Some years ago I listened to a presentation by a Grand Lodge Officer discussing membership retention and declining membership numbers in general. He is a Baby Boomer, which means he does not and probably never could understand Millennials or Gen Z, and that is not his fault; older generations never fully understand younger generations. It just tends to work that way. The world is supposed to change, and it is going to change, and we are not always going to understand it.
One thing he said that Masonry provides that young men are looking is “community.” Really? We are humans and we naturally seek communion with other humans. But in this digital era, from a very young age, many young men found and formed communities online. And there is nothing wrong with having online friends, but there is still nonetheless something isolating about online communities. It is great for that immediate gratification of having an interaction with another person, and it is great for sharing ideas and resources. But quickly the realization sets in that these are not people you know in-person, that these people have likely adopted an online-persona that you interact with and not necessarily the same person in real life… these make the feeling of a traditional community — the kind of community our biology craves — feel further away, more fleeting, transient, and just as fake as our online personas. It makes it feel all the more isolating.
That is one thing many younger people feel these days: isolation. The feeling of isolation is almost crippling, with record numbers of people on antidepressant medications, in therapy, et cetera. The phenomenon of increasing loneliness in the modern world is a reality. It’s not just social media, which we can blame all we want, but that does nothing. It used to be that after work we might socialize with coworkers at the bar or go get dinner with each other and bring our spouses. Online work has become more common and is ever more common in this post-pandemic world to work remotely. Many do not even meet their coworkers in person much anymore.
Certainly, social media is a contributing factor to this loneliness, but it is a tool to generate our loneliness. We created it, we bought into it. The criticism that social media has created bubbles that people live in, echo chambers of those they agree with, is valid, but it is nonetheless a tool to isolationism. Humans isolate themselves into echo chambers all the time; we have always done this, and we always will. Do you think the Puritans came to the New World because they were interested in having their ideas challenged and to exchange different ideologies?
Like the Puritans, we all have created bubbles of isolation. The loneliness may be from sitting on the computer or constantly attached to our phones, rather than being an ocean away from “civilization,” yet the feeling of loneliness is nonetheless there, and it is really taking a toll on the psychology of young people. As Mark Fisher points out, we live in cyberspace. In the early days of home computers and the internet, cyberspace was “over there” or “out there.” Cyberspace could only be accessed by sitting down at your computer at home and logging in. Now that we have our phones in our pockets, we carry cyberspace with us at all times. We are always plugged in.
We are not handed a physical menu anymore at the restaurant. We see a QR code on the table, take a picture of it and follow the link to the menu as it is posted online. We don’t physically visit an office and hand the receptionist our resume, we apply online. Physical works of art are being burned and the digital image of the art is being sold for thousands, millions of dollars as NFTs online to “transfer the art into the meta.” (Bataille shrugged and Baudrillard sighed). I even look at the bylaws of my lodge or the Constitutions of the Grand Lodge and see that certain things need to be sent via certified post, and I chuckle and send an email.
I could get deep into Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or Derrida’s “dangerous supplement,” as they are valid, but the reality is that we are losing our sense of the “real.” Baudrillard’s whole thesis is that the copy, the miniature replica replaces the original (what Derrida terms “dangerous supplement,” cribbing Rousseau), and that reality is so broken down that there is no longer a sense of original versus copy that we now reside in a simulation. Baudrillard calls this “the desert of the real.” And our sense of personal relationships and sense of community has suffered in a way that our psychology and biology cannot reconcile.
One appeal of Freemasonry is that it is a physical, in-person community, and that is one thing that is attractive to young men. But it is not a community by virtue of being an institution. Do not confuse the institution of Masonry with the community of brothers within Masonry. The institution of Masonry just exists to regulate the means and methods of being a Mason and of being a lodge of Masons. It is the brothers themselves that form the community, and no amount of institutional regulation can accomplish that.
I think those new young Masons who join and then leave saw the Masonic fraternity as a community, a group of men of intelligence and good morals that will be in their lives regularly, and then it fails to live up to that perception. They see it as a means to make real friends, likely friends for life, maybe even meeting their best friend, and a way of curing their isolation, and possibly to have some means of support and community to guide and lift them up. Then they find themselves sitting by themselves or ignored during dinner, sitting by themselves in the South listening to minutes and bills, and never hearing a word from a single brother until the next meeting. Or worse, seeing Masons forming cliques and factions and observing those cliques actively working against each other. The Lodge is the clique. There should not be sub-cliques within the clique of the Lodge.
But we are not just a clique; not just a community. We are community for life. Friends move away, we move away from family, neighbors sell their house, we graduate from school and move on, but when you join Masonry, you will very likely be hanging around the same guys until you see them into the graves, and the rest will be there with you until they see you into your grave. Sure a few will move and lose touch, but most are going to be there with you for life. Even the guys that drive you up a wall, no matter how many there are, never compare to the few incredibly amazing guys you meet and grow close with. You are likely to meet your best friend in Masonry. You are likely to make friends who will be your friends until one of you dies. Why can’t the whole Lodge be exactly that? Why can’t the whole Lodge be your best friends? (“Best friend” is not a singular title, it is a tier).
Many will propose having a mentor to guide and work with them, but that is not the issue. A mentor is not a community. They are helpful in guiding new Masons through some of the peculiarities of Masonry that are a bit perplexing at first and to coach them through the catechisms, but that is not a community.
There are loads of proposals of what can generate better community in Masonry for younger generations, and it is more of the same. A couple of years ago, one of the lodges I am member of was looking for ideas of what we can do together to garner more community with the younger members. More outdoor meetings, bowling league, more fellowship nights, et al… all “more,” more of the same. Then one of the younger members finally got a chance to speak after the older members were done pitching the same ideas, and he said: “How about a game night? We got that big ole TV over there… let’s play Halo together.”
My jaw almost dropped. Of course! Why not? Are we not seeking some means of encouraging young men to unplug from the computer at home and get together? What is wrong with unplugging at home and plugging in together at the Lodge? And it briefly worked. They had a couple of game nights. They ordered pizza, played Call of Duty, Dungeons and Dragons, et cetera. Then some of the older guys took it over and turned it into watching football on Sunday afternoons. Then it died. It was sad. It felt like the older Masons were doing what Mark Fisher criticizes in Acid Communism: “They cannot abolish the young, but they can seek to abolish the youth of the young, the very ability for young people to be the bearers of the future in both consciousness and action.”
More of the same is not going to solve either the isolation the young feel nor declining Masonic membership. More education will not solve it. Masons say they want more education, but no matter how much education is provided, they never engage it or go for it. Clearly wanting “more education” is just a placeholder, something to say when they don’t know what they want. More esoteric education is worse. Masonry eschewed the esoteric for so long that esoterically inclined Masons over a century ago started the Golden Dawn and OTO to serve the void Masonry created. Masonry cannot reinvent itself around a failing it committed decades ago that prompted other organizations to form and corner that market. “More” is not the answer. Something entirely different is needed.
In an age of extreme isolation and anxiety, in an era when we are still finding our foothold in cyberspace and the impacts it is having — like living on the frontier — we need to recognize that old ideas do not even remotely work (pun intended) in the digital era. Fundamentally, we need to address the failures of the digital age. It promised many things, and everything came up short. It promised global connectivity and we got pointless internet arguments. It promised fast information and we got more advertisements. It promised the future and we got the 20th century on high-definition screens. What has drawn the young to the internet usually fails our basic biological and psychological needs. If Masonry is to be relevant to the young, it needs to give them a reason to unplug and come hang out; it needs to provide actual community, actual personal connections, not just mere institutional structure. It needs to not only get with the present, it needs to set itself up for a future the young want to engage and build upon.