Monday, December 28, 2015

Creating Social Engagement

As the number of mass shootings continues to climb I, like everyone else, will put in my two cents about causes and possible solutions.

I do not believe the problem in the US is one of guns. It is a problem of culture and will not end until the culture changes. Luckily, culture is the sum of what each of us thinks, does, and says. That means we can change it by changing ourselves. This personally daunting task becomes easier as we see our friends and neighbors modeling the behavior. Each of us contains a multitude of selves and we just need to let the best of ourselves come out, repress the worst in ourselves, and reward the better actions of others.

In this post I won't be posting much in the way of references, but I believe that my argument is well supported by the evidence. I am looking at trends, not universals.

First, some words on "safe" and "comfortable". It is ingrained that these words belong together. In a recent survey on traffic in my city people were asked to prioritize the importance of a number of items. One of them was "Streets should be safe and comfortable". In fact, safety and comfort do not go together. If people feel too comfortable driving, they increase their speed which, off the highway, makes the street less safe. In the same way, we often feel most comfortable when we do not engage strangers, but we are social creatures and expanding our social circles makes us better people.

Violence against strangers tends to be perpetrated by people who are socially isolated. Social isolation is defined as a lack of contact with other people and it is deadly in a social animal like humans. The opposite of social isolation is social engagement. Increased social engagement makes us more capable in dealing with people in a variety of situations. It gives us greater control of our environment and makes us more aware of what is going on around us.

Here are some ways we can improve our culture and ourselves. Some are simpler than others. All require some effort, at least at the beginning.

You know that weird person you have noticed? The one that makes you a little uncomfortable? Next time you pass him/her, say hello. You need not converse, just acknowledge their existence as a fellow human being and move along. After a while you might make some small talk or even have a real discussion, but that is not a requirement. It is not likely, but eventually that person could turn into your best friend.

Join or start a group. Almost two hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations." Prove him right. Join a book club, a bowling league, a soccer team, a bicycle club ... It doesn't have to require much time. Book clubs generally meet about once a month and you don't even have to read every book.

When you converse, listen to the other person. In general, allow them to have the last word. Listening does not signify assent. When it comes right down to it, you probably disagree with everyone around you on one topic or another. That doesn't mean you have to shun them. However... if someone's views are truly vile, feel free to call them on it. Tell the racist "I'm sorry, I could not disagree more. I think your beliefs are without support and if you act on them I will work against you." Again, this is hard, but with practice you will get better at it. If someone seems like they might be dangerous, report them.

If someone asks you for help, provide it. There are, of course, requests and circumstances that make this unwise or infeasible, but make "yes" your default answer. You can take this a step further. If someone looks like they need help, offer it. A little harder is a change of attitude. Be more concerned that everyone who needs help gets it and less concerned that someone who is "undeserving" may be abusing the system.

Our built environment is often badly constructed for social interaction. Do not support this. In choosing a home we often look at the inside amenities. This is important, but don't forget the outside. Is there somewhere outside, facing the street, where you and a couple friends can sit down and watch the world go by. If not, is there a way to easily construct a sitting spot? If a home fails this simple test, don't buy or rent it. Inside, is there a room where you are likely to spend time that has windows on the street? If not, you will have no opportunity to get to know the daily life of your street. It is harder to integrate into a neighborhood if you never see your neighbors. On a nice evening, think about walking around the block. As you go around, say hello to folks. Ask them about their day. If you cannot do this comfortably or if no one is ever around to say hello, you have a bad neighborhood. Try to fix it or move.

Vote to make your community better even if it means increased taxes. If there is a ballot measure to build/improve schools, support it. More parks and improved public spaces, support it. Support it especially if it goes to other folks who have less than you. Send your support to the lowest income schools and neighborhoods. Make sure poor kids have good parks and athletic fields. Even better, make sure your community works to integrate people of all incomes and backgrounds into the same neighborhoods. If, as is common, your school board sets the boundaries of schools to keep rich and poor separate, confront the candidates and ask them to change. A unit of neighborhoods is the boundary for the local elementary school. If a school does not have a mix of incomes, bus the rich kids in. Better is to build more lower income housing throughout the town. This seems scary, but all the evidence shows it makes everyone better and safer.

Underlying all of this is an acknowledgement that we are all people. We differ in backgrounds and in how we think society should work. Communication and engagement teaches us about each other, how to get along, and how much we are alike. We exist in a biological ecosystem, but also in a social ecosystem. Make your ecosystems stronger by encouraging diversity and strong connections.