On July 8th Archway hosted a panel discussion at Oxford Town Hall, featuring philosopher Julian Baggini and historian Fay Bound Alberti. These influential writers came together to discuss perceptions of loneliness, past and present. They asked how our view of loneliness has changed over the last century, and why it has become such a pressing issue in the modern world.
With almost 150 people in attendance, the level of public interest in this issue was undeniable. Alberti kicked off the evening by pointing out that loneliness, as we currently perceive it, did not exist before the nineteenth century. For her, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon created by the rise of capitalism and the breakup of communities. Therefore, she argued, it should not be understood as a personal problem, but as a societal one which we have a shared responsibility to combat. She drew on recent research which suggests that loneliness can be alleviated by focusing on the body as well as the mind. Activities like cooking, massage, painting and object handling have been shown to improve loneliness in people of all ages. As such, Alberti claimed that viewing loneliness as a mental health problem ignores this physical dimension.
Baggini spoke next, posing an interesting question about the stigmatisation of loneliness: if contemporary society is constantly telling us to be individualistic, self-reliant and self-interested, then why does it portray solitude as a terrible affliction? Everyone is supposed to be ‘out for themselves’, yet being alone is somehow seen as shameful or embarrassing. Baggini went on to highlight the difference between loneliness and social isolation: the former is an unwanted and distressing type of solitude, while the latter can be perfectly normal and benign. By confusing the two, he said, we are in danger of telling people who enjoying being on their own that there is something wrong with them. Baggini concluded his talk by warning against the medicalisation of loneliness. We are often tempted, he said, to ‘diagnose’ loneliness and find a ‘cure’, but perhaps this clinical language is not suited to such problems, and we must develop a different, more creative way of speaking about them.
After the speakers gave their presentations, Archway patron Lindsay Mackie chaired a lively audience discussion where many other issues – such as the impact of social media and the role of community organisations – were raised. In the end, Archway staff were able to speak to many members of the public about our work, but we were also able to mutually reflect upon the nature of loneliness, and appreciate its complexity as a social, physical, political and psychological problem.
You can follow the speakers and chair of this event, on Twitter: