Research News

Social media partly to blame for busybody culture, says professor

The recent explosion of social media in our lives and domination of the air waves by so many “experts” are among the reasons people don’t feel free to live their lives as they wish, according to Centennial Professor of Philosophy John Lachs.

Lachs, whose philosophical interests center on human nature, is the author of Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (Indiana University Press, 2014).

“Even though there is a tremendous amount of diversity available on the Web, our social life is remarkably uniform,” Lachs said. “[rquote]It’s almost impossible to get people to make up their own minds about a course of action, especially when there are so-called experts telling us what to do[/rquote].”

The longtime professor at Vanderbilt has observed in some of his students the negative effects of meddling, which he defines as “taking over the lives of other people by making them do something they don’t want to do.”

“It’s a terrible way to raise children as they will arrive at college without having learned how to make a decision,” Lachs said. “One of my students who was graduating told me he had decided to join the military only because he didn’t want to have to make decisions for himself on what to do with his life.”

Lachs emphasized that letting people choose their course of action is not the same as abandoning them. On the contrary, not meddling in people’s lives is truly one of the greatest compliments we can offer them. “It’s saying ‘I trust you to run your own life, and I am happy to step in and provide help or advice if requested,”” Lachs said.

One example would be concern about a friend or relative who has gained much weight and does not exercise or eat healthy food. “[lquote]It’s disrespectful for you to tell such people that they are ruining their lives unless your guidance is sought[/lquote],” Lachs said. “I am not living that person’s life 24/7, and, therefore, the likelihood that I would understand what his or her values and challenges are is slim to none.”

He noted that he does not define meddling as advice given by a physician, teacher or someone else whom people seek out for information or to learn a particular skill.

Lachs has observed an increasing amount of meddling in all age groups, including adult children meddling in their aging relatives’ lives. “Some grown children, when they feel their parents are declining, are eager to make arrangements for them without asking them how they want to spend their time as seniors,” he said.

Lachs’ concern about meddling rises to the level of our national leaders. “Putting regulations in place is much easier than taking them off the books,” he writes. “If we keep this simple fact in mind, we will be much less likely to rush to legislative solutions than we are today. We will be especially cautious about bills of inordinate complexity and those offered at a time of panic or politically motivated haste.”

Lachs said he wrote Meddling “in fits and spurts” over the years as a result of his life experiences.