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Institutional Self-Renunciation Is Making Us Lonely

Human identity is inextricably tied to group affiliation. So what happens when all the groups we know and love become ‘problematic’?

· 5 min read
Institutional Self-Renunciation Is Making Us Lonely
Photo by Alex Motoc / Unsplash

I recently went on vacation with a college friend, and every time a local asked us where we were from, my companion would go on about how embarrassed she was to be American. “We’re a disaster—don’t judge us too much!” she’d say. Once back in the United States, one of my college classmates told me how surprised she was that I’d wished my friends a happy Fourth of July on social media, sounding as scandalized as if I’d posted a full-frontal profile pic.

It’s not just the reflexively negative attitude about patriotism that bothers me. It’s the reflexively negative attitude about everything. Among classmates at my New England liberal-arts school, it’s become increasingly fashionable to project a spirit of shame when it comes to the education we’re getting and the companies we’ll be working for. This “anti-institutionalism” is doing a real number on us. In fact, I suspect that a lack of meaningful institutional affiliations is playing an unexplored role in my generation’s collective mental health crisis. In 2017 (which was before COVID complicated the analysis), young American adults were 63 percent more likely to report major depressive symptoms than young adults in 2005.

As various Quillette writers have noted, many of our public institutions have fallen into a social-justice purity spiral—a self-reinforcing series of call-outs, accusations, apologies, and promises to do better. The process is universal, because no venerable institution can claim to be untainted by past associations with bigotry, elitism, and retrograde attitudes. As a result, our associations with these institutions have all become suspect and conditional.

The problem is that human identity is inextricably tied to group affiliation. It’s why sports fans wear their team colors, and why fans at concerts often sport variations on the same outfits and hair styles. These cultural uniforms give us a sense of belonging. So if we’re told that our groups are rotten, we’ll tend to imagine that we’re rotten, too. Or we’ll just retreat into a kind of barren social nihilism as a means to avoid guilt by association. In an excellent Palladium article, artist Ginevra Davis recently described a case study at Stanford University, whose administration has been progressively disbanding “problematic” student clubs, theme and fraternities:

In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life … In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogeneous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone … In the aftermath, all that is left is the generic: empty walls, names scrubbed off buildings, and kids safely, or not so safely, alone in their rooms.

But of course, it isn’t all group affiliations that have become radioactive—only those that can be linked (however vaguely) to any kind of oppressor-coded identity. That still leaves the oppressed variety. Within many of my campus’s social subcultures, orienting the story of one’s life around family, faith, or upwardly mobile career interests is seen as a no-no—a symptom of privilege. But it’s still fashionable to talk about your struggles with ADHD, or your gifted-kid childhood traumas. These aren’t real tribes, though. They’re just shared victimhood labels. And so they don’t do anything to reduce the risk of us becoming perilously lonely. Just the opposite: They give members encouragement (and a common vocabulary) to broadcast ennui and disaffection.

As this process has unfolded, many of us have been transformed into hypocrites, because while we pretend to feel ashamed of our privileged upbringings, selective colleges, and A-list jobs, we’re actually quite thrilled about all of it—proud even— which is why these accomplishments end up being catalogued on our LinkedIn pages. If we weren’t seeking such badges of status, why would rich California families be paying $70K per year so their children can go to Berkeley, instead of a third of that sum for UC Santa Barbara?

Within the most privileged stratum of American young adults, this hypocrisy expresses itself in angry, self-righteous, often childish gestures of pseudo-rebellion. You accept an offer from this or that school, and then spend the next three years lecturing everyone (including your parents, who pay the freight) about how “unsafe” the place feels. Then when Silicon Valley recruiters come to campus, you dress up and go to interviews. And when a job offer comes, you take it, following which you spend much of your cubicled existence composing angry Slack posts about your boss’s refusal to wear a pronoun pin.

We also have to make sure that total strangers know just how pissed off, delicate, put upon, and guilty we feel. So we wear masks outdoors, recite endless land acknowledgements, write out “Y*le” instead of “Yale,” compulsively edit our Twitter profiles according to whatever cause is being protested and whatever war is being fought. These are penitence rituals and puritan poster boards for young people who don’t have any actual religion, let alone belong to any church—because Christianity is just the worst, right?

I’m not one of those Gen Z-ers who thinks history started when Barack Obama ran for office. I realize that modern anti-institutionalism has been around for generations, particularly on university campuses. But what’s new in our own era is that the institutions themselves are participating in their own self-eradication. This isn’t the 1960s, when students were shaming their schools while administrators stood up for the status quo. In 2022, as the Stanford example shows, it’s often the administrators themselves leading the historical purges.

COVID accelerated the phenomenon, because it leveraged the tribal divide over abstract culture-war arguments into the domain of face-to-face life. And college administrators were more than happy to impose top-down public-health rules, endowed with the moral weight of life and death, complete with mandatory facial coverings to distinguish the devout from the unbelievers. Students who already felt shame for any number of reasons were suddenly outed as inhumane for going to parties, or spending a long weekend with family and old high-school friends—the only real tribes they had left. The tension between social cohesion and social virtue became untenable.

Of course, COVID also gave people the opportunity to simply check out altogether—to work remotely, free from the diktats of deans and DEI directors. Many of us, in college or otherwise, have friends who fled increasingly cost-prohibitive white-collar urban enclaves for lower-lockdown, lower-cost inland destinations. Many won’t be coming back.

It may sound like I’m trying to dunk on my bleeding-heart college pals. But I’m not. I wouldn’t even call myself right-leaning, and I still look for ways to support progressive causes without tearing down the whole country or its civic institutions. I’m simply calling attention to the corrosive psychological and emotional effects of the relentlessly self-lacerating progressive discourse that suffuses the life of many American university students.  

At its core, evolved human morality has always required that we ask ourselves, “What rules must I follow to remain accepted by my tribe?” But many of my friends are now faced with a strange tribal rule that effectively demands the rejection of the tribe itself. Once that demand is met, what path is left for them to create meaningful and connected lives?

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