What if loneliness was the real evil of the century?

What if loneliness was the real evil of the century?

On November 15, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it had addressed “the issue of loneliness as an urgent threat to health”, echoing numerous studies, the most recent of which was carried out by the company Gallup from June 2022 to February 2023 in 142 countries and led to the highlighting of a figure that could not be more alarming: a quarter of the world's population feels alone.

In this hyper connected world which is ours, doesn't solitude seem a very curious paradox? As the economist points out Daniel Cohen :

“while social media is supposed to connect people, the evil of the century is loneliness.”

To try to understand this growing phenomenon in the Western world, questioning the evolution of the relationship that the individual has with the collective seems essential and allows us to expand on a societal level what each of us can have, one day. at least, felt deep within, in this sometimes so distressing face to face with oneself.

What exactly do we mean by the term “loneliness”?

Word solitude, borrowed from Latin “solitudo”, of the same meaning, itself derived from solus, “alone, unique” – defines “the state of a person who, by choice or not, finds himself alone, without company, momentarily or permanently”. There is nothing pleasant or painful in this definition. No irremediable dimension either.

The unanswered question is therefore anchored in the relationship we have with solitude: is it a chosen state or a state suffered? On a side that could be described as “positive”, solitude can be a place conducive to elevation and creation. Of the literary composition, Spiritual Retreat through writing during his studies, the descent into oneself can certainly be experienced as a test, but ultimately become productive, for oneself, first, and for others, then.

On the other side, the “sickness of the century” is a potentially devastating phenomenon – real or symbolic – which grips the single, bereaved or friendless person, whose isolation, following this absence or loss, can lead to on the dangerous slope of spleen, trough, or even suicide.

The social bond and its disintegration

But beyond the individual, it is indeed the notion of “social bond”, which, according to the sociologist Serge Paugam “denotes a desire to live together, to connect dispersed individuals, for a deeper cohesion of society”, which seems to lie at the heart of this matter.

However, as he also points out:

“In modern societies, institutional models of recognition have become individualized, they are based more on individual traits than on collective traits. »

Hence the observation of disintegration shared by many sociologists, even the famous “crisis”, an expression so widespread that it has become sadly banal, often presented in the media under the name of " social fracture "," social exclusion " or of “social unbinding”.

Bored woman in isolation lying on the sofa.
Solitude seems to have become, implicitly, a refuge from the rest of the world which can appear to us more and more as absurd, incomprehensible or even hostile. Shutterstock

Because, if “creative and rebellious solitude is a desire to free oneself”, by trying to re-appropriate, through the “conquest of the “I””, room for maneuver vis-à-vis a society perceived as ( too much?) restrictive, to quote the words of historian Sabine Melchior-Bonnet in her recent work History of loneliness, it seems rather to have become, implicitly, a refuge from the rest of the world. A world which appears to us more and more as absurd, incomprehensible, even hostile, because it simultaneously places everything just a click away but also preventing us from going beyond this unilateral gesture of man to machine, in order to meet Actually an “other self” to use the title of a work by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

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Thus, the sociologist Robert Castel considers that this disintegration of the social bond is primarily a “disaffiliation”, that is to say that it arises from a historical process of distancing from social cohesion which translates concretely into individual vulnerability (loss of job, isolation, etc.).

The (provisional?) triumph of individualism

Because if the impact of loneliness is, certainly, individual, its explanation is perhaps to be sought on a more global, more social level.

Let us reverse the perspective for a moment and ask society – and not the Individual – what, for it, is its “illness of the century”? She would undoubtedly respond to us by opposing another notion: that of individualism in its “glorification of the self” version (opposing it to a more “positive” individualism) as it was already denounced by the sociologist Émile Durkheim…in 1898.

It is, in fact, the triumph of this American ideal, direct heir of the once flamboyant self-made man, which today is embodied in the perpetual highlighting of its own singularity. However, the latter, by definition, is established against the mass of Others, generating, in fact, a self-perceived situation of exception and therefore of solitude.

To take up the analyzes of the Anglo-Saxon economist Noreena Hertz in her book The Lonely Century, it is indeed from Western countries that this evil spreads, where the model conveyed – the triumph of the individual over the collective – in fact exacerbates this individualism, the human factor of isolation. Indeed, if, for me, my person is more important than the rest of the world, then it is not illogical that the rest of the world turns away from me. Especially if each individual who makes it up has the same reasoning.

So what to do? Should we put the collective first? Impossible. Because we all aspire to be seen as “unique.” As the philosopher points out Edgar Morin, the individual dimension and the collective dimension are essential for everyone to achieve their goals: “Humans must recognize themselves in their common humanity at the same time as recognizing their individual and cultural diversity. »

Already, in 1851, the German philosopher Schopenhauer described this state of internal tension with his parable of attraction-repulsion of a herd of porcupines dying of cold, thus representing in a pleasant way, the mania that human beings have for drawing closer, by instinct, to each other. from others, then move away, annoyed by the quills of their fellows. Unable to live alone, they cannot be too promiscuous. The “right” distance between openness towards others and refocusing on oneself is therefore very difficult to find…

Diversity, organization of solitude?

But nowadays the triumph of “me” calls into question this precarious balance, by establishing a clear shift towards the individual which is embodied, paradoxically, in another “fashionable” notion: that of diversity made up of people from different backgrounds, which consists of revealing individual differences (26 officially identified to date!) but first (and exclusively?) as a source of discrimination.

In fact, these exacerbate individual essentialization, that is to say the act of reducing an individual to only one of his dimensions in order to subsequently understand and manage him under this single trait, definitively perceived as salient – ​​sex, age, origin, disability, etc. – but in the facts, grouped into categories, therefore into closed and separate systems and therefore isolated from each other. A sort of distribution of humanity into categories which not only sometimes omits individual plurality, but could end up endorsing a non-evolution, by constraining the categorized, more or less voluntary, to stay as close as possible to the expected characteristics of his category of assignment, only authorizing him to conform, ultimately, to the individuals of sa pre-defined category under penalty of ostracism. The group reassures and liberates, but it also excludes.

However, by highlighting what distinguishes people, we forget what could, on the contrary, bring them together. By sanctifying difference to the point of establishing it as a new norm, “common humanity”, so dear to Edgar Morin, loses, through a swing of the pendulum, the ground gained by egos. This situation leads to a shift into individual isolation, arising from the need to find a group and conform to it under penalty of social exclusion, and with it, the discomfort and risks inherent to this state. And this is how the individual, once triumphant, sees his own quest for glory closing around him like an oppressive straitjacket, irremediably leading him to wrap himself in the terrible shroud of solitude.

Cécile Dutriaux, Doctor in management sciences, IAE Paris - Sorbonne Business School

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / KieferPix

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