The Modern Survival Guide #29
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, but I’d really like to get to know more about you and yours. Also, in this edition I’ll be looking at social bonds and how they impact modern society.
Humans are social creatures, and that fact has major implications for survival in the modern world. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, being social and maintaining social bonds is very important and a key component of being an involved member of society (not to mention staying sane).
My father has a saying that he got from some old timer up in the hills of North Carolina: “One man by himself ain’t worth a damn.” Despite everything the modern cult of the super-empowered individual has to say on this subject, this old saying is true: we are generally better, stronger, more human, and more capable when being social.
To that end, this article will talk about three aspects of social bonds that have significant impacts on you in the modern world: cooperation, socialization, and isolation. This isn’t an exclusive list; there are countless books and articles on this subject, but these are things that I think are particularly important.
When you think of the greatest achievements of mankind, it’s important to realize that they are group efforts. Yes, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, but he didn’t actually go out into the fields and pick the herbs or grind the ocher that made his paints, now did he?
And yes, Alexander the Great carved a trail of destruction and conquest along his path, as did Caesar and Attila to follow, but you’ll notice they each had a rather large army along for the ride, am I right? I mean, they didn’t each individually kill half a million people; for one thing, it would have taken way too long.
And yes, Lincoln held the Union together and freed the slaves, but he didn’t go down to each individual plantation and knock off shackles, pummeling the despicable slave owners to slag in the process. Although that would have been fun to watch. We’ve already got a Lincoln/vampire hunter crossover, we may as well make him a one man abolitionist crusade and grow the legend. Hollywood, are you listening?
My point is that great deeds require great numbers of people. Rome was not built in a day, nor yet by one set of hands (and the same could be said of its sacking). Whatever your accomplishments are, unless you have built all of your tools yourself, like this guy, you have collaborated with an artisan. Unless you have grown all your own food, you have paid a farmer. Unless you have spontaneously self-generated from the void or the sea foam, you are indebted to your mother. And so on, and so forth.
Obama famously flubbed his lines trying to describe this reality, but his (implied) point deserves to be repeated: we each live in a very complex social system that is, as its core, designed to create and reinforce cooperation, and support the success of all members of the group. What people forget is that this is a system, and systems are not eternal or invulnerable. They are susceptible to interference, and that’s something to watch for if you value your survival in modern society.
Cooperation is the second-greatest strength of humanity.¹ You ignore cooperative social bonds at your own distinct peril. There is a reason why we describe someone as being “cut off” if they are in desperate straits.
Now, here’s a funny thing: the majority of rules that control our daily lives aren’t written in law or enforced by courts; they’re not anything we even think about consciously most of the time. They’re unwritten rules — social rules — and are maintained by the dual threats of embarrassment and ostracization.
There are a LOT of these, and for the most part you never ever notice that they’re there because they are so built-in to the culture that you don’t recognize them as anything but reality. But they’re highly significant nevertheless.
Let’s take a super common example: spitting. In many, many places around the world, people spit all over the place. This is not done in the US, because at some point when we’re children, our parents, friends, relatives, or teachers yell at us for spitting in public. It’s considered rude. And so now we have a whole generation of adults who do not (usually) spit in public.
This is something that most of us never even think about. In fact, it took me about five minutes to even come up with that example because I never even think about spitting in public. It’s so bone-deep that it’s like telling someone “Do not eat this giraffe,” and having them respond with a baffled “I wasn’t thinking of eating the giraffe. Giraffe’s aren’t for eating.”
And yes, in case you were wondering, this absolutely extends to which foods we consider “food.” Kind of like how most of us would not willingly eat blue whale at this point in the Save the Whales discussion, or how very few people would be willing to eat roadkill.
My point is this: it’s worth a few minutes of your time, from time to time, to think about those things that you do and believe only because other people would make fun of you or reject your presence for doing otherwise. Sometimes these circumstance make sense, but sometimes they don’t, and it may become relevant to your survival to know which is which.
Last but by no means least, our social bonds (or lack thereof) are incredibly significant when it comes to avoiding isolation. Being socially isolated is not good for you, at all. It is worth noting that the most severe punishment most prisons can dole out (to men surrounded by rapists, murderers, and thieves, no less) is solitary confinement.
Isolation is dangerous. It tends to radicalize people into actions or activities that they wouldn’t normally consider. It tends to cause, or result from, mental illness. It also tends to restrict employment options and, of course, friendships and relationships.
It is also a danger to the social fabric if too many people in a society become socially isolated. Some research has shown that the rich, for example, tend to lose their empathy as a result of decreasing social connections. You become rich and buy a big house away from neighbors; soon enough you stop thinking about your neighbors; and from there it’s a short step to thinking about your needs as paramount above all others.
Political theorists such as Robert Putnam also argue that increasing social isolation prevents citizens from engaging in collective actions that address community problems.² If you don’t have social bonds, you don’t have a social network you can rally to address a problem, and so problems don’t get solved.
And in general, isolation tends to slow or stop a person’s ability to absorb the social norms of their society, which can lead to a downward spiral scenario. Everyone knows that one awkward kid from high school who stayed awkward for no other reason than that no one ever talked to him, so he never figured out which behaviors were acceptable. People forget that this pattern can continue into adulthood.
So don’t be isolated, right? Isn’t that a simple solution. Kind of like telling a person with depression, “Just be happy!” The problem is that isolation is usually as much a personal problem as it is a social one; a very socially isolated person may experience depression, severe anxiety, or other mental health issues that might prevent or hinder them from forming new bonds. Unfortunately, it is usually the prerogative of the individual to avoid social isolation, since being isolated by definition means that not too many other people are aware of your isolation.
I’m not an expert on this, but everything that I’ve heard, experienced, and read suggests that, if you are feeling isolated, the best thing to do is start small. Reach out to one person, or one group. Set up one conversation with family. Add one additional social event to your calendar every month, even if you don’t know anyone else attending. And then expand from there with volunteer activities (most organization can at least use an extra warm body), community events, maybe even a book club.
Once you have the first few events set up, rinse and repeat until you hit your limit for social stuff. Isolation tends to affect introverts, unsurprisingly, so if you are introverted it’s important to monitor your upper limits for social interaction. The point isn’t to cause you so much additional stress that you slip back into isolation or agoraphobia, it’s to get you out of the house from time to time and meeting people offline.
Finally, if you see someone who is being forcibly isolated (usually by bullying or ostracization), it is usually a good idea to keep an eye on that situation, and if necessary intervene on their behalf. This is tricky; sometimes people are isolated because they’re awful human beings. But a lot of the time, the awful human beings are the ones doing the ostracizing. You’re going to have to call those events as you see them.
Bringing it All Together
So how does this all tie together? Well, society depends on cooperation. This isn’t hyperbole, it’s just how things are; every big job needs more than one person. Without cooperation you just have a bunch of people running around trying to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors, and then in short order the social order collapses and you set up the Thunderdome for a few years until a new order asserts itself.
Cooperation depends on people being able to work together, which means you have to have a group that can function on the same rules. Socialization is the process for that. Cooperation also requires that people aren’t estranged from one another, or afraid to come out of their dwellings, which means that a cooperative society should be one where isolation is rare.
And how does this all affect you? Well, in short, if you want to live in a happy, peaceful, productive society, you need a highly cooperative group. The measure of how easy it is for people to cooperate in your society is basically an indication of how easy it is to start a business, or form a political party, or start a social group. This is what political scientists call social capital, and it’s a key marker for the success or failure of human societies — particularly democratic societies.
This means you need to watch out for people, groups, and events that act to decrease the cooperative spirit in society. White nationalists, for example, are bad not just because they beat people up and parrot racism and pseudoscience, but because they also act to undermine the basic cooperative structure of society.
If I can’t work with a neighbor of a different race, I lose out on all the things that neighbor could bring to the table — all their labor, all their ideas, and all their connections. That’s bad for me, bad for my neighbor, and bad for my society, because we rely on productivity and innovation to keep the economy moving.
And all of this starts with simple social bonds. So remember — your survival as a member of a modern society isn’t just dependent on your own work, but on the connections you make with the people around you. Being cooperative, recognizing the influence of socialization, and avoiding isolation are all important parts of living in the modern world. And while survival is possible without a load of social bonds in your life… it’s not fun.
¹The first is the ability to brew single-malt scotch.
²Although there are a lot of problems with Putnam’s presentation (mostly involving his technophobia), his core point — if you don’t talk to anyone you can’t get your issues addressed — remains valid.