The tyranny of distance

Humans adapt. You don’t have to be a dedicated evolutionist to see that when social conditions change, humans change too. Our adaptations may not be uniform, but we are shaped by the social condiitons and rules we are embedded in. How have the social distancing rules affected our social lives? Are we affected equally? And will we want to go back when it’s over?

Social work relies on understanding and responding to the social world, and addressing inequities in that world. But many elements of our social lives as well as social inequalities have been reshaped by the ‘distancing’ requirements of the covid19 pandemic lockdown rules. The covid-19 distancing rules differ slightly between nations, but generally involve only essential workers at work, (many others working from home) schools businesses and sports all closed, and food shopping the only really legitimate reason to be out of the house. When we are, staying 2m away from every other human (apart from those from your household ‘bubble’) is required.

These distancing rules are now the hard filter through which everything we do must pass: our work practices, personal relationships, leisure time and exercise. All of these must be undertaken only in ways that meet the rule criteria, refracting them into new forms. Distancing rules are the ‘rules of the game’ that are currently ascendant, changing our social norms and reshaping relationships of power. This blog explores some of these changes, and reflects on what it means for our experience of social life.

The rule implementation process is important. Its rapid pace and high stakes reinforcers lead to a stressful and for some, traumatic learning curve. The twin fears of the virus itself (contracting or spreading it) and the social approbation involved in getting the rules wrong (heaven forbid you might be called a ‘flouter’) are powerful teachers for most. Overnight we learnt of the threat itself and of the reach of social control that was possible into our lives. Images of dreadful death tolls flooded our screens. We quickly learned to worry about if Myrtle on the corner saw us drive to take the dog for a walk, or fret about what we might tell the cops if we are stopped in the car. Fear is a powerful teacher, both directly and in social observation of others. This tends to make learning ‘stick’ for many. But learning the rules is variegated by other factors. Not everyone is worried about the virus, and not everyone wants to accept the rules imposed from above. Rather than construing this as just irresponsible selfishness, I wonder if it’s better thought of as the opting out of people who have little pre-existing investment in the  political-middle-class- media industrial complex, combined with a sense of resistance to the disease itself. If the state has done little for you before this, and you have a sense of physical imperviousness to the disease, then the rules are less likely to ‘stick’ to you. This is why it’s likely that the the prime rule breakers are likely to be young, male and working class – those smack bang in the overlap of a sense of being bulletproof, and little investment in the rules of the ruling class.

What are the effects of these well-learned rules? Somewhat contradictorily, they are superficially a great leveller, but more fundamentally, a reinforcer of old inequalities. We all have to line up at the supermarket and sanitise our hands, but the homes we are returning to afterwards are quite different. Some had warm, spacious homes with well-stocked pantries even before the lockdown. They can comfortably ‘hole up’ for a few weeks, no problem. Their jobs are secure and they have backstop assets. But at the other end, there are those who are held even more forcefully in substandard housing, overcrowded and with limited food, without the usual outlets of work, school, hobbies, parks and sports. No job, no income and little liklihood of recovery. These divisions will only increase, but for now are hidden behind closed doors. Inequalities around the care of children, on the other hand, are writ large. My friend (and we all have this friend or are this friend) is a single parent with two young children, now working from home and still expected to bill the same number of hours at her paid-for job while looking after them. Inequities relating to the labour of childcare are made more visible than ever, as kids are forced into the ‘work world’ consciousness by things like work call intrusions, and the frank admission of the government that schools need to open to enable more people to go back to work. But economic inequities are also silently growing.

What about the ways that social boundaries have been drawn? Like dividing Africa, assumptions about the lines around the household as the primary social unit only roughly approximate lived realities. They make sense from a disease perspective – those we are physically close to – but are fairly arbitrary as a marker of our primary social groups or ‘felt families’. By demarking those lines of inclusion and exclusion so forcefully, the household social unit is strengthened while others are diminished. We are molded into a dense core, our outer limbs blown off in pandemic winds. The extended families spread across several housholds in a city may be fractured, but place-based neighborhoods seem to be revived. We see our street-fellows much more now, without the ebb and flow of the nine to five gutting the suburbs daily, as we pad restlessly around our ‘local’ streets. Some collectivities are fortified while others wane.

Attitudes towards the body are also shaped anew, creating new ‘others’. Our bodies are the problem – their messy cavities the source of disease, their ability to carry tiny killers silently, and without our consent, a betrayal of our intentions. The body is disloyal at the best of times, but in a pandemic with rapid and virulent transmission, its deceit knows no bounds. We discipline it by sanitising its extremities, control its emissions, fear the messy fluids of other bodies. It is this fear of the bodies of others that results in intense ‘othering’ behaviour. We literally avoid proximity to others in the street, in the supermarket, crossing the road to avoid contact. While usually related to class or ethnicity, this new othering of literally every ‘other’ outside our bubbles as a potential source of disease creates social aversion like never before. In person, at least.

But then there is the online world, the saviour, the promise of social connection. In work and personal relationships, the possibility for misunderstanding emotion and intent, and the curated nature of projections of the self in online environments, raise questions about how such forms are shaping our sense of the self and social relationships. Many online vehicles are effective enhancers of both personal and professional relationships, maintaining bonds of both indviduals and communities. Yet they can be self-consiously performative in a way face to face interactions are usually not. Zoom meetings, for all their functional abilities, require a certain intentional way of speaking, a structured manner of interacting useful for a work meeting or teaching task, less useful for those interactions that require silent nuanced observation of the face and body, or require the subtle combination of space, speech and action to be able to be made sense of.

Yet the experience of shifting communications online are also patterned by age, competence and experience. Those younger and with high competence across a number of different complex interactive technologies may disagree that it’s a somehow lesser form of communication, and questions about the relative authenticity of online communication compared to face to face are as old as the question do androids dream of electric sheep? A team who has played many games where they must work in highly coordinated strategies, can speak to each other in real time and in chat may argue that even if they have never met face to face, the type of collaboration required, and the extensive, complex nature of the technologies they use enable a curious depth, rather than superficiality of relationship. Some people are emboldened in text, saying things they would never say in person, enabling rather than supressing honesty (but also unbridled cruelty).

What will happen after it’s all over? Will these changed social forms return to as they were? Will economic inequities become more visible, and those relating to childcare return to invisibility? Will we still flinch when a person stands too close to us in the supermarket line, only feel truly safe at home in our bubble or on the internet, overthink how our ‘outside’ actions appear to others, prefer the more mediated and managed self we can create online? Or are we desperate to return to proximity, to hugging, handshake and kiss, to frame our families as we wish, get away from our neighbours? Which do you prefer?

Image credit: Russ Allison Loar

3 thoughts on “The tyranny of distance

  1. Thank you for this very thought-provoking piece, Emily.
    I have been in many electronic meetings now and continue to find them deeply unsatisfactory and have tried to explain this to myself. I think we humans overemphasise the value of just two senses – sight and sound – which, to a certain extent, are reproduced electronically on screen and speaker. We are less conscious of smell, taste and touch – unaware at one level of all those pheromone communications transferring at a subliminal level.
    I think perhaps that some people are more reliant on, or in touch with, these other senses? I’m certainly one of them (I have poor hearing, perhaps this is part of it) and I feel truly sensorily deprived. For me electronic meetings are like being shown photos of a meal rather than eating it. Surely there is no comparison?!
    And yes, I worry about the longer term effects of seeing people as disease-bearing ‘others’. When walking with my grandchildren (we have been isolating together) I reiterate as much as possible the joy of other people and the very specific reasons for this current behaviour so they don’t see it as ‘normal’.
    By the way, I really recommend E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops‘. Written more than a century ago, it really resonates with today. Forster even uses the term ‘isolating’ (without the redundant ‘self-‘).

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful,thought provoking work. While on many points, this article leads me to include Hannah Arendt 1958 work, …
    Modernity is ground for organised loneliness. This the grass roots of terrorism
    Thinking is the human power to keep possibility alive. Globalism is expansion for resources not for human social and spiritual needs. The effects of globalism are a threat to all for us, our identity and our nationalities. These can become lost – any of us can be turned overnight to refugees unless we see what is happening and say we don’t want this freedom unless everyone has this freedom, liberty of movement and liberty. Globalism as it moves in its reach for resources, proposes whom is in and whom is out-and we all face the risk of being separated from what is meaningful. We are each at risk.
    The vulnerable part of our recovery is to claim friendship as an art that is both personal and political actions in which to think, talk, reflect. This is a thinking which is open, not a thinking which seeks to produce something. Conversely modernity un predicts the human conditions, sets the scene for organised loneliness.

    To claim our humanity, we
    1-Make and honour promises to each other.What could be our social work promise in pandemic circumstances, immediate relief such as for your single parent example, yet defining and being part of a new normal?
    2- We generate a culture of forgiveness for the risk in communication means we will get it wrong sometimes, we need apologize and forgive (this involves a state of becoming vulnerable to each other; i felt this quality in your writing-thank you). This motivates a political community to also forgive.
    3-We need generate a culture of being able to think, and create space for thinking. This site marks this culture and is perhaps the only nest able to contain those fledgling thoughts at present?-
    4-We need say what we believe distinct from saying what we inherently disbelieve. Our words matter.
    5- Truth and meaning is formed between people through shared testimony, myths, storytelling arts, and meaning is what binds us to these words. Speaking together differently leads us to the potential to live together differently-

    Hannah- The Human Condition (1958).First Edition. University of Chicago Press-also On Being-Civil Conversations projects 2017

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. There are many gems in here and in particular the bits about the current conditions being made for ‘organised lonliness’. The ways the pandemic has forced us to seek social connections in different ways, and the effectiveness or otherwise of these, will be one thing to keep an eye on in the future. I need to re-read Arendt!

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