Touching you, touching me

Social distancing, stigma, and the forgiveness of trespass

—From the National Archives, Via Wikimedia.


A curious effect of social distancing: how suddenly and how poignantly we appreciate, we crave, the ready-to-hand bumptiousness of our prior public intimacies. In our frequent fretting about the distractions of our devices and the abstractions of life under surveillance capitalism, we seem to have lost track of how richly those quotidian intimacies—the handshake; the coffee break; the strap-hanging, morose, simian convivium of the subway car—are very much still at work, shaping and sustaining our relations, in spite of our entrancing devices.

I’ve spent too much of the day digging through Google Books and Google Scholar, seeking the genealogy of the term “social distancing,” tracing its minor history. I find it through the twentieth century in the social sciences, where it is used to describe the performance of strictures among castes, ethnic groups, or age sets. Avoidance of eye contact; gendered restrictions on freedom of movement; proscriptions against touching or sharing space with certain kinds of other—such norms are everywhere in social lives, invisible, unconscious, voids of non-experience.

We all do social distancing of this kind all the time. I grew up in the midwest, and have struggled with learning to accept the kind of amicable hugs that are common among my coastal, cosmopolitan friends and colleagues. It’s not merely that I’m not a “hugger” out of some quirk of character; it’s that the sets of folks I was socialized to hug, and those sets with whom I learned to practice social distancing, might be differently dappled than yours. My struggle to become a fluent hug-receiver is the effect of a definite social-distancing norm that patterns my consciousness.

For all their ubiquity, the forms and norms called “social distancing” in sociological usage are hardly ever entirely innocuous. Think of the sorts of folks with whom one rarely comes in contact; now consider the extent to which those distances might never be innocent and fortuitous, but the work of rites and practices. Seemingly invisible, “social distancing” in sociology names this force-field extrusion of cultural forms—the very architecture of othering, solid as masonry.

The arrival of “social distancing” in epidemiology seems to come by way of this usage: expert authors, writing about HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis ca. 2005, discuss social distancing both as an effect of stigma and as a public-health protocol. (It isn’t that the suite of social-distancing protocols we’ve been discussing, debating, and performing in the last couple weeks are new in public health—only that the current terminology has arisen more recently.) I haven’t drilled down enough to identify precisely where our seemingly-neutral, prescriptive usage of “social distancing” emerges, though it seems to become widespread in the discourse around the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, and papers from that time indicate awareness of the sticky, fraught nature of the concept.

“Social distancing” in our current sense has been common in public-health discussions for more than a decade now. And yet in the coronavirus context, it seems to obtrude with fraught energy; our experience of it is somehow dark, knotty, confusing. Eager to signal our participation in the suppression of disease, we perform our distancing, comment on it, use our media to document its rigors and effects. We note the transgressions of others who pass within range of breath; with chagrin or frustration, we withdraw from near-miss handshakes, and elbow-bump with clumsy alacrity. Oops, there is is—and again, and again—the invisible architecture of othering. Along with hoarding, traveling, and shopping, ignoring the new social distancing suddenly creeps us out, reveals itself as a kind of negative transgression with all the prickly, febrile energy of an unwanted hug. And for good reason—social distancing as prescription, throws a kind of vague light on proscriptions that are too often invisible.

Note: I’m not saying that social distancing is not important or useful or real! As Donna Haraway says, facts aren’t made up, but they are made. I’m trying to sketch the strange history of “social distancing” as a slippery descriptor only to unpick why it feels so weird. And it’s important to consider how, for folks already living under the pressure of social-distancing norms in our society—the elderly, the homeless, immigrants, the incarcerated—these new and even salutary forms of social distancing will fall with aggravating force.

I want to say, maybe, that alongside the architectures of othering we carry with us, we need to build architectures of each-othering as well.

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