SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Anomie, Myself, and I
Society for dummies and misanthropes.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
For as many inspirational messages about growth floating over images of anonymous waterfalls found on Facebook, you’d think we’d handle change more gracefully in 2020. Yet, this year has brought nothing but change, and with it an equal dose of chaos. If famous sociologist Émile Durkheim was around, he’d be man of the year for putting a name to the untethered and alienated feeling many of us are having — anomie.
Sitting down at the same desk, listening to the same music, and even speaking to the same people don’t feel the same when the society around them has changed. In that cultural limbo, we find ourselves experiencing anomie, Durkheim’s name for the feeling of disconnection between you and the values of your society. There will always come a time when you feel isolated from your society, even if just for a short period. Anomie occurs when that period of time isn’t just natural existential angst, but concocted by the perfect societal storm.
Here’s the gritty truth — for the entirety of human existence, we’ve preferred people who are like us more than people who aren’t. Here’s an even grittier truth — we still do. Yes, intellectually we know that embracing diversity over prejudice is “right,” but what we don’t know is….how to actually do that. For most of history, we’ve been pretty boring. We mostly followed the same religion and mostly had the same job (peasant); there was little individuality and lots of homogeneity.
Humans like it when everyone else is just like them, regardless of how often corporations profess their love for the diverse employees in their sweatshops. Change is frightening because it’s unpredictable. A change in our environment, which includes the people around you, is just as frightening as entering a new forest teeming with unknown predators.
We prefer similarity because it means predictability; offensive as it might be, our ancient animal brain was designed to survive the wilderness, not the HR department.
That superficially predictable environment is only a bandaid; as history shows, no matter how homogenous a population is, humans will root out differences to build hierarchies upon.
Natural differences like race and sex not doing it for your desire to climb the hierarchy? No matter, DIY is just fine. In these environments of what Durkheim called mechanical solidarity, where same-ness is in appearance only, that solidarity soon crumbles into witch hunts and civil wars.
If you want to hate someone, reason is only an obstacle to be overcome.
Durkheim believed that anomie was the outcome of a confused society. If you exist in a culture that champions the values of success based on character over caste, but your environment works against achieving such values, bitterness is likely. The individual who finds himself an outsider in his own culture will stop working for that culture and start working for himself. Durkheim warned against an alienated society; when few things tie us together, concern for another becomes irrelevant and individual desires dominate.
A society in which every individual acts in his own best interest first is a defensive society that sacrifices progress for predictability.
We can have our diversity and our functioning society too, though. Durkheim believed that organic solidarity was the answer to a society where the majority of people hold different roles, beliefs, and identities.
If we are to surpass our natural fear of each other’s differences, it will come only from seeing those differences as a function of and not a bug in the system.
There will be no perfect solution. We can’t enjoy a society that allows us to be more than identical peasants and still feel cohesion without accepting the diversity in all its forms that non-peasant life brings. You may not like all the diverse values and beliefs that modern society births, but the only other option is a society of no options.
Don’t be so sure a restricted society would protect your ideals rather than persecute them.
Living in a society with other people is a massive social endeavor, whether you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert. Socializing is a constantly shifting effort that exists on a spectrum between isolation and crowding. We take our social life for granted as being something we just intuitively do, but our social life is more delicate and should be more conscious than we acknowledge.
Irwin Altman is a social psychologist who made it his job to complicate the simple perspectives we hold of our social life. While we can never be fully alone without running off into the wilderness, we also can’t spend every moment in the company of others. Whether it’s the moments of quiet spent with only you and your mind upon waking, the stillness of waiting alone in a slow elevator, or the momentary silence that’s banished by flowing thoughts as you try to sleep — we must all be alone eventually. It’s the mixture of how alone or how accompanied we are that Altman broke down into metrics we can quantify.
Privacy regulation theory was Altman’s attempt to explain why we withdraw from or engage in socializing at different times. We all have an optimum level of privacy, or how often we do and don’t want to socialize. By closing off and opening ourselves up to socialization, we’re able to meet our own perfect level of privacy.
Of course, if it was that simple we wouldn’t need a theory about it.
There are times we socialize that should be spent alone and times we spend alone that should be spent socializing. Finding our balance and honoring it isn’t always straightforward in a society that requires socializing to function or for a mind that panics in the silence of being alone.
When we don’t regulate our privacy, we can find ourselves isolated or irritated. It’s easier to meet your social needs as a younger person, but older people best illustrate how crucial our privacy is. They may suffer over-exposure in care settings like nursing homes, where privacy is a façade as thin as the curtain around their bed, or loneliness in their own homes with no access to the ease of communication that technology offers the grandchildren who rarely visit them.
I recently took a week off from sending out this newsletter and this week’s edition is later than usual. When you surpass your social quota without efforts to restore it, it will restore itself in less convenient ways. Between a chaotic world that’s constantly calling our attention, an internet that’s overflowing with shouting voices, and daily life that requires a conscious effort at compassion, neglecting our optimum privacy is the default.
It’s easy to find yourself swaying in the social waves that dominate our lives without realizing you’re being steadily pulled out to sea.
Socializing can be just as restorative as time spent alone if it's done consciously. Our world will happily dictate our privacy, whether it’s the news convincing us we’ll be lost without the latest update or social media reminding us that not posting is not existing. Sometimes your optimum privacy won’t match with what the world asks of you, but the world doesn’t ask you to be your best, it only asks you to be what it wants.
Not every question deserves your answer.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.