Yesterday I went to see Les Miserables the musical. It wasn’t my first time, and Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is the only book that actually reduced me to tears. But it isn’t the performance I want to discuss here, although it was magnificent, it’s the interactions I observed on stage. The cast were extremely tactile, they were constantly touching one another. Now, some of this was choreographed, but some seemed to be designed to comfort and reassure one another. Back patting, shoulder squeezing, supportive smiles, it was heart-warming to witness.
And it made sense to me. They are a company, a community. They are in it together, a collective with a common purpose: to provide a great show.
In life we are – it seems to me – far less comfortable with contact. As a student one of my lecturers showed us a video taken of crowds walking along a high street. He pointed out how desperately we avoid touching, the way our bodies sway and move to make sure we never even brush against each other. It was something I’d never noticed until it was highlighted for me.
That got me to thinking about barriers. The barriers we erect to isolate ourselves and how diverse they are.
Physically, the evidence is all around us, but to illustrate this I will refer to my own experience. When I was a child I lived in a house that was part of a block built around a car park. At that time everyone was a council tenant so the houses and gardens were pretty much uniformly arranged. The only boundary between neighbours was a knee-high wire mesh fence, which meant that we could all see one another as we came and went. There was a great deal of interaction and communication. It was common to see neighbours chatting then.
I went back recently, and what I saw was a very different landscape. After decades of Conservative attacks on social housing, most of the housing stock has been sold off. It’s all privately owned these days. which means that houses and gardens have all been individualised, but the biggest change has been the walls and fences. The carpark now looks like a fortress, no-one can see anyone else. That strikes me as very, very sad.
But it isn’t just physically that we have built walls around ourselves, we use any number of virtual devices to create barriers between us. So many of us use social media not to create greater links with others – though it can be used to great effect – but to avoid real world connections. Similarly, we buy everything online so that our highstreets are dying, another means of meeting and connecting. I am not preaching, I am an offender. My family taught me that the world was a dangerous place and I am having to fight that extremely dangerous programming.
One of the most insidious barriers, however, are screens. Many of us sit in our living rooms staring at the TV, avoiding conversation, passively ingesting the images without any engagement and with only minimal communication. And then there are phones. Sit anywhere and observe people in any setting and you will see them buried in their phones. Walking along talking on them, ignoring their companions, I’ve seen couples on dates sitting across from one another staring at their mobiles. Sometimes they only communicate by showing their partner something on their own screens. But the worst thing I’ve seen recently was a young couple in a restaurant handing their baby a phone to avoid interacting with him.
Again, I am not claiming to be a barrier-free saint, I have built far too many walls myself, and I’ve had quite a few built for me. Going forward, I intend to reach over and through some of them, as many as I can, because I believe our only hope as a species is to start connecting again, to begin the process of contacting and communicating. Individualism and materialism has caused much of this detachment and fear, it is up to us to challenge them and reclaim our communities, and, in the process, ourselves.