Do you know your neighbor? Do you know his/her name? Do you know what s/he does for a living? Do you know where s/he’s from and what s/he does for fun?
Forty years ago, 30 percent of Americans reported that they spent significant time with a neighbor. Today, that figure is down to 19 percent. What this means is that one in five of us really know our neighbors. Four decades ago, it was a third of us.
These figures will likely surprise no one. It is no secret that we are becoming less public and more insular. We are more self-sufficient, and it becomes decreasingly necessary for us to leave our places of comfort in order to retrieve the things we need or desire. Nearly everything we can imagine is quickly delivered to our door or to our screens. Our virtual and digital networks grow, and our real-life interactions become less vital and frequent.
The question, of course, is what we are losing as we gain such convenience and access. Does it matter if we know our neighbors less? With the world at our fingertips and virtually any product or knowledge only a click away, does it matter if we are less personally familiar with the person who happens to reside next door?
It would be worthwhile to explore the human and emotional cost of diminishing personal interaction, and there are plenty of social scientists who are doing just that. Studies abound which examine the deleterious effects of our increasing relationships to our screens. Stories are told (and here’s a really good one) about how life is more meaningful and magical when we are present and off of our devices.
But the decrease in neighborly discourse is alarming beyond its interpersonal implications. The statistical decline is cited by George Will in a recent editorial in the Washington Post along with a number of other fascinating trends that contribute to a deterioration in our country’s ability to agree on facts and communicate effectively.
Citing a new Rand Corp. research report entitled “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life,” Will identifies a series of factors that are escalating the polarization in the United States and the rest of the world. From the gerrymandering of districts to the filtering of social media, from the proliferation of 24 hour “news” outlets to the unrestricted access of armchair pundits to espouse and disseminate their opinions as facts, we are subject to a wholesale echo-chambering and an overload of information which may or may not be true and which more often than not is partisan and agenda-driven.
“The volume and velocity of the information flow, combined with the new ability to curate a la carte information menus, erode society’s assumption of a shared set of facts,” Will asserts. “They also deepen the human proclivity for ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘motivated reasoning’ — people inhabiting information silos, seeking and receiving only congenial facts.”
The prospects if the current trends continue are foreboding. Civil and political discourse will continue to decline as truth becomes increasingly murky and generally accepted facts and ideas grow more rare.
To combat such an eventuality, the Rand report delves deeply into the roots and mechanisms of truth decay. Some solutions are proposed, including the development of school programs that focus on critical reasoning and public funding of objective investigative journalism, but as Will attests, the first step is the identification of the preponderance of the problem and the decision to address and resolve it.
What is clear is that our society is facing a crisis of communication and division. We are experiencing the erosion of our relationships not only with our neighbors, but also with the Truth. Opinions proliferate, while facts depreciate. As we grow more self-sufficient, we simultaneously become more self-assured and perhaps more self-absorbed and self-indulgent.
Facts and data are essential, but what is most crucial and necessary at this point is not education and investigation. Civility, humanity, and empathy are the foundations of a functioning democracy, and thus speaking and interacting regularly with others, particularly those with whom we differ, is the most effective means of fending off truth decay and the continued decay of our society in general.
Loving your neighbor is, sadly, a seemingly quaint and archaic virtue in many parts of the country and world today. Knowing your neighbor, at the very least, is more important now than ever.