Have we grown into a society detached from society itself?
The historian FL Thompson (1925- present) once noted that whereas the advent of home appliances had reduced the instance of doing “one’s dirty work in public…” the diminished social contact would have its effects
They come in all shapes and sizes, this motley lot. Some pesky, others cooperative. Though strangers if not for physical proximity, neighbours have always, for better or worse, added a new dimension to societies. They have nurtured a nuanced appreciation of the social principles of cooperation, family hierarchy and equity, as well as an understanding of social blight in case of a lack of these values. This understanding of social cohesion and its rules has paved way for stronger families (with the joint-family system at the core), leading to success for the individual as well as the community. Until now. Over the previous three decades, neighbourliness has reached a new nadir in Pakistan, with its effects being quite multi-faceted.
Take a simple situation: repeated domestic strife in a particular household forces the neighbours to take action. In the heydays of neighbourliness, this would’ve brought the elderly and respected to the forefront to resolve the issue amicably. However, just a few months ago I witnessed the effects of social dissonance in my own locality, when the immediate neighbours did intervene, but instead of promoting reconciliation, reported the matter to the higher authorities and had the house cleared until the issue was ‘resolved from within’. Besides spawning distrust and distress, both for the community and the family in question, this despicable response portrayed a growing social inclination: disdain. This may have been a localised act, but the general trends show that we have grown into a society detached from society itself. Narratives such as civil liberties, equity and privacy are the cornerstones of our individualized ideology, whereas the community-centered approach of old has taken a backseat.
The historian FL Thompson (1925- present) once noted that whereas the advent of home appliances had reduced the instance of doing “one’s dirty work in public…” the diminished social contact would have its effects. At the time, only a measure of foresight could be applied to adjudge these effects. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can conclude that reduced contact has reduced social concern and community spirit, weakened local politics, compromised on local and (in cumulative terms) national security, etc. The changes that have been effected over the garden fences are resonating in our national attitude.
Why is the neighbourhood declining in the first place? The reasons are manifold. Some of these are unavoidable, and even indispensable to individuals and the community:
- The advent of technology has diminished interdependence considerably. Our homes have welcomed an increasing number of appliances and gadgets, so more is done indoors, reducing interaction.
- Travel is more efficient and cheaper, encouraging more productive relations that may be at a distance. Neighbours are increasingly seen as an extraneous and worthless pile of contacts in the already burgeoning contact list.
- A general outcry for civil liberties has encouraged a sense of privacy, with individuals taking ill of the regular sweep-ins of a neighbour that were so common a generation ago.
- Women were the most active part of a community. However, a rising proportion is taking up higher education and employment. It must be emphasised here that empowerment through employment is a must for all, but the connection between increasing female employment and dwindling neighbourhoods is a fact.
- The ambiance, reeking of suspicion and caution, left in the wake of terrorism and rising crime levels has further cut down (and even made unfeasible in some cases)upon quality community time.
- Despite having evolved considerably over the decades, our system of education has yet to introduce community work as an informal part of the curriculum. This further alienates education and society, as both are portrayed as antipodal, as opposed to the ideal that education serves the community and country. Students are urged to be more academically oriented, which is further promoted by the lack of a holistic admissions approach in Pakistan. Thus students are increasingly content without any community contribution.
- The growing trend for an overseas education and lifestyle has, besides instigating a horrid brain-drain, dealt a death blow to the neighbourhood in some cases. Domestic migration (for employment, education, settlement, etc) has not helped the case either.
- The reduced incidence of combined families, with relatives either living under the same roof or abreast, has not only had a deleterious effect on social cohesion, but it has made it seem unnecessary all together.
A more compact social structure can be the first line in the fight against crime, terrorism and other human rights violations. We are repeatedly urged to stay alert regarding the arrival and activities of individuals in the community. Such an action would be extraneous in a strongly bonded neighbourhood. The communal restraint due to the prevalent law and order situation can thus be cast away. Likewise, community-based action and supervision can supplement the law enforcement in rooting out crime. The lack of responsible local government to handle local issues is easily avoided by a community aware of any misgivings on part of the government, which is only possible when people mutually discuss such issues.
While it may be debated that friction within a community begets distress and dissonance, this also leads to more mature societies that understand the balance of rights and obligations
While it may be debated that friction within a community begets distress and dissonance, this also leads to more mature societies that understand the balance of rights and obligations. Gossip, trivia, and even plotting are some of the cons of the common neighbourhood, but this over time leads to a cautious approach upon handling communal matters, a much desired (if not crucial to existence altogether) trait in life.
While increasing use of home appliances, improved travel options and increasing female employment are utterly inexorable factors, other determinants can be taken care of with voluntary actions and reforms. Following the guidelines of the authorities, denizens must ensure complete knowledge of the background of their neighours, doing away with the conservative approach to social interactions once all fears have been rested. Regularly moving about the community can also help. Developing a routine customised to include a modicum of time for those around you will contribute as well, with benefits intangible, but aplenty. Efforts are needed at the state level to include community work as an informal, but crucial, part of the curricula. Promoting a holistic admissions approach, based on academics, co-curricular activities, personality, additional skills, etc, should also do the trick. Only through cooperation and concerted action can neighbourhoods, districts and (eventually) countries be improved.