Belmont Club

The Opposite of Loneliness

It’s a mistake to think that Communism sold an ideology any more than modern cults sell a theology. What they sell is company, otherwise known as ‘community’.  For the greatest need of most men, after survival, is need to belong. David Horowitz, long a man of the left, observed that “the truth is that man cannot live for himself alone, that sooner or later the emptiness of such life overcomes him and he seeks involvement with others.”

That’s why they join political parties, cults and churches. To have company. For there is nothing so terrifying in this world as to live alone.

Abraham Maslow argued that immediately after satisfying the animal needs, next on most people’s hierarchy was friendship, family, intimacy. Higher still were the tokens of esteem that were society’s acknowledgement of existence. There’s even a modern word for this craving: belongingness.

Greg Walton of Yale University and Geoffrey Cohen of the University of Colorado argued in a paper that unless people who belonged to certain social or ethnic groups were provided with a something to belong they would suffer from “belonging uncertainty”.

We suggest that, in academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds and thus more sensitive to issues of social belonging. We call this state belonging uncertainty, and suggest that it contributes to racial disparities in achievement. …

Stigmatization can give rise to belonging uncertainty. … Two experiments tested how belonging uncertainty undermines the motivation and achievement of people whose group is negatively characterized in academic settings. In Experiment 1, students were led to believe that they might have few friends in an intellectual domain. Whereas White students were unaffected, Black students (stigmatized in academics) displayed a drop in their sense of belonging and potential. In Experiment 2, an intervention that mitigated doubts about social belonging in college raised the academic achievement (e.g., college grades) of Black students but not of White students.

And so if there is any reason why certain minorities are underpeforming in academic and professional settings, it’s because we’ve made them feel that they don’t belong.  Fix that and they’ll be OK.

But Walton and Cohen are probably wrong in thinking the need to belong is restricted to persons of Black ethnicity. Everyone has the herd instinct. During the period of the great Soviet purges many of the Bolsheviks persecuted by Stalin begged for readmission to the Party because it was the only thing that was meaningful in their lives. Punish them, starve them but don’t cast them out! That would be too cruel. There are accounts of party militants dying under torture who proclaimed “I bless Stalin with my dying breath!” The need to belong is powerful indeed, maybe even more powerful than the need to live.

When a widely linked video at the DNC proclaimed that “the government is the only thing we all belong to … the conservative blogosphere blew a gasket at the complete reality-inversion of the Democratic worldview. Tea Partiers and small-l libertarians and constitutional conservatives railed We don’t belong to the government — the government belongs to us!”.  Conservatives must have felt that the aversion to being “owned” would be shared by all.

No way.

Interviewers at the DNC found that many attendees were sincerely puzzled by this conservative aversion to be somebody’s. Why wouldn’t one want to belong to something?  Many wanted to belong to the government if it were at all possible. In response after response they made it clear that they would like nothing better than to owned by something — preferably by the dispenser of tasty government cheese.

Not everybody wants freedom. One reviewer of Dostoevky’s novels  reiterated the great novelist’s observation that “the terrible truth is that human beings cannot bear the burden of freedom … Man yearns for nothing more than to surrender his frightful liberty to some benign ruler, who will care for his bodily needs and relieve him of the spiritual suffering known as the will to choose.”

Dostoevsky’s argument on the point are quite clear. In his chapter on the Grand Inquisitor, a tyrant captures Christ before he can pollute the crowds with his vision of freedom. The Inquisitor asks Christ what the crowds could possibly do with freedom? Why torment them with the uncertainties of faith? That would only make them miserable. Give them platitudes and give them bread. Give them spectacle and pageant, hope and change and few potato chips, and they’d be happy.

Enslave, but feed us! … and that is what Thou didst reject in the wilderness for the sake of that freedom which Thou didst prize above all. [you should have accepted the bread for] … by accepting the “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied and answered a universal craving, a ceaseless longing alive in the heart of every individual human being, lurking in the breast of collective mankind, that most perplexing problem–“whom or what shall we worship?”

There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship. But man seeks to bow before that only which is recognized by the greater majority, if not by all his fellow-men, as having a right to be worshipped; whose rights are so unquestionable that men agree unanimously to bow down to it. For the chief concern of these miserable creatures is not to find and worship the idol of their own choice, but to discover that which all others will believe in, and consent to bow down to in a mass.

Give them chains, the Inquisitor argued, or else humanity would be tormented by “belonging uncertainty” and that would certainly be cruel. And maybe he was right. The fact is that anyone who chooses the path of freedom is by definition someone who would give up the world to know the truth. And there are precious few men like that. Potato chips and souvenir t-shirts anyone?

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