By Jim Miller
The last time I saw Hunter S. Thompson speak before he died, he threw out a good line about how in the post-AIDS world, the New Right began to flourish because people were afraid to touch each other.
And how Thompson mused, can we ever expect people to stand together in any other way when they are afraid to do that?
Now, years later, what seemed like a bit of insightful hyperbole appears to be backed up by social research.
Last week the Guardian had a bit of fun with recent research documenting a noteworthy decline in American intimacy:
A new study released by the Archives of Sexual Behavior reports that modern American adults are having sex much less than they did in the 1990s. The drop spans race, age, region, gender, education level, and work status, meaning that in 2017 the only thing all Americans seem to agree on is their lack of interest in touching one another.
The researchers behind the study suggest that the decline may be related to both fatigue from working longer hours and the growing number of entertainment alternatives, such as social and streaming media.
In addition to economic stress and the “ubiquity of electronic distraction,” the researchers also cite a higher incidence of depression as a possible cause of this remarkable decline in the most intimate human activity.
The Guardian’s wry commentary on our political divide aside, there is definitely something revealing about these findings. They are a concrete example of how we are becoming, in so many ways, more atomized and alienated from each other—even in bed.
And as we touch each other less, we are becoming more dehumanized in the social and political realm. In a solid Vox story, “The Dark Psychology of Dehumanization, Explained,” Brian Resnick surveys recent psychological research on dehumanization and explains how our current situation has triggered our “capacity for othering” and pushed us in a menacing direction:
In the months since Donald Trump was elected president, it’s become shockingly commonplace for Americans to blatantly dehumanize Muslims and Mexican immigrants — and then use violence against them. Hate crimes against Muslims in the US are at their highest levels since 2001. In the 1970s, Bandura predicted that dehumanization leads to increased aggression. Today, Kteily and colleagues find something similar: Willingness to dehumanize on the “Ascent of Man” scale predicts aggressive attitudes toward the Muslim world.
People who dehumanize are more likely to blame Muslims as a whole for the actions of a few perpetrators. They are more likely to support policies restricting the immigration of Arabs to the United States. People who dehumanize low-status or marginalized groups score higher on a measure called “social dominance orientation,” meaning that they favor inequality among groups in society, with some groups dominating others.
It goes on: People who dehumanize are more likely to agree with statements such as, “Muslims are a potential cancer to this country,” and, “The attacks on San Bernardino prove it: Muslims are a threat to people from this country.”
So it appears that as we close ourselves off from one another, there is an accompanying tendency to lash out at those outside of our increasingly smaller sense of self. This is not just a sad state of affairs, it is a potentially dangerous one because once we lose our compassion for one another, it becomes easier to take dehumanization to the next level. Resnick is measured on this point but still wary of where we are headed:
It’s unlikely we’re on the verge of a horrific genocide. But we also can’t kid ourselves. Inside us all is the same mental machinery that fueled the atrocities of the past century. “We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them,” writes the philosopher Sam Keen. Turning on dehumanization won’t immediately lead to massacre, but it does make it easier to make life marginally worse for the marginalized.
Far too many of us are either so distracted we have become numb or isolated and alienated enough that quiet desperation has turned to irrational fear of and anger at the Other. Maybe it’s time we start thinking about how to tune out the noise and tune in to our fellow humans. Perhaps that starts by putting down our screens and looking one another in the eye once in a while, starting with the people right next to us and moving outward from there.
Over a century ago Walt Whitman put it this way, “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?/Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?”
Maybe the first step toward the kind of community solidarity that could rebuild our democracy is simply learning how to truly see and love our neighbors.