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The Rise of Misanthropy in Trying Times

In mental health & wellness circles there are two predominant styles of social avoidance: the introverted individual and the socially anxious person. One is a personality type, with its low likelihood of change, in which core energy tends to be depleted in social circumstances even though the individual might be enjoying the experience. The other is a psychological disorder in which the prospect of social circumstances brings symptoms of anxiety - persistent worry, hypervigilance, and perhaps panic - that may preclude the individual from enjoying a social experience but may also be alleviated during social engagement when their fears are not realized. What has failed to gain adequate attention but may emerge as a third style for social avoidance is misanthropy.

Misanthropy, like its social-avoidance siblings, can lead to keeping away from other people - especially crowds - and the misanthrope may have entirely normal relationships with a limited number of other individuals. But this is where the comparisons end. At its core, misanthropy is a self/other worldview in which one’s internal expectations or preferences for society as a whole are not manifested in the social environment around them. It is essentially a form of moral disillusionment in which the world does not conform to one’s ideals for how society ought to function.

Before you say to yourself, “Well, that’s awfully judgmental of them,” keep in mind that the misanthrope is not putting forth energy to try to change society, nor are they imposing their ideals on anyone but themselves. That is the core of this worldview: the misanthrope says, “I don’t like being a part of this thing, so I won’t be.” Nobody is harmed in the making of this life.

Contrast this approach with its opposite: the individual whose belief in their own moral superiority drives them to try to impose their value system on everyone around them. When they cannot win hearts and minds through discourse, they seek out an authoritarian position by which to change society by force. Power and control become weapons. Concepts like choice and freedom are no longer practicable.

At a time when our societal cohesion is crumbling due to opposing, strongly-held ideologies existing in a social-media-algorithm-fueled echo chamber, it is not surprising that more and more people are opting out of social discourse and social engagement. Faced with an opponent’s refusal to listen or consider one’s viewpoint, and witnessing examples of the harm and/or depravity of the opposition, it seems a natural human response to step away both from the discourse and from the examples of its harm. After all, as it is said, “Never argue with an idiot; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

The misanthrope who withdraws from society, unlike the authoritarian aggressor, will appear judgmental if the standard being applied to him/her is that all people must believe the same, live the same, and be the same. Because this kind of groupthink can be objectionable to them, misanthropists hesitate to allow their thoughts, morals, and beliefs to be subject to judgment according to any outside standards. They lack the need for social approval of their thinking. The only time they can come across as judgmental is when they express their inner thoughts to others. Once accused harshly of being judgmental, many misanthropes stop sharing their opinions with others because too often they find that the accusation is waged mainly to goad them into discourse, with the end goal to try to change their minds and integrate them into a society they have already decided they don’t wish to join.

There are some positive lessons to take away from understanding misanthropy that perhaps more of us could consider practicing in our everyday lives:

  1. If you’re going to discuss beliefs or morals, be ready to respect the other person’s boundaries regarding what they believe. It is a good rule of thumb to seek to understand the other person and to simply ask questions, rather than lecturing them.

  2. Social isolation can be a symptom of both social anxiety and of depression, but in both of these situations, the person is deeply unhappy. The misanthrope is not unhappy when they are alone. If you know somebody who is socially isolating themselves, consider carefully whether they are happy that way.

  3. Allowing another person the ability to make choices about how to live their own lives without exerting harm on others is not always easy but it is respectful.

  4. Values and beliefs that cannot hold up to existing in isolation might require more examination. If you find yourself in need of social validation for your values and beliefs before you can live according to them, this can be an indicator that you may have developed some highly codependent behaviors.

As long as human beings have organized themselves into civilizations, the idea of living separately has been judged harshly. We do need one another, and we need societies to exist. However, just as with most other aspects of life, it is important to understand the balance of things. Separateness and togetherness are opposite sides of a continuum, and just as much as people within a society may need each other, so too do we need a sense of individuality and self-confidence. In a society rife with polarizing values conflicts, more people find themselves feeling misanthropic. By understanding what is happening internally as this disillusionment creates a greater desire for separateness, the misanthrope can find peace for themselves.

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