It’s an old cliché that we’re hard-wired to be social animals. Like cows dipping their heads to nosh on some clover, all the while furtively murmuring gossip about whose calves nibbled at whose udders unbeknownst to the other’s Mothers, we humans thrive on gabbing in groups. Who are we going to low conspiratorially to now? The COVID-19 quarantine brings a void of verbal in-person interaction that inconveniences some more than others, to be sure
It’s no surprise that we social beings are struggling like crows without a flock during these times of social distancing. But hey, we at AU thrive, or at least subsist dandily, in splendid study isolation. We were made for times like these. We might even consider ourselves expert guest Facetime lecturers to our beloveds and peers who are coming to terms with a lonely landscape of Netflix and toilet paper. To the extent we at AU are already self-wired to be alone with our textbooks, this is in many ways the best of all possible worlds.
Silence and Loving What ‘Is’
Gottfired Willhelm Leibniz, claimed that we always live in the best of all possible worlds and only when we lose pace with this serene notion of the universe do we fall into the trap, as one commentator put it, of “presupposing that false maxim … stating that the happiness of rational creatures is the sole aim of God. [Theodicy 120 (H 192; G VI 172)].” (And if God’s not your stripe, try ‘cosmos’ or ‘karma’ or ‘flying spaghetti monster’ or, following the sociologist Emile Durkheim, ‘society’ (Carls, P., 2020.) So when we squawk at impediments to our pleasure or expedience (such as not being able to meet up with friends to mourn the passing of a long-time friend, as was the case this past weekend in my town) we are more hedonist than realist.
Our happiness, or more properly in our culture, our freedom to go shopping and socializing, is problematic at the best of times. Memes of dejected faces facing mounds of unused toilet paper provide stark laughter to those of us, myself included, who were swaddled in washable cloth diapers. But seriously, and to return to a core belief, aren’t we hard-wired to require social contact? This is one of the more enduring criticisms of distance education, that we learn best when we chatter most. Perhaps the need for literal face time interactions is one of many threads in our existence, and one of inflated, egoistic, importance at that.
Why does social interaction seem like the tie that binds a meaningful life together? Ludwig Wittgenstein stated that: “the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres” (Wittgenstein, 32). That we are naturally social is one of many aspects of our humanity; we may also need to sit quietly and study or to listen to music in rapt entrancement, or to go spend time in our garden just gazing off into space. The primacy of social interaction may be an ideological presupposition (functioning like a suppository suppressing our more thoughtful selves) that is harboured, virus-like, by a world dominated by extroverts and wannabe power-posture types. All I know is that studying works best for me when there’s not a roomful of other people rambling non-sequiturs in my purview.
Socialization as Inherent Violence?
The answer to whether social contact is the basis of our humanity is, regrettably, both yes and no. Or, rather, the answer oughta be: ‘what’s your epistemic framework?’ You see, as chimps plus one (the one is that bit of extra essence that counts most for we naked bipeds: symbolic language and metaphoric meaning) the extra bit matters most in making us human. The 2017 documentary Jane poses the question as to whether Jane Goodall, admittedly-uneducated researcher of primate fame, was in great part popularized due to a metonymic slippage whereby her legs become the reference attracting a human audience to become interested in her topic: chimps. To use monkey business mindsets to attract attention to the plight of monkeys was no small success. Goodall happily addresses the symbolic power of her legs with laughter (Morgan B. 2017), but the fact remains: deeper motivations lie behind our connectivity with others and the social norms and values that purport to bond us within a common cultural milieu
In fact, while social contact may be an essential commonality of our being, it may in fact be only one strand among many that combines to make us human. Goodall found that violence, raw unmitigated rape and larceny, was as core to chimpanzee culture as benign and playful social contact. She even had to keep her toddler son inside a cage to maintain his safety from marauding monkeys. We’re all apes in a sense, maybe even at our deepest depths and for all time, and most importantly of all there’s not only violence in our nature: there’s also a continuum between violence and socialization.
Social distance may be the peace we never knew we could have, if only we would embrace it. Anyone in a brick and mortar setting faced with the taunts of a conformity-laced classroom or the sneers of a condescending, but creatively exhausted, old goat of a professor knows this well. So instead of lamenting our lost chance to see eyes adrift and attentions spans lost as we discuss the admittedly minor minutiae of our studies, let’s take this glorious isolation of our times in stride.
In these chill times, if we so take them to be cause for reflection and calm, let’s consider just how effective our isolated study selves have become. Our AU journey allows us to provide one of the things rarest in education, or life, or the real world, or the chimp-iverse of our society: a sense of focus and perspective based not on yammering or yapping with the social Other, but with our inner depths that grow with an intellectual fecundity that knows no bounds. In this sense AU truly embodies the best of all possible worlds.