On Monday April 23, 2018 a van mowed down 25 people out walking on a rare sunny afternoon on Yonge Street in Toronto. Yonge Street is the longest and one of the busiest streets in the city. It emerged that Alek Minassian, the young man who had driven the van that killed, 10 people and injured 15 more, was a social isolate who identified with other “incels.” Incels are young heterosexual men who self-describe as “involuntary celibates” because their advances are repeatedly rejected by women. Some reports considered the murders to be yet another example of extreme misogyny and it is clear that incels’ applaud such mass killings while expressing a hatred for women. But their self-description also suggests that they are incapable of forming relationships with women, not, at least initially, because they hate them. Rather it might be that they hate women because they are not able to form relationships with them. Alek Minassian was said to have difficulty in developing close friendships with anyone – he had no close friends of either sex. When he finally left school, he cursed the other students in a departing email.
In my last post I spoke of the British Ministry of Loneliness that has been established to identify and support the growing number of people who are lonely. I think that this extreme example of social isolation, deep loneliness and its consequences, suggests that there is a great deal to be done both to recognize loneliness in its early stages and to think about how to respond to it. These extreme pathological manifestations of the condition should force us to recognize the extent to which social connections are a critical requirement for the normal development of human beings. We are social animals. It is a serious loss not to be able to make friends. At times this may be due to some physiological (chemical/mechanical) deficit, but very often it is not. It is often a purely social and relational issue.
Before the mass murder on Yonge Street we learned that loneliness is widespread among millennials- people born between the early 1980s and the year 2000. In this case fit, employed, economically successful young people with developing careers report that there is no one they can confide in, that they find themselves involuntarily socially isolated and lonely. There is no pill for loneliness, nor has there so far been a widely accepted clinical response. On some accounts this population of young lonely people is far more numerous than the more well-known loneliness of older people.
Loneliness is a condition of social and relational creatures like us. It is not primarily a chemical/mechanical disease, although at times it may have chemical/mechanical origins, and even some chemical/mechanical treatments. The most obvious solutions are social and relational. Early on we support growing children who are beginning to make friends and we hope that they can keep them. We stress the value and importance of having people who are close to you, ones you can trust and confide in. Dealing with loneliness always includes finding ways to meet and become close to at least a few other people.
Social isolation does not always result in loneliness. We know that there are people who choose to be hermits and are perfectly happy – often because they already have been in a society that they feel they can do without.They are in a small minority. Most of us need someone to feel close to, to confide in, to celebrate with and to mourn with. When we are too alone we are unhappy: We know that loneliness affects our wellbeing. We are now learning that it also affects our health and can have great impact on bad behaviour like that of Alek Minassian, the Yonge Street assassin.