April 6, 2021

Now was supposed to be the era of the “new normal”: a brave new world that had learnt the lessons of a horrifying pandemic, that was epitomised by the death of the city, remote working and a new-found love affair with the “great outdoors”. And yet, I fear, we are entering a completely different chapter in our sociological lives: one that will come to be remembered for our loneliness.

Before Covid, few believed that the British people would accept population-wide restrictions for over a year. Yet official concerns over whether we would obey the rules swiftly dissipated as it became clear that a national lockdown was not only the most effective way forward, but also the most popular one.

You don’t have to buy into fusty caricatures of the plucky, liberty-loving Brit to find something rather troubling in this. It is one thing for people to run for cover when confronted with a terrifying new disease. It is completely another to become so cautious of each other that we look to the Government to tell us when we can hug our Grandma or let our children play freely.

It is not that we have suddenly become a nation of introverts; nor, given all the low-level rule-flouting that has been going on, does it appear that we have actually stopped seeing our nearest and dearest. Instead, we seem to have tacitly embraced loneliness as a way of life.

In 1950, when the project of sociology was more about developing big ideas than deconstructing them, David Riesman published his bestselling book The Lonely Crowd. Riesman’s central thesis was that the typical American had transformed from being “inner-directed”, with norms and values passed down through the generations and internalised at an early age, to “other-directed”: trained to be continually responsive to present-day influences — and, therefore, better suited to a bureaucratic era dominated by advertising, television and HR departments.

It spoke to an unease about the tension between the individual and “mass society”. But while Riesman’s insights fell on fertile ground, particularly in Richard Yates’s bleak 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, his diagnosis of conformity has continued to be misunderstood. Indeed, his depiction of an atomised society attuned to the “radar” of other-direction, as opposed to the “gyroscope” of inner-direction, continues to chime with prejudices about mass society; the cover of the book’s 2001 edition predictably features a flock of sheep.

Riesman, however, insisted that he was not pointing to an increase in conformity, but rather a change in how people came to conform. “Other-directed” people were not behaving as an undifferentiated mass, but as individuated souls searching for cues about how to act from those around them. Critics who interpreted Riesman’s insights as a problem of the conformist “crowd” missed the bigger point about loneliness.

This is where his discussion has most relevance today. In a similar manner, some lockdown critics choose to deride the public as misguided “sheeple”, mindlessly conforming to Government diktat; at the other extreme, some lockdown proponents assume that people are incapable of making sensible decisions and need to be banned from thinking for themselves. By constructing their claims around caricatures of “the individual”, they fail to engage with the kind of people we have become.

A quarter of a century after Riesman theorised about the changing American character, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism diagnosed post-war American society as suffering from a pathological insecurity, brought about by the long corrosion of family and community bonds in the face of increasingly intrusive cultural forces.

But it is Lasch’s far less well-known book The Minimal Self, published in 1984, that contains the most prescient warning for today. In it, he describes how the belief that political action can create a better world has given way to an inward-looking focus on personal survival, with the primary ambition being “to hold one’s own life together in the face of mounting pressures.” Crucially, he says, the result is a self that is “beleaguered”. And like today, one consequence of this beleaguered selfhood was “a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world”.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and the kind of personality that was valued by Western societies was already shaping up to be both “other-directed” (as Reisman warned) and “beleaguered” (per Lasch). As the end of the Cold War finally brought about the collapse of political institutions and grand ideologies, this minimal self stood exposed and increasingly alone: as if to vindicate Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society”. There was, in essence, no such thing resembling a crowd.

Of course, both Lasch and Riesman have their critics, who correctly point to the differences between constructed “ideal types” and people in real life, who, as the past twelve months have shown, get on with living, loving, and taking responsibility for their families and communities. But our response to lockdown indicates that their theories are not as abstract as they might appear. Indeed, the past year seems to reveal a character type that is not merely other-directed or beleaguered, but what we might call other-deflected: yearning for contact and intimacy with others, while attuned to pulling back at the whiff of potential danger.

Other-deflection has been around for some time. We see it in the hesitant character of public speech, shot through with fear of causing offence; in the ambiguous value attached to sexual relationships, where people are continually encouraged to approach commitment with caution. And we have seen it, writ large, with the pandemic. For frightening and deadly though Covid has been as a disease, the enforced cessation of all spontaneous human contact has been as much about our quest to balance our desire for social contact with fear of its consequences.

When public health officials claim that we have got used to certain social distancing practices so they might as well persist, or psychologists advise people that they should “just say no” to family and friends who break lockdown rules, they are tapping into this sensibility. And even though people in real life may be bending The Rules, the absence of a public validation for physical interaction has given social life a nervy, provisional quality. For example, hugging Grandma in secret becomes a risky act that we choose to do even though it’s wrong, rather than something that is taken for granted that we ought to do because it’s right.

And so as we slowly emerge from lockdown, with our radars constantly scanning for dangers that we might pose to others and that others might pose to us, a grim truth is slowly coming into focus: that, in this age of the “New Normal”, we are loneliest when we are together.

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