Please Talk to Strangers: Social Interaction as Moral Obligation

file0001634469948It’s a danger I was cautioned against throughout my childhood. Considering the almost religious fervor with which it was spewed from the mouths of the adults I trusted – parents, teachers, and the like – one would be forgiven for thinking that every adult that isn’t a firefighter or police officer is itching to lure children into their van with the promise of candy and puppies. To be sure, these kind of tactics are effective and I am certainly not suggesting kidnappings don’t happen. But the perceived regularity with which kidnappings by strangers occur is almost completely fabricated. Consider the following information from this article posted on Discovery News:

Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions… [a] child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk.

Despite the evidence that kidnappings by strangers are exceedingly rare,  it would be difficult to find a moral panic more culturally ingrained than “Stranger Danger.” I remember as a young child being repeatedly told to avoid any adults who attempted to talk to me. My mother and I even maintained a “password” to be used when I was carpooling with a friend from school, to ensure that the person offering me a ride really was who they claimed to be. I don’t fault my mother for taking these kinds of precautions. Certainly, keeping your children safe is first priority as a parent, and the likelihood a grown adult would solicit the help of an eight year old boy to find their dog is slim at best. But looking back, these precautions do seem rather unnecessary. The paranoia they create, it seems, vastly outweighs any benefit they might bestow upon their practitioners.

Sensational media coverage of this sort is unrelenting. Headlines such as “CHAINSAWS IN TWIX BARS? KEEPING YOUR CHILD SAFE THIS HALLOWEEN” and “8 REASONS EXPO MARKERS ARE SLOWLY KILLING YOUR DAUGHTER” are absurdly common, taking advantage of the anxiety many parents face when raising their children. It can be frightening to send your child into the unknown, and this vulnerability is constantly exploited by today’s profit-hungry yellow journalism. This results in just what you’d expect: helicopter parenting, children spending all their time indoors, and parents encouraging isolating activities where they can ensure their children’s safety. Unfortunately, social isolation at a young age when children are especially impressionable may contribute to future discomfort in social relations.

This, coupled with the increasing prevalence of technology dictating social interaction, has made face-to-face communication stressful and foreign for even the most well-adjusted individuals. Even contractual situations which provide context for social interaction, such as ordering a pizza over the phone or purchasing groceries at the supermarket, are now making use of technologies which cut out the need for social interaction. While certainly on some level these changes are economic in origin – I have yet to see a union of self-checkout robots protesting in front of my local King Soopers, and they don’t ask for bathroom breaks – the voracity with which these and other technologies have been accepted by the general public speaks equally towards a shift in our social behaviors. I recently observed a friend fight for 15 minutes with Pizza Hut’s online order form because they deemed it easier to struggle with the interface than to interact with another human being; when I asked them why they didn’t just call, they intimated how stressful it would be. I must admit, I too am guilty of ordering online in this manner.

Technology has influenced more than just business transactions, however. Conducting small talk with strangers has equally fallen by the wayside in contemporary society. Why say hello to the stranger at the bus stop when all of your closest friends are just an instant message away? This attitude is all too common in today’s society. Particularly contributing to my acute awareness of this phenomenon is my recent acquaintance with public transit.

Perhaps it’s just a fault of my social anxiety, but there is one word that stands out to me against all others when describing the atmosphere on public transit: tense. Most people actively avoid any interaction with others, intentionally refusing eye contact lest they be forced to socialize with someone nearby, not to mention the physical barriers many of them erect with their backpacks and other belongings to ensure the seat next to them won’t be taken. When the bus is close to full, I try to be respectful to others’ space with the simple query “do you mind if I sit here?” with the typical response being a grunt and a shift in weight, if I get a response at all. Eye contact is rarely granted, and if it is, typically amounts to an irritated leer. Immediately one is made to feel their presence is unwelcome.

I am reminded of a question posed by Dr. Alfred Lanning in the movie I, Robot:

Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone?

The intention is to suggest that robots have human-like qualities akin to a soul by displaying their tendencies towards actions suggestive of social interaction. If the average city bus can be considered an analog to the storage crates in I, Robot, however, it would be difficult to call this tendency of robots human. On public transit it seems, space is much more likely to encourage repulsion than attraction.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that, according to this article from AARP, 43% of adults aged 45 through 49 are chronically lonely, and according to this article from the Rocky Mountain Collegian, 60% of students report feeling alone. The rapid increase in number of single-person households and large scale adoption of online social networking has greatly reduced the need for face-to-face interaction, contributing to feelings of loneliness and crippling our abilities in that area.


People are starving for social interaction. They crave it. In the words of Dale Carnegie, quoting William James: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” The American psychologist Abraham Maslow similarly recognized the importance of one’s social circle, placing it just below physiological needs and safety as one of the most basic needs of humans. The philosophy of Care Ethics, too, notably encouraged by Carol Gilligan in her paper Moral Orientation and Moral Development recognizes social interaction and interpersonal relationships as critical to human beings and our ethics.

It is with these and other considerations that I propose an Active Care Ethic. Like the standard care ethics described here, active care ethics intends to maintain relationships in a network of social relations, and ethical behavior is considered to be that which positively strengthens those social relations. As opposed to Nel Nodding’s view, Active Care does not argue for a limited scope of social obligation. Practically, however, due to its insistence upon face-to-face interaction, proximity is a limiting factor to the practice.

What distinguishes Active Care from other formulations of care ethics is its recognition that

(1) all persons are obligated to a position of care-giver for all those persons with whom they come into contact
(2) similarly, all persons are obligated to all other persons to make themselves open and vulnerable as care-receivers
(3) every situation in which social interaction is possible should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen social relations
(4) when at all possible, social relations should be conducted in person, rather than via social media or other such technologies

This view may feel uncomfortable to some, especially those in my own position as a socially anxious individual. It may seem to be asking too much to require one to take on the responsibility of care-giver to strangers. Similarly, the suggestion that we must always make an attempt to be social and vulnerable around strangers may arouse discomfort in many. Those who have been victims of emotionally abusive relationships may be especially aligned against this view, recognizing the dangers that may surface due to the vulnerability required of care-receivers. It will be a worthwhile exercise to consider and respond to these points of contention.

Paternalist Concerns

One major concern lobbied against care ethics is that those in a care-giving position are endowed with too much power in relation to the care-receiver. An extreme example of this would be the psychologist using their position to manipulate clients into having sexual relations with them. Other concerns with paternalism include the limiting of the care-receivers autonomy in what the care-giver perceives as the care-receiver’s best interest, and the destruction of the care-receiver’s identity on advice from the care-giver. These concerns would only be amplified by the active care ethic’s insistence that all people must be care-givers.

The possibility of paternalism, however, does not point to a deficiency of active care ethics but instead to an irresponsibility on the part of its practitioners. Care-givers must take care so as to not be paternalistic. They must avoid giving advice or encouraging certain actions. Instead, they must engage in practices such as active listening, suspense of judgment, and empathetic response.

The Kantian categorical imperative encouraged by Onora O’Neill may do well to help guide our actions as care-givers. While care ethics is often contrasted with Kantian theories, it may be of some use here. By taking others’ projects and ends as our own, we can support and understand others while ensuring not to step on their toes. This conception also allows space for us to temporarily discontinue social relations when others ask it of us, while still acting as a care-giver.

Oppression (Slave Morality)

In this rebuttal taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article referenced earlier, care ethics is objected to by virtue of its tendency to reaffirm subservient traits as values in oppressed peoples. A concern popularized by Frederick Nietzsche,

the charge… interprets the different voice of care as emerging from patriarchal traditions characterized by rigidly enforced sexual divisions of labor… women who predominantly perform the work of care often do so to their own economic and political disadvantage.

Essentially, the argument is that many care-receivers may become freeloaders in the sense that they receive care (particularly from subordinates) without reciprocating that care. This can be seen in the elite’s use of laborers to further their own ends without consideration for the ends of the laborers. It can also be seen in certain classes of abusive relationship in which a partner constantly plays victim in order to receive the care of the care-giver, with no intention of reciprocating such care.

While this is indeed true, it yet again does not pose a threat to the theory of active care ethics, only to its malpractice. Furthermore, this threat is not peculiar to care ethics. Those who “game the system,” so to speak, pose a threat to most moral systems; in a world where telling the truth is the final paradigm, the liar may indeed confer some benefit upon himself, and in a world where everyone acts towards the utility of the whole, one acting in his own interest may rise above the pack.

Safety Concerns

It seems that those who are most far removed from society tend to be more dangerous than those who actively participate in it. Though this may be yet again due largely to biased media coverage, it does seem that antisocial types are more likely to commit crimes and be mentally unstable. One need look no further than the archetype of the American mass shooter to see that instability is often a product of  disconnection. The argument, then, is that insisting we must be care-givers for criminals and other “undesirables” would be asking too much of us by putting us into harm’s way.

In so doing, however, it seems the rebuttal affirms one of the premises of care ethics, that is, disconnection and ostracization cause undesirable effects. It would seem, then, that in order to encourage long term safety, one should reach out to those who need it most. A touching anecdote providing evidence for this claim can be found here.


Concerning my progress strengthening my social presence, I met a man at the bus stop today. He heard me playing the piano at the South Transit Center and struck up conversation. I listened as he told me of his job teaching piano in the area, his girlfriend, and his taste in music. He recommended the Urban Flora EP by Alina Baraz and Galimatias, which I recommend highly.

It is interactions such as these that define us as human. When we reach out to others, find common ground, and take an active interest in their lives, we truly can put a dent in the loneliness they feel. It only takes a few seconds to brighten someone’s life, or make a lifelong friend. And it is for this reason that I feel obligated to break down the self-imposed barriers between myself and the rich world of social relations.

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5 thoughts on “Please Talk to Strangers: Social Interaction as Moral Obligation

  1. This is so dead-on.

    I’m a victim of this scare tactic. I turned out to be a social disaster and even at 21 I’m awful and anxious around people.

    To paraphase Dylan Kebold’s mother: I protected him from a lot of things, but not from himself.

    This is one reason depression (which leads to suicide) is so common. What’s the point of protecting our children from a rare danger if it just causes a more common one?

    I’m sick of this loneliness. I’m dying to talk to people. I came back to blogging and message boards with hopes of expanding my social circle a bit. If I didn’t have these I don’t know what I’d do. My friends can’t help me. They all turned out antisocial like me, only they’re not interested in improving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I’m sorry to hear you’re in a similar situation.

      I’m always unsure as to whether this is just becoming a social norm or if the people I associate with are more likely to be this way by virtue of my social anxiety attracting like minded folks.

      With the 60% number in mind it seems to be the former, though perhaps this is simply more epidemic at institutions of higher learning. I’d be interested to see a more far reaching study, perhaps I’ll search for one.

      Like

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve long believed that we also have an obligation to live purposeful and happy lives, because we set an example for others. We need to take responsibility for the place each of us has in this world, instead of just worrying about our little, individual lives. If we want significance, we can only find that in helping others! Service is the key! Thanks for this post and what you’re doing here on this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I’m reminded of the “deepest fear” monologue from Coach Carter. It speaks volumes to your point, and it’s one of my favorites. Lead by example, but don’t forget to be empathetic and take as many as you can along with you. I’m preaching to the choir though, I’m sure. 🙂

      Like

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