system. Over the past few generations we have watched a culture of bulldozer parents fight all their children’s battles, reduce expectations of personal responsibility, and remove the challenge from every rite of passage. This has created increasing ambiguity around the question of when children become adults and what constitutes adulthood. Our 18-year-olds are increasingly less capable of self-government. Even more they are less interested in going out into the world and becoming independent adults.
This seems to be to the liking of many parents. My wife recently had a class discussion around an article about how technology intentionally creates addiction. In one class the conversation moved to how my wife and I handle technology with our own kids (ages three and two). Students were appalled to learn that our kids only get one movie per week and never play on tablets or phones. They were outraged by our plans to limit our kids to a flip-phone until eighth grade and accused us of being over-controlling. In response, my wife explained our intense desire to give the kids symmetrical increases in freedom and responsibility. We want them biking all over town in elementary school and we want them driving, dating, and becoming self-sufficient in high-school.
Suddenly, the class was hailing our parenting wisdom as they recounted how stifling their own childhoods had been. Over and over students recounted a bizarre phenomenon where their parents actively encouraged their screen-immersion for the explicit purpose of keeping them at home. Parents preferred their kids seated and entertained to active and seeking independence. Despite the fact that it is far safer now than when they were kids, these parents seem determined to keep their kids from going out in that big, scary world. Tiger meet cage.
One New South Wales high school teacher recounts a similar finding:
When I suggested to my Year 7 students that they try leaving their phones at home for a day as a radical social experiment, there was genuine horror. The responses included “But Miss, what if someone follows me home? What if someone tries to kidnap me?” and “What if my mum needs to contact me urgently?” and “My mum wouldn’t let me leave without my phone”. These beliefs appeared to be held by most, if not all, of my Year 7 students. Extraordinary times.
The dominant parenting culture seems to have lost any sense of duty to make children capable of standing on their own or any sense that this power is an essential part of living a good life. Absent of any other purpose, parents try to hold on to the purpose they’ve found through their children’s dependency on them. Safetyism becomes justification for perpetuating toxic codependency.
We’ve somehow become convinced that the freedoms we enjoyed as kids were a product of a simpler time when the world wasn’t so dangerous. I disagree. The difference is that we are now saturated in information, from the outrage-oriented media, to the neighborhood app, to the neurotic Moms who virtue-signal their safetyist norms all over social media. And all of this gets back to community.
Our community lacks a clear expiration to childhood, clear expectations of adulthood, and a shared sense of the values that might be able to rival safety and convenience. Chief among these values, is a respect for the vitality of the human spirit and its need for freedom and skill-honing risks. Overprotected students are stripped of the opportunity to realize their own strength. They never experience the empowerment that comes from watching their powers grow and feeling more confident about their ability to guide their own future. They miss out on the raw experiences that would be a portal to growth and future connections.
McChrystal’s year of service would create a shared deadline for when students have to be capable of managing a specific challenge. This could create a standard that restored the need for 18-year-olds to stand on their own two feet.
McChrystal’s solution may seem a bit grandiose but it strikes me as a measure fitting the scale of our predicament. As technology allows us to do less and isolate more, it will be more important than ever that we start to intentionally create shared experiences. This is the only line of thinking that can break down our walls and re-establish a shared spirit.
We have to demand a degree of competency and involvement from our children so that they have the tools to overcome dogmatic oversimplification. Even more, we must give them these experiences so they are capable of understanding that there are worthwhile values that aren’t compatible with the infinite expansion of safety and convenience. As Matthew Crawford writes in his amazing book, Why We Drive:
“Safety is obviously very important. But it is also a principle that, absent countervailing considerations, admits no limits to its expanding dominion. It tends to swallow everything before it.... one must venture beyond the mental universe of risk reduction…. That universe takes its bearing from the least competent among us. This is an egalitarian principle that is entirely fitting in many settings, a touchstone of humane society that we rightly take pride in…. But if left unchallenged, the pursuit of risk reduction tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities. Infantilization slips in, under cover of democratic ideals. I will insist on the contrary, that democracy remains viable only if we are willing to extend to one another a presumption of individual competence. This is what social trust is built on. Together they are the minimal endowments for a free, responsible, fully awake people.”
A society without the expectation that citizens meet certain standards of competency is no society at all. The dream of progress is to remove any need for competency and any risk of harm. It’s time we challenge that dehumanizing ideal.