The Alienation Problem

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(Illustration: Pixabay)
(Illustration: Pixabay)

One of the primary human needs is for connection with others. When we don’t get it, it seriously alters our emotional state and our behavior.

This is not a new idea. French existentialists were complaining about modern alienation in the 1940s. But while the term may be old, modern technology picks up the pace.

People are able to move around freely, change jobs at will and keep in touch with friends and family around the world via the internet. Yet, with all those “positives,” loneliness is increasing—and when people are lonely and scared, they can fall prey to extremist groups.


What is Alienation

Alienation is a feeling of separation from other people and powerlessness about your life, a feeling of being isolated and lonely.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, alienation is occurs “when a separation between a subject and object that properly belong together, frustrates or conflicts with that baseline connectedness or harmony.”

In other words, it’s the feeling of pain that accompanies isolation from people and things you should be close with.

It is oftentimes feeling too afraid to reach to others, feeling afraid that no one will ever care about or understand you and feeling cut off from the surrounding world.

A perfect example of alienation is the primary protagonist in the cult classic movie “Fight Club.” At the beginning of the movie, he has an apartment filled with belongings and no sense of community or attachment. Bereft of a solid foundation, he gradually loses his mind.


Different Kinds of Alienation

To a certain extent, everyone suffers from alienation. Not to get all philosophical but ultimately, we all live our lives alone. Yet there are lots of ways we can make the isolation better, through community.

The way we work can make a big difference. In Marxist political theory, workers under a capitalist system are alienated from their labor, since they do not control how they work or what they do and are disconnected from the process of creating. They are also disconnected from the outcome and from the profits of selling their products.

Yet even a broken clock is right twice a day. While Marx was wrong about a lot of things, many academics agree that alienation from your job causes people psychological damage. Although Marx would hate to admit it, it’s why a lot of people are happier running their own businesses rather than being stuck working for someone else – even if they earn less that way. People need to have a sense of control.

Marx was right in his diagnosis (soulless conveyor belt work makes people miserable) even if he was wrong about his solutions (shoot the rich and steal all their money).

Alienation is not just from work, but also from one another. Without the deeply rooted bonds of close kinship ties, long-standing friendships and community organizations, cities have less of a collective identity and just become loose assemblages of individuals.

Because people crave connection, this is a big problem.

The epidemic of mass shootings in the United States can, in a large part, be attributed to this problem. As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Nearly all mass shooters have been young men alienated from society” — young men who don’t have a stake in the community, who feel they don’t have a future, who don’t have a fulfilling family life as far more likely to become mass shooters than any other demographic.


How Extremists Prey On Alienated People

Alienation makes people ready prey for extremist groups because these people long for the kind of connection and group unity that extremists are offering.

Extremists sell a completely black-and-white worldview divided between the in-group and the out-group. They don’t allow for multiple identities or feeling at home in different places in different ways. They want to force one primary identity (white Christian, Muslim, etc.) and pit this identity against the “other.”

Someone who feels alienated from their broader society is susceptible to the rhetoric of extremist groups.


Being Cosmopolitan Is Good

Some people use the fact that alienation can be problematic as an excuse to attack multicultural societies. For example, the term “rootless cosmopolitan” is used as an antiseptic slur to attack Jews for belonging nowhere. Blood and soul nationalists deeply resent any immigration as a perceived threat to their identity and community.

But cosmopolitanism can be very good. There is no reason why a society can’t find other things to bring it together that aren’t ethnic ties or religion.

America was founded on the idea that such a state is possible. It was the first country in history founded on values, and inclusive to all who share those values. Making sure that vision leads to a society with strong social bonds is key in combating extremism.



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