They say no one wants to be on their own at Christmas but, seriously, by 6pm Christmas Day who doesn’t? Yes somewhere someone must be having a perfect Family Christmas but it’s probably not you and, for many, the Family Christmas is just a bitter breeding ground for passive aggression, spite, petty vengeances, bleeding bitten-lip tolerance and a timely reminder why you no longer live with these bastards.
Why we keep going back, like a cat to eat its own vomit, is complicated: the myth of seasonal good cheer is pretty overwhelming, we’ve had a year to forget, the human condition errs on the side of optimism – hope springs eternal otherwise how do you explain Marmite Chocolate bars – or maybe it’s just because we are, at core, social animals.
But the stigma of being “alone at Christmas” persists and it’s the word ‘alone’ that’s causing mischief. It sneakily conflates two ideas that are more mutually exclusive than we imagine: being on your own, and being lonely. A physical state and an emotion. And though one could lead to the other, we’ve got to recognise that being on your own does not necessarily make you lonely and being in company won’t stop you feeling feel immeasurably isolated. In fact, if you’re Sartre, always a joy at dinner parties, “l’enfer, c’est les autres,” hell is other people.
Personally I’m never lonelier than in the company of half-wits – which, up until last years referendum, I had believed was a fairly limited set – so watching I’m a Celebrity… is like peering into the abyss. It’s chilling to watch the wretched misery of those so desperate for love they allow their abject failure to be exploited for telly on the off-chance some viewer might sympathise for a moment, or the cash fee will fill the void. You can see the terror in the eyes of every contestant. And maybe part of the series’ success, in airing just before Christmas, is that watching the bleak, hopeless, attention neediness of these lonely desolate individuals, and fearing that “there but for the grace…”, it gives us each the strength to go home for Christmas, forgive our families, and give it one more go.
The worst thing about the “no one should be lonely at Christmas” meme is the temporality of it all. The rest of the year? You can sling yer hook; feast your mince pies on the door you clingy bastard.
In ancient civilizations, the worst punishment short of death, was banishment. To be cast out. They recognised that one of the fundamental needs of man is company. Even today the most feared part of prison is isolation. Loneliness is such an aberration to the human condition it lacks an antonym. Most emotions have an opposite: sad/happy, fearful/confident, love/hate but we have such a basic requirement to be social we lack words to celebrate the joy of good company. The closest we might get is ‘a feeling of belonging’ but then that doesn’t come without overtones of ownership and subsuming the individual.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut repeatedly returned to the idea that loneliness was the worst thing to afflict mankind. He said “the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Vonnegut’s influence should not be ignored. His strange concoction of war-damaged cynicism, bittersweet humour, counter-culture, social comment, misanthropy and science fiction was one of the great literary backgrounds to the nerdalescence of our present tech giants. Loneliness defined the eighties geeks, banished by their peers, desperately trying to code friendship into a mesh of wires, cathode rays and silicone. The 1985 Pygmalion movie Weird Science, in which two computer nerds create the perfect woman with a back comb and a boobtube who might love them and make them popular, reflected this well-recognised commonplace.
The idea that loneliness was like a disease, and therefore only lacked a cure, echoed through the development of the internet from the very first ‘Bulletin Board Systems’ to today’s social networks; Vonnegut’s “stable communities”.
Real life started to ape Vonnegut’s narratives with the story of a geek called Steve who was, by all accounts, one of the loneliest men in the world. The sort of chap who always went the extra mile he used to point out that, “the extra mile is such a lonely place.” For years he tried to find a cure for loneliness. He built machines that would play games with him, gave them friendly names, pretty designs and then, in 2006 he found it. The cure. It was the tiniest gizmo; you wouldn’t think it did anything at all. It was a little box you could keep in your pocket wherever you went, and every time you felt a little pang of loneliness, you could take out the box and it instantly connected you with every other lonely person on the planet. You could share your misery, embarrassing moments, secrets, jokes and never, ever, be lonely again. Sadly, Steve died just five years later but the iPhone and its clones lives on. Now you’re never alone with a phone. Any moment you might be bored or could just take a moment to smell the roses, you’ve got the world of the lonely in your hand instead with their status updates and their crazy kittens. Instagram the hell out of those roses. Go girlfriend.
Of course even Steve didn’t think it was a real cure for loneliness, it was just a brilliant distraction from the pain. But what a world it has unleashed. According to John Lanchester in his brilliant history of money, “there are at least seven billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world (four and a half billion people have access to a flush toilet)… more than twice as many people have a mobile phone as have access to a bank account.”
It turns out our tech gods had feet of clay. They only understood the numbers, they took Forster at his word, “only connect,” and went no further. Educated in bits and bytes with the the voices of Vonnegut and Ayn Rand in their heads, none of them had an inkling of real politics or philosophy or history, none of them realised how powerful their machines were or how delicately balanced western democracy and academic leadership was. Now Twitter and Facebook are belatedly trying to shut the barn door. Erase the hate. Too late too late.
If you have the cash to get online every voice is equal. Populism is the only winner. Everything that made society reject Benthamite Utilitarianism two hundred years ago has been ignored. The greatest good for the greatest number right? And the greatest number should know what’s good for them, shouldn’t they? Yup! Brexit, Trump, Daesh, Alt-Right, Breitbart, Extremism… With social media it’s far easier to sway the public than being chained to “traditional media” with their ombudsmen and fear of being sued which actually meant they check their facts. Feed them fake news, feed them desire and stories and the lies that bolster their prejudices – the game has changed.
So lonesome no more. But this always on interconnected world has not raised mankind. It’s connected hatred, spite, passive aggression, petty vengeances and bleeding bitten-lip tolerance. On social media, on your phone, every day is Christmas Day.
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