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What Awful Reality TV and Suburban Living Have to Do With the Tea Party's Lack of Empathy

The Tea Parties are partly a product of the suburbs, where social isolation leaves communication about social mores to reality TV. Is it any wonder the movement lacks empathy?

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What public spaces do exist in suburbs tend to be less welcoming and intimate than the local businesses and more neighborhood-y areas of small towns and big, dense cities. Suburbs are the natural home of big box stores and chain stores, places you may go on occasion or even frequently to get out of the house, but not places conducive to creating tightly knit communities. Megachurches that litter suburbs struggle to create the community of smaller churches of old. If you live in a small town or a city full of activities for meeting people with whom you have interests in common, you’re not only that much more likely to get out of the house to make new friends and visit with the ones you already have, but the friends you do have are more likely to know each other, creating a web of connection. In the suburbs, people have less reason to get out, and the friends they do have are much less likely to know each other, creating more isolation and loneliness.  

Don't take my word for it. A study at the University of California, Davis  found that suburbanites were less happy  with their neighborhoods than urbanites. The reason was that the cities provided more stimulation and interaction with other people, providing a sense of excitement and connection. The interactivity of the city was replaced in the suburbs with a culture that encourages staying at home to watch TV and building tall fences to minimize interaction with others. The result for suburbanites is isolation and difficulty making new friends.  

The isolating aspects of suburbia are ironically part of their draw, because people see this isolation and feel it provides privacy. But there’s good reason to believe that all this isolation destroys people’s ability to look at their fellow citizens and feel empathy, not only because they simply know fewer people they can relate to, but also because they have fewer occasions to gossip.

Gossip, i.e. the practice of people talking about others they know in common, has a bad reputation as being nothing but back-biting chatter, but  sociologists see it in a much different light.  In fact, gossip has two very important functions, building relationships and communicating social values. Gossip can be the passing along of negative information, sure, but it also is used to pass along positive information (who had a baby, who got a job), and to communicate value-neutral information that just happens to be interesting (who’s dating who). When you gossip, you not only bond with the person you’re gossiping with, but you are both solidifying your sense that the person you’re gossiping about is a part of your community. After all, they matter enough to be talked about.   

Gossip is often used to shame and to judge, but it also keeps people interested in other people and can help build empathy. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify to its power to make you feel connected, even to people you aren’t otherwise close to. When we would congregate in the beauty salon in the afternoons and hear all the local gossip, we walked away feeling closer to the people that had been discussed, even the ones who were being judged. By hearing stories about hook-ups and divorces, teen pregnancy and romantic rivalries, we got to practice imagining what it’s like to be these other people. And because they were people we knew and had to deal with on a regular basis, we worked those empathy muscles harder. Yes, there was lots of scolding and lots of judging, but there was also lots of sympathizing and coming up with ideas to help people out of tight spots.  

 
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