As we have been reviewing the past, truly extraordinary year in an increasingly bifurcated world, the size of the juggernaut coming down on us has been throwing up some deeply interesting insights usually lost in breathless news cycles that are, perhaps, one of mankind’s biggest problems.
News in its 21st century technology form is pretty bad for the human psyche. Like those living too close to a busy train line, we have got used to Cold War missiles raining down on civilians in Ukraine getting mixed up with a brochure inviting you to embark on a cruise down the Danube in the rarified air of privilege and calm previously enjoyed only by crowned heads of state. And that’s just with your breakfast muesli.
Before dinner, you can see a would-be political leader in your own country trashing the poor and proposing tax cuts for the richest, eagerly surrounded by acolytes. Or the seat of government besieged by an encamped protest march liberally infiltrated by Trumpish white supremacist grievance mongers.
Nine months on, in an uneasy climate of hate speech and tub thumping, even lost airline luggage or a malfunctioning street camera can now (apparently credibly) be blamed on the prime minister.
As New Zealand Herald commentator Simon Wilson said, small but very angry screaming groups disrupted many political events during the year and now “it’s feared too many people want the democratic processes to fail and will target this year’s election.”
While yes, we can work to dial back the worst of the hate campaigning in media and elsewhere, its very existence and the creditability it is given is a challenge to how we see ourselves in real life.
“If I told you that not being involved in a community group could be as bad for your health as becoming a smoker, you might think me deranged. But it’s true,” says Max Rashbrooke, author of Government for the Public Good: The surprising science of large scale collective action in a pre-Christmas valedictory for the year.
We are social animals and our well-being relies heavily on positive, repeated contact with others. Community connections furnish emotional and financial support in tough times. Dwindling group membership thus spells bad news for people’s health, he says.
“Such facts seem relevant now, at the end of a strange year, as an increasingly divided New Zealand contemplates its frayed social fabric. February’s occupation of Parliament grounds has left a lingering disquiet and a sense that some people are splintering off from the rest of society – and indeed from the real world.
“Stronger communities could salve many of these wounds. Ironically, given the traditional distrust of the “mob mentality”, it is those with powerful community ties who are least likely to be picked off by dangerous, anti-democratic demagogues. Local bonds, whether tight or loose, can also fill in the gaps left by loneliness and help individuals find common ground.
“Most people, I think, thirst for a life that is rich in connections with others,” he says. “By and large, they want to put down roots, know their neighbours, take part in community sports and festivals, and feel the growth of a dense web of bonds, ties and relations that can hold them in the warmth of others’ regard. These connections can be both a source of joy and a reservoir of strength.”
Living on Waiheke where the community is still exceptionally strong (at least so far) we are always face-to-face with each other in a myriad of networks in our daily lives – arts, business, sports, housing, waste minimisation and environmental protection initiatives, public policy experts, engaged school communities and a hundred caring organisations including a budgeting service and myriad health initiatives.
We put down roots and fight – and sometimes win – local battles with council and government when their centralising policies and decrees don’t fit.
Luckily, there is a new school of thought coming through that says we instinctively form communities anywhere and everywhere and it doesn’t need such privileges as our own enviable parade of pearly sunsets and magnificent landforms.
On a visit with a friend to Melbourne, we booked an Airbnb apartment in a new high-rise beside the Yarra. It had a huge pool, a roof garden, a cinema and lending library and the friendliest lifts I’ve ever encountered with elegant residents happy to welcome and help us as temporary neighbours. We put it down to the generous communal spaces.
Our inate attraction to community and each other’s liking and approval got us a lot further as a civilisation than any market-based, hyper-individualised worldview has and ‘reality’ can apply to either proposition. • Liz Waters