In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth concerned itself with propaganda, the Ministry of Peace ran the military forces, the Ministry of Plenty controlled the means of production and had the populace living on rations, and the Ministry of Love administered fear and pain. So when Britain announced last week that it has formed a Ministry of Loneliness, dystopic possibilities flashed to mind, even though its contradiction would be a good thing.
I was not able to finish a recent, long-awaited, book with a title that could be one possible antonym of The Ministry of Loneliness, but it comes to mind. But is utmost happiness the opposite of loneliness? It could be argued that it’s the opposite of all negative emotion, so I suppose so. But loneliness is contradicted only by companionship, which is not in and of itself happiness. Companionship is not automatically filled by the presence of another person, and neither do factors like matrimony or having siblings ensure that one is not lonely within those relationships. An unhappy marriage or disharmony within the family are often circumstances than create loneliness.
What is the state of un-loneliness, and how can this state be sustained, even when circumstances change? Britain’s decision is worth watching because in order for it to truly succeed, it will entail changes to societal fabric itself. As others have pointed out, it’s pretty sinister – or short-sighted at the very best – to start a Ministry of Loneliness after having closed or reduced libraries and other spaces where lonely people went to be less so, public transport links which helped them get there, and benefits for the differently-abled, who were made specific mention of in the governmental press release.
Loneliness is not an emotion that exists independently of other ones, like resentment or bitterness, and it has consequences on self-esteem and mental health. To pursue this line of thought further, structural oppressions also predispose people towards certain difficulties. For instance: being transgender, being a member of a traumatised diaspora, being of a religion that is vilified, having an illness that is stigmatised, or not being upper caste are all demographic and identity markers which have far-ranging effects on one’s quality of life. And loneliness, while certainly not absent among the privileged, can be deeply interlinked to one’s position, perceived and otherwise, in the world.
In order to address loneliness, then, we must address everything.
This Ministry of Loneliness has at least one precedent: US President Lyndon Johnson approved the Internal Happiness Act of 1966, signing it (a little cheesily) at Disneyland. I couldn’t find any material on what transpired following this, whether anything was done bureaucratically to improve his citizens’ overall quality of life, which might enable or ease “the pursuit of happiness” (the phrase is a foundational notion in American statehood, appearing in their Declaration of Independence).
If that sounds funny, remember the most famous Monty Python sketch, on the Ministry of Silly Walks? According to its makers, the sketch was purely physical humour and not political satire. But laughter is a vital antidote to loneliness. And if loneliness is political, maybe laughter is at least a little revolutionary.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 25th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.