WE HUMANS are capable of maintaining 150 meaningful relationships. Thus spake the anthropologist Robin Dunbar. If you meet somebody today with whom you strike up a meaningful relationship, then you have to think who is going to become meaningless. It is a one-in-one-out system. More than 150, and you have to call the bouncers.
In A Culture of Encounter (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the former Labour Cabinet minister Douglas Alexander asked why, in modern society, we do not know enough people who are different from us. How many Remainers know people who voted for Brexit, for instance? Is it that the Dunbar number prevents us from engaging with people outside an immediate circle? Or is there something particular to our times that vitiates social integration?
Had Alexander come up with answers, then he would be the greatest ex-politician the world has ever seen. The conclusion that “political action is not enough . . . we must change ourselves” is not exactly a game-changer. Nor did he establish whether society in the 21st century is any less integrated than at any other period. But, in the course of his discussion, he pulled in some imaginative perspectives: from the military, a cooking club, and a group that organises ceilidhs.
The “contact hypothesis”, which, broadly speaking, suggests that if you shove a large number of different people together they will end up rubbing along OK, has been disproved. It turns out that the person with whom you thought you were exchanging ice-breaking banter might not even appreciate the health-giving benefits of quinoa.
The most effective social glue (back to Dunbar here) is provided by singing; next are dancing, then eating. But the obvious thing missing from all this was “Church”. For a programme to quote Grenfell as a case-study in social polarisation and not mention the role of the Church in the aftermath of the disaster might be considered wilful omission.
The Wilsons Save the World (Radio 4, Friday) might have played as a comic sequel to Alexander’s essay, portraying as it does a middle-class family desperately trying to live the ethical life in the digital, globalised economy. Marcus Brigstocke’s and Sarah Morgan’s sitcom started promisingly enough with a storyline revolving around the dilemma of ethical holidays: to tramp a galumphing carbon footprint by flying to Thailand, or to glamp in the local park. Needless to say, the solution that seemed more ethical was nothing of the sort.
Casting the empathetic gaze further afield, Today (Radio 4) last Friday and Saturday aired two reports by Frank Gardner on the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Coinciding with Bishop Angaelos’s elevation to the new Coptic Bishopric of London, Gardner visited the monastery of St Pishoy, in Egypt, and interviewed Christians who, unlike himself, were prepared to forgive the terrorists who had killed and maimed them. We do not have a martyr complex, the Bishop insisted. All are loved.