From time to time we take the opportunity to highlight a collection of pieces that follow up on topics we’ve covered in previous briefings. This week we revisit three topics of recurring interest: what is increasingly being termed an epidemic in loneliness; the place of guns within the American public imagination; and shifting norms of speech and behavior on college campuses.
Writing for the Health section of the New York Times, Katie Hafner has recently chronicled relevant research on the loneliness epidemic facing our society (a topic we took up in Vol. 22). With particular interest in the health effects of chronic loneliness and efforts to alleviate it, Hafner cites numerous studies showing that social isolation drives a series of negative health outcomes. More to the point, however, the upshot of seeing loneliness as a medical problem, rather than merely a sociological or psychological one, allows us to bring what Hafner calls the “unspoken stigma of loneliness” to light. Without resorting to the language of cause or blame, we can acknowledge the growing consensus among public health professionals that our estrangement from one another (particularly among the aged) is of medical concern.
In Vol. 16, we presented Marilynne Robinson’s wide-ranging essay “Fear.” That essay, in part, drew our attention to the connection between America’s high rates of gun ownership and the basic degree of suspicion that marks our neighborly relations. This week, brief accounts of a forthcoming Harvard/Northeastern public health study on gun ownership in America validate her suggestion that gun ownership is tied to unchecked fear. The study shows that while the raw number of guns in America has risen by roughly 70 million since 1994, the percentage of the American citizenry that owns guns has dropped. And while these 70 million new guns represent a 38% increase, the percentage that are handguns (commonly used for self-defense, as opposed to rifles or shotguns), has increased by 71%. The result of these trends is the emergence of gun “super owners”—heavily armed to ward off perceived threats, even though rates of violent crime have been on a steady decline and, in fact, roughly two-thirds of gun deaths in America are self-inflicted.
Finally, as longtime readers will know, we hold a standing interest in shifting speech norms on college campuses (see Vol. 49 and Vol. 2, in particular). This week, Conor Friedersdorf published a follow-up to his previous work on student protests at Yale. In “A College is a Community but Cannot Be a Home,” Friedersdorf situates the ongoing debates about “safe spaces” and free academic exchange within the context of shifting student expectations about campus life. One of the central objectives of campus life, as Friedersdorf sees it, is learning to live away from home—that is, in close proximity with those whose life experiences and basic orientations towards the world may well be different than yours—even radically so. As he puts it:
What feels like a “safe space” to one person can feel stifling or even “unsafe” to another. A sex-positive feminist may want to decorate her dorm door with a poster from a provocative art exhibition. An evangelical Christian across the hall might not feel “at home” seeing graphic images each morning upon leaving her dorm room. Yet forbid the feminist artist from decorating her door as she sees fit and she will find the space she inhabits seems less like home. The whole standard is untenable.
Understanding college campuses as quasi-public spaces does not license cruelty or hate speech. It does, however, recognize that however fondly students feel toward their campuses, a significant part of the college experience is recognizing the degree to which universities cannot, strictly speaking, belong to any individual or group. Dorm rooms are occupied for a time and then repopulated with next year’s freshmen, and this is to the benefit of the whole.
As always, we are happy to hear your questions, comments, kudos, and suggestions for future briefings. To get in touch, email Philip at email@example.com.