A Couple Of Turtles

Recently, after lunch, I took a short walk to the river. The water level has receded a bit and much of the riverbank is visible again. I thought about the Byrds’ current life and plans for the future and I thought about happenings at the office. I leaned over a railing and looked at the riverbank for some time. I looked at the grass growing, the submerged trees, the rocks on the hillside and the litter that was strewn everywhere.

Slowly the life on the bank began to be visible. In time I realized that two objects were not rocks. They were turtles sitting motionless at the water’s edge. One larger turtle and a smaller turtle — a male and a female, perhaps. While I stood there only the larger turtle moved. It moved only once and that was just to stick out its hind legs, as if to stretch. A little later I noticed two ducks floating quietly beneath the branches of a semi-submerged
tree.

A couple of ducks. Two turtles. Is it natural in nature for creatures to band together? It seems reasonable since two can do more than one and each can protect or warn the other of danger. The lone anything is a natural target for prey. There is a reason for the old adage, “Divide and conquer.” There is strength in numbers. We have words to describe many natural groupings, such as a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese or a flock of seagulls. If it is natural for living things to associate with others then why have Americans over the past four decades increasingly sought out solitary amusements and generally withdrawn from social interactions? America, unlike the life on the riverbank, is sorely lacking in social capital.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam concludes that Americans spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage social interaction, we spend more time watching and less time doing. We know our neighbors less well and we see old friends less often. We increasingly live a solitary existence. This isolation is due to the synergistic effect of 1) pressures on our time and money; 2) suburbanization – which has led to long commutes and sprawl; 3) the solitary nature of electronic entertainment; and 4) the changing family. Our solitariness crosses all boundaries.

Politically there is an accelerating trend toward more voter contacts, but fewer and fewer party workers. This trend is evidenced in the professionalization and commercialization of politics in America. The contacts that are made are less likely to be visits from a neighbor and more and more likely to be anonymous phone calls from a paid phone bank or a mailer. Consequently, financial capital for mass marketing has steadily replaced social capital in politics. Professional contacts made to voters provide neither connectedness among community members nor direct engagement in civic give and take. These are pseudo-personal contacts. They represent citizenship by proxy, not participatory democracy.

Religiously we are less involved too. Overall our actual attendance and involvement in religion has declined by 25 to 50 %. Mainline denominations such as Methodists and Presbyterians have lost members and the number of nominal Catholics – those who claim to be Catholic, but don’t attend mass — has risen. The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as having “no religion” has risen from 2% in 1967 to 11% in 1990.

In an agrarian society, after a solitary day spent plowing the field, a farmer might welcome a church social or a civic meeting, but now many of us work in large organizations. We interact with people all day long and we “do” meetings throughout the day. Thus, the idea of attending another meeting at night is far from our minds.

Meal times once were social times, but the fraction of American families who eat dinner together has declined from 50% to 34% since 1980. Americans have increasingly chosen to grab a bite and run, rather than to sit and eat. There is no time to chat.

Instead of enjoying a family meal together we watch television. As a primary activity television absorbed almost 40 percent of the average American’s free time in 1995. Television, even when watched with others, is for the most part a solitary activity. There is little interaction with others. Television privatizes our leisure and civic time. In fact, one of the most important consequences of television seems to be that it has kept us at home – and to a great extent, alone. From Putnam we learn that between 1965 and 1995 we gained an average of 6 hours each week in leisure time. Sadly Americans on average spent those additional 6 hours watching television.

Suburbanization too has become a way of life in America. But life in the suburbs means greater separation of workplace and residence and greater segregation by race and class. People fleeing the closeness of cities sort themselves out into more and more finely distinguished “lifestyle enclaves.” Statistically, the greater the social homogeneity of a community the lower the level of political involvement. So we move to the burbs, become content and drop out. But we still have to work and those commutes are long. The average American spends 72 minutes (usually alone) in their car every day. The commutes that sprawl produces further disrupt community connectedness. People live in two cities. They spend their workday in one and their nights and weekends in another. If you are going to volunteer in the community do you help our where you work or where you live? Or because of your long commute do you just stay home because you don’t have time for anything else?

We remain interested and critical spectators of the public scene. We kibitz, but we don’t play. We maintain a facade of formal affiliation through memberships, but we rarely show up for events or meetings. We have invented new ways of expressing our demands – such as e-mail – that demand less of us. We are less likely to turn out for collective deliberation – whether in the voting booth or the meeting hall – and when we do, we find discouragingly, that few of our friends and neighbors have shown up. We are less generous with our time and with our money. We have turned inward and are less likely to give strangers the benefit of the doubt.

This social disconnectedness is bad for society and for the individual. For instance, the level of informal social interaction is a strong predictor of student achievement. Also, when you know your neighbors you cut down on crime. A stranger on the street stands out and commands attention. Moreover, as participation in political deliberation declines Putnam asserts that our politics will become increasingly more shrill and less balanced. When most people – the content suburban moderates – skip the meeting, those who do attend tend to be more extreme. They are the people who care most about the outcome on an issue and are the least willing to compromise. Finally, people who are socially disconnected are two to five times more likely to die from all causes. Quite simply, social support buffers the stresses of daily life.

I took a walk to the river again today. I wanted to see if the turtles were there. There were turtles by the river’s edge, not two, but five.

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