The following is an excerpt from the author’s new book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Terror of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer.” (Bombardier Books, Post Hill Press.)
Boy, girl, young man, young woman; gay, straight, trans, gender fluid (or “genderqueer” or “genderf–k” and hundreds more on the so-called gender spectrum); black, white, “white adjacent”; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, “none”; rich, poor; victim, privileged, oppressor. Youth must navigate all of this and too much more. They have been politicized and intersectionalized practically unto death.
Young people have always had to work out a sense of identity. If their minds are not molested with identity politics, it’s a natural development known in the field of psychology as “individuation.” That’s the process by which a person develops his sense of unique self and integrates it with the wider world. But politicized schools, the call of social media, and popular culture disrupt that process by driving hard the propaganda of identity politics and enforcing it through political correctness.
It adds up to a mass identity crisis. Youth have to deal with multiple, competing narratives, some that are inconsistent even within themselves, fed to them by the education establishment and by propagandists. In the midst of this chaos, they strive to manufacture a solid sense of self. Not surprisingly, many flounder. They take on assigned personas and act out what they think they are “supposed to be”—perhaps a social justice warrior, an antiracist, “gender nonconforming,” or a privileged ally of the oppressed who dutifully apologizes for their “whiteness” or for being male.
These pathologies among the young are tragic but entirely predictable. Youth are susceptible to being packaged and defined by both peers and authority figures. Without a distinct sense of reality, they are vulnerable and reliant on others for social direction and protection.
Very young children must navigate a frightening line between make-believe and reality, between the world of night terrors and what goes on around them while awake. The renowned child psychiatrist Jean Piaget emphasized the importance of respecting the different developmental stages that children go through so that they can make sense of the world and later function in it as adults.
The late Fred Rogers often talked and sang to his young audience about the difference between real life and the “land of make-believe” in his long-running show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on public television. If children don’t get that clarity while young, they are more susceptible to future dysfunction and despair.
At the same time that youth must anchor themselves in reality, the conformity impulse is usually stronger in them than in the general population. Separation anxiety is especially pronounced in them, and the urge to conform leaves them even more vulnerable to those who want to define them. When “everybody else is doing it,” many feel as though a tractor beam is pulling them into the trend. Ostracism is a terrifying prospect, so they tend to do and say whatever they think is necessary to be socially accepted.
There is a delicate balance between basic instruction in reality, the tensions of connecting, and the fear of isolation on the one hand, and individuation on the other. This balance is key to developing a sense of self. And it is best mediated by the fundamental institutions of society—family, religion, and community.
The Fallout of Family Breakdown
Children and teens need the structure of family, home, friends, community, and faith if they are to develop properly. Within that structure, they can also learn to appreciate four particular conditions that allow for healthy development: virtue, cultural memory, privacy, and imagination. All of these are foundations necessary to forge strong relationships. Yet increasingly, over the past several decades, they have had such solid foundations pulled out from under them.
Family breakdown is especially destabilizing for youth. We looked at this briefly when noting that the mothers of 72 percent of black children are not married to their fathers. In the white demographic, the number is 28 percent and growing. This situation destabilizes all youth across all racial demographics. Pointing it out has been politically incorrect for years. Yet we have no choice but to examine children’s environments if we hope to address their anxieties.
According to cultural scholar Mary Eberstadt, the effects of the breakdown of the organic family—through divorce, desertion, and dysfunction—are akin to the effects of a disturbed ecosystem on creatures who depend on that ecosystem to survive. In a compelling analogy, she describes how human beings, like most other mammals, learn the skills for survival and building relationships through kinship structures, through ties of blood and genes. If you deprive the animal of that natural structure—through imposed isolation or captivity—you end up with a dysfunctional creature who behaves very differently than in the natural habitat.
Eberstadt argues that the sexual revolution shook up the natural ecosystem of the human family structure in a very short time. It was undertaken in the name of freedom, but its fallout was vast. Damages included the confusion of virtually unconstrained sexual activity, a culture of divorce, hooking up at younger ages, completely unrestricted abortion that has moved swiftly toward legalized infanticide, and the social contagion of transgenderism.
Such trends have led to a massive crisis of family cohesion, or, as Eberstadt puts it, a “great scattering.” They have resulted in a loss of traditional kinship structures, a loss that can lead to a sense of psychic isolation. Children of divorced parents often must shuttle back and forth from one parent to the other and adjust to stepparents and stepsiblings entering the picture. Too often, they have to walk on eggshells and deal with resentments between parents that brew under the surface. They lose the sense of cohesion that comes through an intact, functioning family. The natural process of individuation—or self-discovery—is harder in a world that is so scattered.
Eberstadt also notes that this instability also leads to a sense of fragility—for example, being easily “triggered” by hearing different points of view. Youth cannot help but flail about if they haven’t been able to develop a sense of unique identity. If they feel the loss of family cohesion, they are going to strive to fill that hole by obsessing on almost anything, including cultic religions, street theater, radical chic causes such as environmentalism, identity politics, or veganism. They’ll congregate to feel part of a group—or mob. [. . .]
Schools as Self-Appointed Surrogate Parents
As families crumble, public schools come to play a more prominent role in socializing children. In many ways, they aggressively compete with intact families for influence over the values, beliefs, and relationships of the children in their charge.
In the 2010s, the majority of children had not had the benefit of cohesive family structures in which they could work out their sense of identity before they were immersed in school environments. That provided public schools with the opportunity to take over parental functions through a highly politicized curriculum called social and emotional learning (SEL). The SEL program teaches children how they must feel, what they must believe, and how they must interact—or not interact—with others.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) acts as a clearinghouse for information on the SEL curriculum. It has partnered with various special interests that are not friendly to traditional families and beliefs, such as the Arcus Foundation which promotes gender ideology.
CASEL’s one-size-fits-all SEL curriculum generally embraces left-wing agendas that are hostile to traditional beliefs and traditional education. Of necessity, the SEL curriculum must be implemented in the bureaucratic style of mass education and not in a parental style of individual attention and love. And yet, as with all effective propaganda, its website projects a softer image than it has in the past, and has scrubbed the list of lobbies that partner with CASEL to promote SEL.
Most American parents would not have dreamed their child’s classroom would be politicized at such breakneck speed. And despite the Covid-19 shutdowns of schools in 2020, the imposition of divisive curricula, such as gender ideology and critical race theory, continued rapidly and never stopped. Ideological conformity became even more essential to educrats.
Thus, from pre-K to postgraduate school, children and young adults must do a lot of self-censoring to get through. This means they cannot completely establish their true identities and express themselves openly. Many adopt pseudo-identities or personas at younger and younger ages, which, in many cases, seem preassigned by curricula and by authority figures in education. Certain personas, such as “nonbinary” or “social justice warrior,” are then reinforced by the nearly monolithic views expressed in social media and celebrity culture. The resulting sense of destabilization can root itself early in life and bring the pathologies into adulthood.
Aggravating all of this is the perennial issue of bullying. Bullying has always been rampant in huge public school environments where kids get sorted into winners and losers. But as schools inject curricula that openly divide students, the problem can only get worse, as with the critical race theory curriculum that tells kids who are labeled as “white” that they are racists at heart and that there is nothing they can ever do to change that.
Many children are bound to feel even more atomized and depressed by this. Others will feel emboldened to take advantage of such curricula, celebrating their newfound authority from having “correct” views and enforcing those views on others. Being demonized as a bigot is a social death sentence. This can be greatly magnified through social media and the constant use of cell phones and other technologies. For too many children, devices create greater degrees of separation between real life and virtual life and replace face-to-face conversation with a social media hellscape.
Higher Ed Takes Identity Politics to a Higher Level
Allan Bloom observed that college students were experiencing “a new degree of isolation” that left them with no alternative but to look inward. He identified divorce as the cause of this ever-greater separateness that students were already experiencing in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bloom believed divorce had a huge effect on our universities not only because so many more students were products of divorce, but because their angst was contagious: “they not only have problems themselves, but also affect other students and the general atmosphere.” Bloom also anticipated the stultifying atmosphere that would dominate campuses by the 2010s. Accounts of intellectual intolerance, intellectual bullying, and suppression of free speech at American colleges were very common by then.
The effect of social changes that Bloom saw is also apparent in the increasing hostility shown toward youth from intact homes. During the 2000s and 2010s, many high schools and colleges began to require students to take part in exercises called “privilege walks.” These are public displays of how much “unearned privilege” some have versus others.
But it’s not just a matter of fessing up to white privilege. The idea of “family privilege” was introduced as an unfair advantage in life. For example, everyone forms a shoulder-to-shoulder line. But if you’ve lived with your biological mother and father, you would be told to take a step forward. Those who did not would be told to take a step or two back. The exercise would include various questions about a student’s family life. For example, was there debt? How many books were in your house while growing up? Did you go on family vacations? And so on.
At the end of the “privilege walk,” those who end up ahead are supposed to feel shame because of their family privilege, while the message to those further back is that the kids with strong families have set them back. It prods kids to see one another only through the lens of victim or oppressor. So, the only hope for social acceptance given to the latter is to take on the mantle of “ally” of the former. Beginning in 2021, this sorry exercise was also imposed on those serving in the U.S. military.
These trends in education have added a whole new layer to the social tensions that children have always felt in the public mega-schools: the hierarchies, the cliques, the relational aggression, and daily bullying. In short, the loneliness.