I moved house last week. Thankfully, the only thing I’ve broken so far is a bottle of wine. I dropped it on in the shared stone stairwell of the Somerstown flat I’ve moved into with a friend. We didn’t yet have a dustpan or brush, so I knocked on a door and was greeted by Joyce. She’s in her 70’s and I don’t think she gets out much. I hope we can be friends, but please don’t say anything; I’m trying to play it cool.
One of the challenges today is loneliness. Research shows that being lonely is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation is indeed a public health issue, but more than that, it’s a crisis of civil society.
Membership in civil institutions, like faith groups and unions, is facing terminal decline. Technology, particularly social media, isn’t helping. Algorithms are trapping us in our bubbles, atomising our communities and commodifying our relationships. Politics may be the negotiation of difference without violence, but it gets harder when we lose the ‘civic literacy’ we need to negotiate these differences.
My question is simple. Can rituals help us build community? Can simple inclusive community rituals, like cooking and eating together, reduce isolation and help us learn how to live together?
I think they can, and it’s partly because they teach us how to relate well to people are different from us. They teach us a kind of ‘civic literacy’.
I grew up in church communities where people did stuff together. It was sometimes odd, but the simple repetition created a context for depth. When my dad joined the army as a chaplain, my brother and I got scholarships to boarding school. I was 8 years old. It wasn’t easy. I was so dyslexic that I could barely read. I was good at fighting, and lego. Mostly lego.
We used to love the Asterix cartoons. My brother would read them to me while I followed the pictures. Sometimes he would forget to read aloud and just start laughing. A swift pillow to the head usually jogged his memory.
These are some of my favourite memories of the place I was born, but they also remind me how technology has transformed my life. I grew up loving words yet unable to read them, then a couple of years ago I discovered that my phone has a clever setting that lets it ‘read’ text aloud to me. I also have ADHD, so reading is hard, and my mind is often a very busy place. When I listen to words at triple speed, my mind is focussed, relaxed, even peaceful. I understand the words and remember them. I’m not completely sure how, and it’s slightly embarrassing when people overhear it because it sounds like rapper Rebel XD doing a Stephen Hawking impression, or stranger still, Stephen Hawking trying to rap. Either way, to me it’s literally life-changing. It’s like a Swedish massage in my prefrontal cortex. Blissful. Silent. A sanctuary of staccato syllables.
So what’s my point? Well, thankfully, not everyone needs or wants audio books on acid, but apps like Headspace are helping thousands of us to pause and meditate, and services like Memrise are helping us learn a new skill or language, and tools like google translate may one day even take away that need. Technology is transforming literacy itself, so could it also transform civic literacy? I certainly hope so.
Technology may currently part of the problem, but I don’t think it is the enemy. In the same way that I think power is neither good nor bad, it’s just the ability to act, similarly, technology is neither good nor bad, but it can amplify the speed and scale of our actions. Technology can amplify power, but many people don’t have much power to amplify. Last year Mark Zuckerberg, said Facebook, exists “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” We all change, I certainly have, but it didn’t start out that way, and I don’t yet see much evidence that for it.
If we genuinely want to build community and bring the world closer together, then I think we need to reimagine civil society, and that in turn means we need new models of membership. I honestly believe that people want to build resilience, solidarity, and the power to seek their common good, but I don’t think Facebook is the answer. That’s hardly a controversial statement, but part of the problem is that their model pretends to be free, rather than asking members to contribute to the costs of running the service.
I grew up in churches. They were an important part of my life for many years. Although I’ve not really been part of a church for years now, I still meet up for a meal every few months with a small group of faithful friends. In fact, they’re coming round on Monday, so I need to get cracking with the unpacking! They are part of the ‘small group’ I used to lead every week at a church. It wasn’t clever, or complicated, but it was powerful in its simple intimacy. We used to eat together, then sitting on chairs and sofas, we would say how our week had been, sharing the ups and downs. It was a timeless yet ancient ritual of common life. Our simple acts of eating, sharing, singing and praying, were the glue that bound us together. I miss the singing, and sometimes even the praying, but above all, I miss the sense that I belonged somewhere, that people knew the little details of my life, cared about my hopes, sat silently with my sadness and celebrated my joy. I don’t get that stuff on Facebook.
At their best, civic rituals can bind people together and create the intimacy and belonging that is core to human flourishing. When we lack a sense of belonging we are also more vulnerable to destructive ideologies. Sometimes they are religious, but more often they are not. Civic rituals used to teach us how to live together, how to listen, how to welcome strangers or just the strange ones among us. These patient moments are the stuff of civic literacy.
Local Welcome is a ritual that helps people connect by cooking and eating together. It also helps my civic literacy. Here’s how it works. A ‘leader’ invites 3 friends to come along to a community hall and sit in 3 pairs around a table. Let’s call them ‘members’. We also invite 3 refugees or people seeking sanctuary. Let’s call them ‘guests’. Members and guests sit around a table in pairs, then the leader reads out 7 simple recipe steps for the pairs to follow together. While they cook each step, they both answer a simple question, like ‘What is your favourite memory of the place you were born?’. Mine is lego.
We hosted a Local Welcome meal at our office in South London last week. I sat and cooked with an elderly West Indian woman. She shared some personal stories so I’ll change her name. Let’s call her Nancy. My grandmother’s name was Nancy but we called her Dandan. I miss her.
My new friend Nancy and I had never met before but we shared a beautiful hour together. Its intimate banality felt precious, almost sacred. In a lonely city, for that hour, I felt like I belonged. Nancy and I have lived very different lives. We have very different histories. I’m a middle class straight white man. My grandparents owned land and their great-grandparents owned slaves. Nancy’s ancestors were slaves. Very different. Violently different.
Nancy and I peeled potatoes and told each other our memories of the places we were born. She was born in Barbados. She remembers the sun and the fish. She still washes fish with lemon juice. The proper way, she enunciates, over her black-rimmed glasses. Her daughter died last year. She was found in the water. Nancy is coping, but she’s fragile. I told her about Liverpool and my memories. I told her about lego. We didn’t talk about the sea.
Technology often atomises our communities and commodifies our relationships, but it doesn’t have to. Before today, Windrush was an abstract idea to me. A distant headline. At that meal, the news came alive for me in the form of Nancy. I think technology can help us make it easier for people like me, and people like Nancy, to connect and share the best of themselves; the best of our stories. Our whole authentic selves, not our curated Facebook fantasies.
Today the future is being written as much in code as in law. If technology amplifies power, then we should build it with care. A lot more care than we currently do. Ethics is important, but it’s not enough. Civil society is creaking at the seams like a boat on stormy seas. We need new infrastructure for solidarity and membership, and it needs to be written in code. To do that we need to learn from the wisdom of the founding fathers, and not repeat the arrogance of the slave traders. We might fail, but Nancy needs us to try, so do you, and so do I.