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Isolation bad for democracy

We've heard a lot recently about a Vancouver Foundation study on social isolation released this summer.

We've heard a lot recently about a Vancouver Foundation study on social isolation released this summer. The researchers found that things are more than a little lonely here on the West Coast, with one in four of the nearly 4,000 people surveyed saying that they had difficulty making friends and one in three describing themselves as lonely. Two thirds of Vancouverites, the study suggests, have no friends of different ethnicity than their own, and 70 per cent said they had never had a neighbour over to visit their home. In late September, the foundation partnered with Simon Fraser University to sponsor a week-long array of events called a "Community Summit" to explore issues of social isolation.

To some extent, none of this is a surprise. Vancouver has long been the place that people from across Canada and around the world made their destination when they wanted to start life over. A city of restless, uprooted newcomers can be a lonely place.

A modern economy that forces many of us to move away from home and to shift cities or neighbourhoods numerous times over a lifetime of fragmented work and shifting residences can make forging strong communities far less likely than it was in earlier generations. It's more than a little ironic in the age of Facebook friends by the thousand that so many of us don't feel we have the friendships and connections we yearn for in real life.

Why do these findings matter? The loneliness that the study documents is painful in itself, and it also represents a threat to democracy, which works best when citizens know each other and feel inter-connected. Otherwise, loneliness and social isolation can help persuade us that we should withdraw from democratic engagement altogether while working to build up a large cyber mob of Facebook "friends" and Twitter followers.

It's entirely possible now to spend an entire day gazing into one screen or another, tweeting and texting, listening to music with ear buds but never speaking to anyone face to face. One of the common, chilling visuals of our era is the couple out on a date, sitting across from each other in a restaurant, each hunched over a smartphone and texting ferociously without a glance at their dinner companion.

While it might be unfair to say that the computer and its world of virtual connections are the main culprits in modern isolation and anomie, it would be senseless to ignore the role that the new technologies play in enhancing our isolation. All the talk about "connectivity" in the cyber world may be yet another bitter joke we play on ourselves with technology that does far more than we expect it to do, and far less.

So, are there ways for us to defeat the apparent epidemic of social isolation? First of all, we might each be a little less shy about smiling at people on the street and saying hello, knowing how many of our fellow citizens are living lives of quiet loneliness and desperation. It can't hurt to risk a conversation on the street or in the coffee shop, and it might work to relieve someone's loneliness-even your own.

Second, we need to take out the ear buds, turn off the smartphone and pay attention to the real world, especially by finding or forming civil society groups like trade union locals, parent advisory councils, churches, service clubs, environmental action groups and the like. Nothing beats loneliness like the experience of shared values and activities with a small, face to face group

Third, we could all make a point of inviting a neighbour over for coffee or tea, chai or juice and a talk about life on the block. Knowing that so many of our neighbours are lonely and have difficulty making friends should make the outreach feel less risky. And it would be a good idea to extend those invitations to some neighbours who belong to different ethnic groups than we do.

While events such as the SFU/Vancouver Foundation partnership last month are to be celebrated, and can make a contribution to dealing with the problems of social isolation, the real and abiding solutions are at our command. We all need to spend more time making and building friendships face to face. As social beings we need each other, and as citizens of an aspiring democracy we need the civil society linkages with each other that make democracy more possible.

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(Allen Garr is on vacation.)