Media Action Network

A Media Focused Nonprofit For Social Change

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Writings on our projects, latest happenings, experiences as a new organization, insights into the media world, and issues that are facing our communities.

Lonely Citizens

Posted by on 8:18 PM in News | Comments Off

by Christopher J. Lebron

A few weeks ago, I took my 20 month old son on our usual morning stroller ride. As we closed in on the intersection where we usually make a right to walk along a portion of the Quinnipiac River, a young man – maybe 25 years old or so – walked in our direction. My son is at an age where other people interest him and he typically makes an effort to say ‘hi!’ or perform his version of an introductory greeting. The young man was staring into his iPhone as he walked while listening to music, thus he was unaware of the attempt my son made to form a social bond, however fleeting and insubstantial it might have been. This moment has remained with me since.

One of the incredible privileges of parenthood is to watch a human life develop from a being that simply needs sustenance, warmth, and the occasional soothing word into an increasingly active person with interests and social needs. One learns as a parent very early the importance of making eye contact with children, performatively acknowledging their attempts of varying sophistication to communicate with you. Doing these things well as a parent is fundamentally important as these basic gestures of human connection at home prepare children to appropriately display essential good social habits publicly in the future. I couldn’t help but reflect on the possible significance of the moment as he leaned out of his stroller watching the young man walk away, clearly confused as to what went wrong. By reaching out he had publicly performed a social habit we had privately begun to instill in him but without the positive reinforcement that is helpful in stabilizing that habit.

The likely reason I was primed to pay close attention to this moment is that I had recently taught Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in an advanced freshman seminar at Yale. On my reading of Origins, Arendt’s main goal is to provide a stark warning for democratic citizens who feel secure in their democratic life, believing it secure merely because it is a democracy. After all, how can we lose possession of something the possession of which we seem to reaffirm every year in the voting booth? One of the qualities of Arendt’s book that I find deeply affecting is that her warning is not couched in the parlance of modern social scientists who invariably worry about the frequency of Americans’ political participation by way of voting, and similar empirical questions. Rather, Arendt is deeply concerned about the shared habits of social and political life that make totalitarianism possible. On her view, totalitarianism is a form of political life that obliterates individuality by creating a dominating social bond that is subservient to the will of state, thus Arendt seeks to put us on guard for the symptoms that make a polity susceptible to the allure of that bond. What are those symptoms?

Arendt writes: “What we call isolation in the political sphere is called loneliness in the sphere of social intercourse”i and this is important because totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”ii Arendt’s concern, then, has in large part to do with the social conditions that are emblematic of loneliness. It is striking, then, that Arendt is not nearly as concerned by what many consider a companion idea: solitude. Arendt describes solitude as truly being alone as one might be hiking the Appalachian Trail without company. Loneliness of the kind signaled by Arendt is dangerous, then, on two counts. First, we are substantively disconnected from other citizens even when in their presence. Second, being in each other’s presence provides the illusion that we are in fact not lonely thus can do what we each want despite others’ presence.

So we are back to the young man who seemed unaware of my son. As he proceeded to walk past I could not help but wonder whether he might not in fact be one of the lonely among his fellow citizens who just happened to think that he was merely enjoying a moment of solitude. Being myself born into a generation comfortable with modern technology and an enthusiast of social media I further worried whether the radically public life some of us live on sites like Facebook and Twitter sometimes provide a similar illusion – especially given how frequently we stare into devices similar to this young man’s, often oblivious to those right next to us, ironically, in pursuit of a public life. If these fears are founded the illusion these modes of civic engagement provide may contribute to suppressing the cultivation and mutual positive reinforcing of the social habits necessary to keep our democracy healthy. That is not to say we are mere steps from totalitarianism ourselves, but in a time where we are continuously urged to unite in continuous opposition to various threats – some vague, some explicit – without being given full disclosure of the terms of that unity, the warning may nevertheless have a place in our civic considerations.

My final reason for reflecting on this moment has to do with my own habits. I typically position a pair of headphones over my ears during my walks with my son under the justification that my spiritual and intellectual demeanor as a philosopher give me prerogative to pursue solitude whenever I can. But it’s possible I am at times confused about the distinction between loneliness and solitude, and if so, despite my own active life in social media, I am at times lonely in the way which alarms Arendt. I can’t be sure, and don’t mean to claim, that the young man in my story or all people behaving as he did are in fact lonely, thus a threat to our democratic health. But it seems worth being alive to these questions, as I have tried to be in this piece – thus invite you to be – in order to continue to cultivate, employ, and improve the habits necessary for a healthy democracy.

i Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt: New York, 1966), p. 474.

ii Ibid. p. 475.

Chris Lebron is a political philosopher and social theorist. He is currently a Research Fellow at Yale and is the author of “The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time”.

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We are MAN…hear us roar!

Posted by on 10:30 PM in News | Comments Off

Our world is not a perfect world. Nor do we expect it to be. Human mistakes, mind-changing discoveries and altering realizations always occur and help to build on the foundation of information that humans have been building since Day 1.

Through this process our communities have flourished into a rich mosaic of identities, groups and histories. The world of today is so dynamic- it is impossible to understand all of the various concepts and issues inherent in maintaining a diverse community.

With everything that the human race has discovered, achieved, conquered and developed, we have so much to be proud of and amazed by. However, along the way have decided that we are more important than elements of our natural world and some have even decided that they are more important than other members of our own species. This is unfortunate.

It’s time for us to recognize our shortcomings and to alleviate them. We want to begin this process with knowledge. Creating awareness of the issues facing us and other humans in the local and global communities is the primary way to generate action. And we are looking to do this through media. As the main source for information gathering in the modern world, the variety of media outlets – the Internet leading the current charge – is the go-to for people seeking to learn about any number of topics.

Media is on the street corners, in our homes, and in our pockets. We are a media saturated society. Why not take action through the media? The media transmits social codes, cultures, information and shapes opinions nearly all of our waking hours. That type of access holds a great power that we are attempting to reign in and foster for the betterment of our community and the equality of all peoples.

So, please, join us as we utilize the media as the great tool it is – power and advocacy. We are MAN and we believe that knowledge is the catalyst and access to information can spark social change.

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