Thinking critically about Lost Connections 5: The target audience

Part 5 of my Lost Connections review. Back to part 1

Lost Connections has been almost universally positively received in the media, and covered in glowing endorsements from the great and good, all over the dust jacket. There’s been reasonably-little criticism, and it’s been draining for those of us, like Dean Burnett and Stuart Ritchie, who have been trying to put forward critiques. We shouldn’t be a little minority, and for a flawed text, there should have been a hell of a lot more of a critical reception.

There’s a few good reasons I can think of as to the homogeneity of the response to the book. The first is that PR machines are powerful beasties. Send a press pack off to the right influencers, with a bit of sample text that they can tweet, and most people are lazy enough to do that. And once it looks like the great and the good are reading it, more will follow.

Another reason is poor science literacy in the media. The reviews in mainstream outlets of Lost Connections have largely been written by journalists. I haven’t seen much evidence of outlets proactively commissioning experts–psychiatrists, academics, mental health doctors, even a humble science journalist–to review the text. Had they done so, I suspect we’d be seeing a lot more mainstream criticism.

And then there’s the thorny influence of personal friendships (I thought, for a second, that I’d made up the term “mateocracy” to discuss this, but it turns out that’s a fairly established phrase, so maybe I should have started part 4 with that anecdote instead of the slightly more embarrassing one). Naomi Klein and Eve Ensler are breathlessly blurbing on the dust jacket, imploring you to read this awesome book. They’re also the first people thanked in the acknowledgements section, described as Hari’s friends. Many of the journalists who have endorsed the book have been colleagues and fellow travellers with Hari over the years, who maybe publicly distanced themselves during the whole plagiarism problem, but the personal relationships are present. When your pal writes a book, you tend to love it. That’s just how friendship works.

Finally, and most crucially, we must look at who this book is intended for. At the end of the last instalment, we touched upon how many of Hari’s proposed reconnections are unsuitable for the people who need them most, and utterly inaccessible. One needs a certain amount of fortune in life to be able to, say, move away to the countryside.

Most of the people who have endorsed Hari’s book have been white, well-off and not disabled. This is no coincidence, because the problems and solutions presented by Hari tend to cater mostly towards this demographic–with the more marginalised people left unmentioned

Race and ethnicity are seldom mentioned, and when they are, it’s usually within the context that these people don’t get depressed so often because they’ve got better family networks. What goes unsaid is that there are racial disparities in diagnosis and access to treatment. For example, black people are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems, and are less likely to seek help than white people.

Disability and chronic illness have long been linked to depression. Take any disability or chronic condition, and google “[disability name] depression comorbidity”. I guarantee you’ll find research showing that if you live with the disability, you’re more likely to be depressed.

For most people, the reconnections proposed in the book are completely unfeasible. How can you reconnect to meaningful work when you cannot work? How can you take the leap towards a meaningful future when you’re unlikely to live long enough to see it through? What about the immense pressure of living under a racist society? How is any of this useful to you when you live under threats of violence every damn day?

These are important questions which are never even raised, let alone answered. The problem is far, far deeper than Hari believes. For most of us, taking a break and turning of our phones isn’t going to help, because inequality is the ginormous elephant in the room. And for many of us, even something big like a universal basic income is a fat lot of good if further underlying inequalities are not addressed.

But the solutions he outlines are appealing as hell to more privileged people, the ones who are on the luckier side of inequality. The book allows us to ignore inequalities, and feel that the solution is a problem of values rather than material realities. You don’t need to check your privilege, just tut-tut at these people who are still clinging to the materialist values that the advertisers force-fed them. Hey, maybe impose a tax on the adverts, or something, they can say, instead of thinking about how they might be complicit in something significantly worse.

Strangely enough, for a book which purports to be proposing radical social change, for the most part, it’s deeply individualistic: a few simple things you can do. It’s a little bit like buying a product in a recyclable packaging instead of plastic: it costs a little more, you feel great about yourself, you get to tut-tut about those who opt for the cheaper version, but ultimately, your individual purchasing choices aren’t doing much for the environment because the bulk of the problem is in corporations’ behaviour, not individuals’.

At the end of the day, Lost Connections is not a particularly useful text for many. It misrepresents much of the problem, sells us inadequate solutions, and, by rights, ought to have flopped. That it didn’t tells us a lot.

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5 thoughts on “Thinking critically about Lost Connections 5: The target audience”

  1. A very interesting series of blog posts, Zoe; thank you for putting in the effort.

    You refer to ‘poor scientific literacy in the media’. This is a very common problem; an Oxbridge degree in, say, Eng Lit may permit people to write excellent prose, but it very definitely does not give people any real understanding of even the basics of science, or even the appreciation that they do not understand.

    1. Yep. Worth noting that Hari has a Cambridge SPS, which is their equivalent of a PPE… he makes a lot of “social sciences background”, but it’s not quite the same.

  2. Happy thought for today. My local authority bought a bazzillion copies of Juno Dawson’s Mind Your Head (2016). They don’t seem to have bought any copies of L*st Connections yet, if their online catalogue is anything to go by.

  3. Just wanted to say thanks for this in-depth series of posts. And I’m sorry to hear that you’ve suffered from depression and anxiety yourself.

    As for Hari, I think the ‘mateocracy’ comment is right. It’s remarkable (or not) how well-connected guys like him and Toby Young can just keep on failing upwards.

    Of course, I’m sure Hari sees himself as a progressive liberal, but I wonder if he realises how much his view of disability has in common with the Tory line, that (to paraphrase) what disabled people really need is a bit of pluck and the edifying medicine of hard work.

  4. I thoroughly recommend Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism for a much better view of depression as culturally derived (one that isn’t foolish enough to downplay the chemistry). It is a very radical book and ultimately concludes that depression must be politicised before we can, in the 21st centry, effectively articulate our experiences under Capitalism and critique Capitalism itself. He sadly committed suicide last year, his works are fine examples of the Marxist tradition, that do not have a faint odour of fat German men’s arses.

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