Isolation, like many things, can be good or bad. On the good side, you have the uninterrupted time to be introspective, to ponder things that may perplex you and the quiet to work out difficult life puzzles. On the bad side, extended isolation can drive a person mad because when there is nothing but yourself to distract you from your troubles your mind starts to cannibalize itself.
The UN declared the isolation of solitary confinement, for more than 15 days, to be torture. Our history and traditions support the practice of solitary confinement, an estimated 80,000 US prisoners are held in solitary confinement under a variety of rationales as I type these words. Here’s a bit on the deeply rooted history and traditions piece that the most authoritarian on our doctrinaire 6-3 Supreme Court like so much:
The practice of completely isolating prisoners began in Pennsylvania and New York, and goes back to a theory proposed in the early 19th century, said Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
Quakers in Philadelphia proposed that if prisoners were kept in complete isolation, they might find redemption and rehabilitation by concentrating on their weaknesses without distraction and ultimately become closer to God. Taking up the theory, Pennsylvania built a wheel-shaped prison in Philadelphia designed to ensure that every prisoner was completely alone.
One famous visitor to this prison, called the Eastern State Penitentiary, was Charles Dickens. In 1842, he wrote in “American Notes” that life in the prison was “rigid, strict, and hopeless.” The prison is still standing but has not been used since 1971.
I suspect this early 19th century reasoning is good enough for the Federalist Society Six, should the issue of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment (maybe cruel, but certainly not unusual, Kavanah, J.) come before the court so deeply rooted in our history and traditions, and why not? First liberals complain about conservatives taking away the so-called right to privacy, and then, when the state provides absolute privacy, Social Justice Warriors whine about that too!
Solitary confinement is one thing, and an extreme and terrible form of isolation, but social isolation is a kind of torture too. In the old days (and probably to this day), religious communities would excommunicate people they deemed assholes, send them out of the community and into nature where they could fend for themselves or die, or both.
We live in a time of extreme social isolation for many millions of us. In this isolation we are constantly goaded by the relentless, stupid war over everything. This war mentality has been greatly exacerbated by the lockdown and the idiotic zero sum war of principle, waged by mask and vaccine skeptics, over how to best combat a deadly pandemic. Guys like the inimitable Charles Koch have spent hundreds of tax-free millions to make sure we live in a black and white world of existential conflict to the death, with no solutions available to any but the few who benefit from the mayhem. The more armed hate groups, the better, for untouchable guys like Koch.
The natural response to this determined, public, endlessly repeated stonewalling of every possible solution is widespread disaffection, despair and anger which bursts into rage pretty easily. This rage, which has nowhere else to go, is turned on each other, and on ourselves. We live in a time of mounting American deaths of despair, by drug overdoses, by guns, by just going out and shooting random people until the cops come, and if you are Black, you are instantly a successful suicide by cop.
In a time of unprecedented social isolation, a handful of genius American entrepreneurs have monetized American loneliness by creating a virtual world of unlimited like-minded friends. Online we can even have followers, just like actual celebrities. Even this little-read, unknown blahg has over 300 followers. Would they march with me to the gates of Hell? Not one, I’d wager, but, shit, I have a small army of noncommittal followers, which nobody can deny.
Instead of communities, and a small group of people we can count on in times of trouble, we have the illusion of a gigantic community of people who think and feel just like we do. They share the same political views, the same moral stances, the same shopping habits, the same tastes in food, drink and culture. We may never see them in real life, but isn’t it nice to know we are not alone? I mean, if it wasn’t for the mass illusion that we are part of a vast network of like-minded friends and followers, many more of us would probably be suicidal at this point in the long, ugly, ceaseless war of each against all that has been forced on us by our most powerful citizens. Maybe the mass illusion itself is a cause of despair, we know that these “friends” are not real and we think back sadly to when we had real friends we could be honest with, who could console us, personally, having been in our actual, offline lives for years.
Trust? Despair? Benefit of the doubt? Silence? Abstractions, like death, that we are free to endlessly contemplate or run from, in our chafing isolation. Thankfully, we all have each other.