Lost inside our cultural ghettos
30 October 2010
Sydney Morning Herald
In a new book, called Disconnected, one of our newest federal MPs, Andrew Leigh, a former Australian National University professor of economics, presents some compelling data to show Australians are living lonelier, less connected lives than 30 to 40 years ago.
We are less likely to belong to organisations – from unions and political parties to the Country Women’s Association; we are less likely to participate in civic activities such as casting a valid vote, or volunteering. We are less likely to be part of a church community, or to play sport.
And, according to the statistics only a professor of economics can mine, we have on average fewer friends, and even fewer connections with our neighbours than we used to. Online “friendships” are no real substitute, he argues, although young people, who seem in constant touch with friends through one device or other, would disagree.
The same picture of American society was presented some years ago in Robert Putnam’s landmark Bowling Alone, which detailed a decline in trust and reciprocity, and described how the multiple links that hold individuals together had come undone.
Anyone who grew up in the 1950s or 1960s would instinctively agree with Leigh’s thesis, recalling neighbourhoods alive with gangs of roaming children, mothers’ tennis matches, neighbourhood barbecues, community television nights at the homes of early adopters, overflowing churches, and other signs of a vibrant community life. It wasn’t nirvana – a lot of the women were dying inside of boredom – but providing you weren’t gay or black there was a strong sense of belonging.
Most of us today are not really alone. All of us inhabit some kind of social or cultural circle. But there has been a retreat to private places – to our homes, and the homes of a small circle of close friends and family members. There has been a hunkering down.
It is partly due to the rise of the dual-income family and long working hours. If community was largely built on the presence of the neighbourhood mothers, so community has declined as women went to work, and everyone got so darn tired.
We commute in cars, bank and shop online, “talk” to automated voices on the phone, and play computer games in splendid isolation.
We may live in the Twitter era of instant communication, yet Twitter is no substitute for the large networks of neighbours and acquaintances, big families and extended kin with their eccentrics, drunks and clowns that kept us real.
Community is not so much lost as shrunken to a small circle of the like-minded. We have limited time, and so our precious time is spent with close friends, our partners and children. We passionately care about this little community, and it is exhausting tending it, being the good mother, the good best friend, the good partner and the good colleague.
But there is no time to make new friends, or to visit the crotchety great-aunt in Campbelltown; or to keep in touch with the second cousins in Toongabbie.
Even the once-usual practice of talking to strangers on planes and buses, and of chatting to taxi drivers is dying out. Who can bother with small talk with strangers?
Outside our cultural ghettos, many people have no connection with the world. They rarely have personal contact with people who are different from them. From private car, private school, private hospital, and salubrious suburb, it is possible in Sydney to never knowingly come across someone who is obviously poor – unless you ask your pedicurist about her life.
In some circles children move effortlessly from selective high schools and private schools to the sandstone universities without ever meeting a peer who isn’t either very smart or very well-off, or both.
In more diverse neighbourhoods, proximity alone will not break down barriers if people stick to their own, and take refuge in the comfort zone of the like-minded.
It is not anyone’s fault. It is not even a bad development to have – in the real world – fewer but closer friends built on shared values and interests. Women having careers is indisputably positive, even for the price paid.
The Turkish writer Elif Shafak, however, has pointed to the pitfalls of surrounding ourselves with people who are a mirror image.
“We tend to form clusters based on similarities and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people,” she says.
If we never leave our tight circles, then our “hearts will dwindle and our humanness may wither”, she says. We will shrink inside the walls we build.
Leigh has some suggestions for rebuilding community from throwing a street party to using your local shop. For breaking down cultural ghettos, he believes students could be given a HECS discount to work in disadvantaged areas – a similar idea in the US has proven to be an eye opener for affluent youngsters.
We can make a conscious effort to meet people who are not like us. But I strongly believe fiction and film by and about the “other” can also help transcend prejudices, and provide a window into different worlds.
Rebuilding a sense of community is a good thing if it allows us to build bridges rather than build walls.