Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pluralistic Ignorance & Loneliness

The Human Self

“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”
Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda

Lonely Thoughts: Morrow writes: At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows.

In an excellent article posted in the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Paul Morrow writes how modern surveillance technologies and the omni-presence or constant calling of social media can undermine both independent thought and human individuality, leading to conformity in thinking and to increased loneliness—the sum total leading also to what is called pluralistic ignorance.

Morrow writes in "The Emperor’s New Clothes and Pluralistic Ignorance," recalling the well-known fable by Hans Christian Andersen:
Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.

States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.
This is evident today, which is not surprising to anyone who enters the realm of social media, which although has much to recommend it, is no replacement for serious discussion and engagement with individuals physically present nearby. (Such ought to be one of the benefits of university education, notably as it applies to the humanities.) Offering a comment or even a sign of acknowledgement does produce some social cohesion, and it does allow individuals to both express themselves and to receive some evidence that they and their thought life is based on reality. But in some way it also increases the level of loneliness, which is not the same as solitude; healthy persons do not desire the former, but they often require the latter.

Morrow writes:
Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.
Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions. 
Or, to put it another way, thought ought to eventually lead to action, especially of the moral or ethical kind. Otherwise, it can be a very lonely existence.I, too, am not exempt from this most human of conditions.

You can read more of the article at [HannahArendt]

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