Kim Samuel is the author of the book On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation. She is founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness and Fulbright Canada ambassador for diversity and social connectedness.
Every year since 1973, the international NGO Freedom House has issued a report on the global state of democracy, political liberty and the rule of law. This year’s assessment reads like a high-decibel siren: Around the world, democracy is falling, and authoritarianism is on the rise. As the leaders of Russia and China challenge the international consensus on human rights, anti-democratic movements within countries including the United States, Brazil and India are seeking to discredit elections, threaten free media reporting, and even engage in outright political violence. While Canada consistently earns top marks in the Freedom House ratings, the report notes that we’re not immune to the forces of distrust and division that now define this era.
What’s behind the rise? There’s no one simple answer. In an age of so much ecological, demographic and economic transformation, demagogues often win power by stoking fear of change – demonizing immigrants or spreading falsehoods about climate change, for example. In many cases, opponents of democracy point to legitimate failures of governments – including inequality or corruption – arguing that they alone can solve the crises. With the rise of the attention economy, would-be despots are often willing to manipulate social-media algorithms and employ disinformation campaigns to turbocharge divisive content and rhetoric.
Yet perhaps the most profound explanation for the rise of modern authoritarianism comes from a 71-year-old tome by a legendary existentialist philosopher. Hannah Arendt knew the terrors of fascism intimately. She escaped both Nazi Germany and occupied France. In her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she made the case that there’s one surprising but essential prerequisite to the rise of any totalitarian government: loneliness.
While we typically think of loneliness as a psychological state, Ms. Arendt saw it as a political problem, too. “Loneliness,” she wrote, “is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone, whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.” She described “loneliness” as a kind of “wilderness,” where you can’t trust other people or share a common experience of reality – let alone exercise your voice or agency to make change. To describe the meaning of loneliness, Ms. Arendt drew on the German word Verlassenheit – a state of being abandoned, where we lose our ability to create “new beginnings.” She summarized loneliness as “the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”
What does loneliness have to do with authoritarian politics? Despots prey on disconnection. At the most basic level, isolated people are less able to organize, engage in public discourse or question government officials. When we are disconnected from meaningful relationships with other people in our communities, it’s virtually impossible to engage in collective action against injustice. At a deeper level, when people are divorced from a sense of common reality and a common fact base, they’re most subject to become cynical and detached. As Ms. Arendt puts it, the “deprivation of ‘objective’ relationships to others and of a reality guaranteed through them has become the mass phenomenon of loneliness.” In this disconnected state, it’s hard to question the status quo, let alone imagine new possibilities for the future. People become willing to hand over their power and agency to those who are hungry for control.
Loneliness is on the rise today. While Canada’s latest estimated loneliness rate is 20 per cent, it’s much higher among certain groups, including both young people and older people. Globally, it’s estimated that approximately one-third of people over the age of 60 will experience loneliness. In 2019, research showed that 69 per cent of university students in Canada felt “very lonely,” and 63 per cent reported feelings of hopelessness at some point in the past year. These numbers have only worsened with the forced isolation of COVID-19.
Hannah Arendt’s conception of loneliness is what I call a deficit of belonging.
In conducting research for my new book, I interviewed more than 150 people on the challenge of social isolation and the work of building belonging. I came to understand the meaning of “belonging” as connection to what I call the four P’s: people, place, power and purpose. The experience of belonging is about connectedness not only through community, but also through rootedness in a place, a feeling of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of shared mission with others. From the fall of civic institutions to displacement caused by climate-related environmental change; from loss of team bonding in the age of remote work to the ideological sorting of online news, people are struggling to navigate a world that lacks traditional anchors of connection.
When denied the experience of belonging, humans are subject to misguided, destructive, irrational behaviours. I spoke recently with Rex Molefe, a former child soldier in Tanzania, Zambia and Libya, who explained to me that he actually felt a sense of belonging as an early adolescent in war. He told me: “The mayhem and social ills that we are confronted with today in the world actually stem from that lack of sense of belonging.” Weeda Mehran – who was homeschooled by her mother in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and is now an academic researcher studying propaganda campaigns of militant extremist groups – says that people often join these groups because of a person’s drive for acceptance, respect and shared meaning.
While today’s anti-democratic movements might seem comparatively benign, they often rely on the same underlying dynamics: othering, misinformation, denigration of public institutions and distortion of truth. This is why we are seeing the rise of what some see as socially acceptable hatred.
If Hannah Arendt were alive today, I have no doubt about how she would assess our situation: People are longing to belong. Across societies, we’re seeing a scarcity of the kind of social connectedness that’s necessary for healthy democracy.
The question is: What can we do about it?
It’s time for leaders in government, business, and the social sector to recognize social connectedness as not just a priority, but a necessity. Belonging isn’t just a social good, but a fundamental human right. It’s a requirement for the survival of democracy and for a livable future.
In 2018, the British government made global headlines with the appointment of the first Minister for Loneliness. To date, the minister has worked to improve statistical measurement of levels of loneliness and to expand strategies such as social prescribing – where professionals refer individuals experiencing loneliness to support, including mental-health care and involvement in the arts or community programming.
While this is a valuable start, we should think more systemically. What would it mean, for example, to build the value of belonging into social policy, economic development, urban design and other fields? Here and around the world, there are powerful examples we can bring to scale.
In Toronto, a non-profit called The Stop has transformed a food bank into a community hub, where people can access housing support, employment resources, mental-health support, cooking classes and community gardening. As Rachel Grey, the former executive director, told me: “the response to food insecurity does not lie in food banks.” Rather, it’s in a holistic vision of “social solidarity” that’s about empowering people and fostering rich connection.
Meanwhile, in Harare, Zimbabwe, a psychiatrist named Dixon Chibanda decided to address a critical shortage of mental-health care workers in his community through a new innovation: train older women in a modality of evidence-based talk therapy and have them see patients on park benches. The program has been wildly successful. Evidence from a randomized control trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the “grandmothers” approach is more effective than other forms of therapy in the local context. It’s about empowering the local community to be guardians of community well-being.
What’s the common denominator to these solutions to pressing social problems such as food insecurity and mental health? The answer is: belonging.
To address the rising tide of authoritarian politics, it’s necessary but not sufficient to take on challenges such as social-media manipulation and the strength of electoral institutions. We need to ensure that our social and economic systems thoroughly embody the value of belonging.
I once asked Margaret Atwood about the importance of building belonging. She wrote to me in an e-mail, with her characteristic eloquence: “In a We society you are rarely alone / In a Me society you are rarely ‘with.’”
Today, it’s increasingly clear: Building a “We” society isn’t only about building a more caring culture. It’s about saving democracy itself.
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