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Our Societal Disconnect

By Herb Bowie

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Annapolis, Maryland

I was thinking recently about my own upbringing in Annapolis, Maryland, back in the sixties, and it occurred to me that there were several aspects of my experience there and then that I took for granted, but that are no longer very common today.

My own parents had divorced when I was nine, and my brother and I were living with our Mom. She was working, and we didn’t lack for any of the necessities, but we were definitely on the low side of the middle class.

And yet, we lived within an easy bike ride from more affluent families in the community. We all went to the same public schools. We Methodists all went to the same church. There were a variety of good employers in the area: Westinghouse, Nationwide Insurance, the Naval Academy, to name a few. There was a local newspaper. We had network TV and AM radio, but we all watched and listened to the same content at the same time. If we wanted something more exotic, to give us a taste of what was going on in the wider world, then there was always a large selection of books at the public library, plus the Sunday edition of the Washington Post.

Now I’m not trying to convince you that I grew up in some sort of paradise lost: this was not a perfect community. But it was a relatively complete, coherent, compact, local community.

Fast forward to today. I live in North Seattle, near Green Lake. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Seattle, my neighborhood and my neighbors. But a family like the one I grew up in would have to live at least 30 miles from where we are today. Families, schools and churches in Seattle are sorted by income level. The costs of living – and of housing, in particular – have been rising so rapidly that long-time residents are being forced out of their neighborhoods, replacing established communities with gentrified housing/carousing areas.

And everyone is attached to their own personal media stream, individually customized to match their interests and worldview. News and entertainment have become largely indistinguishable. The printed word has taken a back seat to flickering images displayed on our personal screens, and audio piped straight into our omnipresent ear buds.

Jobs in the area have also been stratified, split between good-paying tech jobs and low-paying most everything else, with a distinct but small band somewhere in the middle.

Large employers offer many services that in the past might have come from neighborhood communities. They often offer on-site child care, their own commuting services, gyms, Wi-Fi, subsidized and high-end cafeterias serving three meals a day, baristas, game rooms, napping nooks and their own corporate cultures. And so, for employees of companies like Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon or Google, much of their societal allegiance has been transferred to their corporate communities.

So is there a problem here?

I believe there is.

To understand the difficulty, I think, we have to start with the difference between community and society.

A community is a social network connecting people with one or more shared interests and some set of shared resources. Communities are easy. Most of us belong to more than one. Employers provide some, but others can be easily formed, especially today through social media.

Society is different, though.

A society consists of all the resources and institutions needed to care for its members, and to ensure its own survival.

And so, once we understand this distinction, we can begin to wrap our heads around the problem we are facing: the characteristics of the communities in which we participate no longer provide any sort of accurate reflection of the health of the society on which we depend. And, to make matters worse, the tailored media streams that we consume daily no longer reflect any sort of reliable, shared understanding of the health of that same society.

No wonder, then, that we have such a hard time agreeing on the state of society, or on what is needed to preserve and improve it.

Growing up in Annapolis, it was easy to get a seat-of-the-pants feel for the health, not just of our community, but of our society. Today, though, I feel like I’m flying blind, separated from the action on the ground by thick layers of clouds. It’s like navigating by instruments, but with multiple panels of dials, each vying for my attention, and each offering conflicting reports on my speed, altitude, direction and fuel consumption.

Back then in Annapolis, of course, we still had different viewpoints, different opinions, different interests, different religions, different political parties – but these all seemed to be contained within an overarching sense of our mutual dependence on one another within a shared society. We might disagree but, at the end of the day, we had to get along with one another.

Today, that sense of us all having to get along within a shared society seems to be gone. We have lots of communities, but it’s clear that these aren’t the same thing – in many cases, these fragmented communities just allow us to burrow deeper into our separate societal corners, from which we can comfortably pass judgment on those in different corners – or, perhaps worse, just ignore them altogether as if they didn’t exist.

What’s the solution? The rapid paces of population growth, technological change, and urbanization are certainly making it harder to grapple with this issue. It helps to have a common, inclusive worldview that can accommodate all of this diversity, and yet help unite people on fundamental principles and values. We certainly need face-to-face and side-by-side contact between diverse members of our society. Perhaps we need virtual neighborhoods intentionally composed of people from different segments of our society, since we can no longer trust that these will occur naturally from geographic proximity. We need more emphasis on affordable housing, to allow different income levels to live closer to one another. We certainly need even-handed and generous funding for public schools. We desperately need local communities that contain socio-economic, racial, religious, political and ethnic diversity.

Whatever means we use, it seems critical that we find a way to reconnect the various shards of our broken society in such a way that most of us can experience a shared, reliable, direct perception of the health of that enterprise.

And we need to understand anew that we are part of a common society, that this society needs to make some reasonable provisions for us all, and that our fates within this endeavor are inextricably woven together.

Published 2018 Sep 26