The Sickness Before the Infection: Why we Want Social Distancing

Part 3

This is a continuation of Part 1:

and Part 2

I am continuing to write it, and will publish the entire “The Sickness Before the Infection” upon completion.  This is the up-to-date edit of Part 3.

What amazes, and sometimes perplexes, me is what will be carried on after the coronavirus has passed. Let’s be reminded of the fact that an activity or object “carrying on” is done so via an unreflective habit of thought, behaviour or culture that is simply done. We should be thinking about our habits.  “Social distancing” is very useful here.  It is pervasive enough to be called worldwide; it is powerful enough that most everyone feels its impacts. The widespread adoption of “social distancing” sheds much light on our habits. The idea of social distancing has three notable features:1) that we think we ought to do it, 2) that we are inconvenienced by it, and 3) that we actually desire social distancing, if we are to believe the recent and contemporary history of our habits.

First, we ought to do it.  “Social distancing”, among other effects, institutes the practice of staying 2 metres away from people who do not live together.  It encourages people to stay at home even when they don’t show signs of sickness.  It forces all non-essential activities (and some essential ones like taxes and claiming emergency benefits) to be done via the internet. It prevents the disease from spreading unknowingly, and breaching it will bring on good old-fashioned shaming – at least in Canada. In some cases, one might incur legal censure, including fines and imprisonment, depending on which country or region you live in. It is the way to protect lives.  It doesn’t matter if one is a child, a young adult, middle-aged, or approaching or enjoying retirement.  Even those who suffer only mildly, or asymptomatic cases, can transmit the disease, and can eventually expose those most critically susceptible to it.  In other words, going out can kill other people.  Worse yet, citizens who do not social distance risk overstraining health workers and systems which can compound the disaster by incapacitating the whole lot.  While we have freedom in this instance, it is a moral freedom to make the right choice. It is the exercising of the autonomous capacity toward the greater good, certainly a hoped-for reality of a democratic society, and an encouraged result of a charter of rights and freedoms.  Let’s call this kind of freedom “freedom-to,” or “positive freedom” (following Isaiah Berlin).

Second, we are inconvenienced by social distancing.  Most people want to go out.  Most people want to send their kids to school and extra activities; they want to put the elderly in nursing homes. In other words, many want to be free of caring for dependents.  Most people want to be in the same room as their friends.  Most middle class people want to travel.  Most want to eat in a restaurant.  Most people don’t want to be forced to live with themselves in solitude, to be deprived of the social presence of others. But they are, and they feel stuck.  And this “stuck” feeling is the preceding experience of negative freedom (again following Mr. Berlin).  Every middle-class child from the small town feels exactly the same way for the 2 years prior to their escaping to the big city and moving out of their parents’ home. Every abused stay-at-home spouse and parent feels the same way. It can also be called the “freedom-from”.  

Scarcely, positive freedom could not exist as an achievement if it were not also an overcoming of negative freedom.  The two are related intrinsically.  We condemn someone for being only in the grips of negative freedom.  While negative freedom is essential, constantly running away, without committing, can be fully understood as a poor sort of life. 

Third, we have been socially distancing for years now, and it seems that we want to do it. That statement needs to be explained.  Readers will respond, “but I am close to my family and friends!”  That, of course, can be true at the same time as the habit of social distance has become entrenched.  Let’s look at these signs that were present before the pandemic began.

In terms of shopping, the middle class public in western societies have embraced social distancing at an incredibly rapid rate.  Not only have we shopped for houses in the suburbs (that are less dense, of course, than core areas) for decades now, we have embraced online shopping, self-checkouts, self-serve department stores and supermarkets.  Social products like cannabis, alcohol, and cigarettes are considered essential services and their addictive effects are “essentially” carried on, at least in Canada. 

In terms of media, for goodness sake, we welcomed the social world into our homes, our bedrooms, and our minds via social media, and video streaming.  All we needed was an internet connection.  Each one of these things has given us the resemblance of life derived from the social sphere, but is rather from the privacy of our own minds, and the safety set up by the doors of our house and our rooms.  We devoured the new reality of socializing through media like it was the second coming of Jesus.  We accepted the distance not only because it was more convenient, but because it seemed to be an aspect of the good life.  Let me come back to that in part 4.

In terms of marriages, confirmed in the social sphere, and absorbed into private life, divorce rates in North America have been stubbornly high, hovering between 45 – 60% since the early 1980’s.  Separating, or more cynically, an early form of social distancing, was actually perceived to be a desirable solution to marital conflict.  In other words, this social solution has been considered to be a viable response to what is revealed as a private problem – just on a mass scale.  At the heart of this is the unmitigated rise of pornography, a social product, to attack us in our homes and bedrooms with unrelenting addictive consequences, not merely eroding the private sphere, but serving to offer a permanent wedge between us and our partners.   

In terms of dependent care, the move to social distancing has been going on for at least 40 years, i.e., ever since I can remember. We have placed kids in their own rooms (I shared a room with my older brother for a while, at least), have now handed them their own devices, and called them for dinner.  Such behaviors have undoubtedly contributed to rising rates of depression and anxiety in the millennial generation, but dating well before them.  Depression and anxiety reached their sticky fingers into the hearts and minds of generations X and Y before them. We have even treated school as child care.  

However, children are not our only dependents. Starting with the boomer generation, sending an elderly grandparent to a nursing home became a matter of course.  In other words, we have “socially-distanced” our elderly.  I am grateful that our family has decided to take in our aging mother, but my siblings’ efforts and care in this regard are definitely not normal.  On the whole, western societies have believed that elderly people have ceased to be socially useful, and have resorted to social responses to “solve” the “elderly” problem.  Who knows, the nursing home incubation of COVID-19 may in fact be a “final solution”.

The allusion to fascist propaganda here is intentional.  Hannah Arendt, in the Origins of Totalitarianism and in The Human Condition identified the predominantly mass social conditions which attack our human condition, and attempted to eliminate large parts of the species.  And what we have here is the interplay between three spheres of life, in which the mutation of the second is overwhelming all three.

Let me explain.  In The Human Condition, Arendt illustrates three spheres of existence: the private, the social, and the political.  Briefly, the private realm is the realm of the household which performs two essential functions: it shelters the development of the individual, and also provides for the necessities of human life in its biological form.  In other words, our biological needs encapsulated in the eternal process of labor and consumption require the shelter of the home to develop to maturity.  The political world is the realm of action (in contrast to the labor-consumption cycle) and is the realm of freedom to act, in word and deed, in the world around us.  The sense of time in the political sphere is eternal; by acting in the world at a point in time we bring the principle of natality into the world in which we never can “know what we are doing” (Arendt’s allusion to the words of Jesus on the cross).  While what we do in the political world has a beginning, it has no definite end, and it fails to find a home, as it were, in the cyclical process of labor and consumption. Arendt treats both of these spheres with honour and respect.  

However, the lowest opinion she has is of the social world which both over-reaches its proper boundaries to corrupt both the private and the political realms, and which offers the location for that which we call work.  Arendt’s idea of work, etymologically defined, is illustrated in what I call the project management view of effort.  Our work has a definite beginning and a definite end, in opposition to the cycle of labor and consumption which is eternal and ever-present, and differing from the political world in which our action there has no definite end.  However, she defines the social world as predominantly mass society.

Let’s get a clear understanding of the impacts of mass society.  One can see some of them above, from the relegation of dependants to isolation, to the social distancing already inherent in our behaviors surrounding social media and shopping, to the increase in anxiety, depression and emotional “un”intelligence that has seemed to pervade all social-psychological sciences of contemporary North America.  But there is a structural aspect to this that seems to escape much of our imagination and understanding about the relationship of the individual to the world around her.

In a recent conversation with a Ukrainian-educated doctor, it came to be clear to both of us that middle class human beings tread the same path from work to home, from home to work.  Other than a side trip to the supermarket, the occasional meal at a restaurant or cinema, or the gym, the great mass of society operates on this recurring path.  Bryan S. Turner has argued “that in modern societies the fluidity of social structures, the apparent absence of any clear relationship between success and worth, and the [close proximity] and visibility of competitive social groups have an inflationary effect on resentment.” (Turner, abstract) Most people resent, at least in part, much of their time spent outside of the house.  Every moment they are on this track to or from work, the individual is confronted with a mass society that gives little to each person, but requires so much.  This type of mass society is the consumerist society which asks for your money at every turn.

Living under the constant pressure of the transaction, the pressure that asks for your money, for your politeness, for your punctuality, for your professionalism, acts as a drain on many people.  For these people, social distancing is experienced as relief.  The demand is palpable, unrelenting, and unidirectional for the most part.  It is the consumerist world, driven by liberal-democratic secular claims on what the good life is.  Authentic individuals feel drained by that existence, and the reversion to home life, to social distancing, is not only experienced as relief, but perhaps as a recovery of the sanity of private life, and even perhaps the return to a life in which the development of the individual is again nurtured. (George Grant, In Conversation)

Social distancing, then, is really a welcome transformation from the social order of consumerism.  It is desirable because it no longer is lived transactionally.  It is lived in the relative freedom of privacy, and makes possible a life that has demands placed on it, but rather as an energy developing and expressing in the ebb and flow of the eternal.  In other words, mass society acts to clutter a more unfettered exercising of the authentic person. That is why social distancing is desired.  It is desired because it, in fact, is the progression of the resentment of mass society which burdens us and clutters our spiritual life. It is that frequently instinctual, and occasionally conscious, resentment which Charles Taylor outlines in his pivotal chapter “Cross Pressures”, in his book, The Secular Age, where he asks, “whether our moral or ethical life, properly understood, can really be captured by the accounts which fit with our favoured ontology.” (Taylor, p. 609) 

As a result, after realizing that social distancing can be experienced as necessary or inconvenient, it really is welcomed with open arms, because, for the first time since the advent of consumerist, mass society, everyone, en masse, will in fact be grateful for beginning to restructure their lives in ways not dictated by mass society, at least it can be hoped.  In Canada, it will mean that fans will not watch the NHL hockey playoffs for two straight months.  It will also mean that trips to the mall as a social activity will fade into memory as “something we used to do,” and may be engaged again with a certain nostalgia, although certainly not with the intensity of pre-COVID-19 appetites.

Thus, if we are to ask the question again, what is carried on, then we will find a restructuring of life away from the demands of mass society.  Perhaps, in retreating from mass society, people will finally structure their lives more around needs than around the pleasures, which has been concealed in the so-called “economic growth” and the rat race in which even the winners have lived an entire life transactionally, or in other words, as impoverished.

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