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Social Distancing: Notes on Self-Destruction

By George Raptis

Many people have written on the COVID-19 experience, mostly because it seems so inexpressible. It is easy to become lost for words when the world as you had once known it changes overnight, shuts itself off, locks itself in. During the lockdown period, I too found myself trying to make sense of this very much incomprehensible time by clutching at words, attempting to piece my thoughts together. On April 6th I typed a note on my phone:

“People playing hopscotch in the grocery store stuck to the “X’s” marked out on the floor, frozen by some unspoken law. Masks on, eyes scanning empty aisles, side-stepping/back-stepping around the frail man reaching for the box of cereal.”

I could only compare what I was seeing before me to child’s play. I dug deep into language and I could not find a better way to express how different everything had become.

But a new vocabulary multiplied and spread following the outbreak of COVID-19. Our very own state premier was televised daily, urging the people of NSW to stay indoors, to remain vigilant, to “socially distance.” This term, “social distance,” is one that confused me. In my mind, the two words did not fit together. It painted simultaneous images of intimacy and isolation that repelled one another like a child forcing two opposite ends of a pair of fridge magnets against each other. Writer and social commentator Fran Lebowitz voiced her own irritation about the new phrase whilst isolating in her New York apartment: “To me, the word ‘social’ should not be in there.”[1] I too had the same hiccup. The phrase was a plain contradiction.

But it was effortlessly and persistently used by all. It became one of the ways we could prevent the spread of COVID-19; wash your hands, maintain a social distance, stay at home if unwell (I recite these now like a kindergartener reciting their ABCs). The phrase was brandished everywhere; NSW Health advertisements, social media posts, television programs. We began to use it in our daily dialogue in Zoom meetings and phone calls as though the reality of the situation did not already make it clear to us that we were in fact distancing. By the end of the first wave in mid-April, we all came to know and agreed on what it meant to “social distance.”

However, I never got over the hiccup I had with the new phrase despite the world and its people facing much larger and less trivial problems than my own semantic confusion. Only now do I see the artifice in the term or, better yet, the trick I played on myself. The new phrase gave me the illusion that I had control of a situation that was very much beyond my control.

By giving something a name, we’re able confront it head on. We relate phenomena to words and thus give ourselves a way of structuring our experiences in our minds. It functions like a diagnosis; I can say X is the cause of my headaches and therefore I will do everything in my power to stop X. The same can be said for the phrase “social distance.” Without a vaccine, we could prevent the spread of the virus by keeping 1.5 metres apart. The very utterance of the phrase “social distancing” became a way that I could grasp some sort of control or at least believe I had any control on the viral outbreak.

I first began to understand this when I would speak to my yiayia via FaceTime. She believed in the essentiality of social distancing almost as though its very power could rid the world of COVID-19. She was convinced that despite the confusion the daily news dispensed, we had control because we could socially distance and this was mandated by health officials and the government. The very utterance of the phrase gave her a great sense of comfort.

Of course I have never doubted the utility of the act of social distancing; leaving roughly 1.5 metres between myself and a stranger on my walk home from work seems to be an easy and practical thing to do to prevent the spread of the virus. But our incessant use of the phrase does illuminate the way we as people can make certainty of a very much uncertain time through language. This is perhaps best understood by looking to the various ways the term was used throughout history. In an article written for Cabinet Magazine, doctoral student Lily Scherlis traced the political and scientific origins of the phrase and found its first iteration in a French memoir written by a friend of Napoleon Bonaparte.[2] The memoirist wrote that he felt “a great social distance” between himself and Napoleon after the notorious statesman had conquered Venice.[3] In this sense, the term described the unspoken divide between the old friends whose social ranks had suddenly changed.

The term took on a different tone in the United States where it was used as a veneer for racist attitudes against African American slaves. A pro-secession article written in 1856 described the anxieties of white farmers in their need to keep African Americans at “a greater social distance.”[4] I don’t doubt that the term has been used in this belligerent way across time and space, even in ongoing racial struggles.

Only much later did the term enter the medical discourse. The AIDS epidemic in the 1990s brought with it a palpable yet false stigma about contagion. There was an omnipresent belief that by touching a HIV-positive carrier it could transmit the virus from person to person.[5] Here the term “social distancing” not only functioned as a way of perpetuating harmful prejudice within communities, particularly against the gay community; the term also became a presumably effective way to protect oneself against the epidemic. 

Despite the chameleonic nature of the phrase, it seems that at every stage of its historical usage there was a need for people to acquire some semblance of control. Napoleon’s friend felt the need to name what was the all too familiar divide between classes. White America sought to abate their anxieties about soon-to-be emancipated slaves by finding a euphemism to turn them away, deny them land and rid them of opportunity. The world found a way to politely not shake someone’s hand in the fear that they would contract HIV using the label “social distancing.” Nowadays, we do the same, using both the language and the act of social distancing like a shield against the virus. It seems that at every stage of its usage, the term provided relief in the mind of its utterer. It gave people a means of identifying their problem and taking control of it through both action and thought.

At least for me, this simple trick worked. In believing I had control, even just by saying the phrase “social distance,” I could make some sense of this very much senseless time. The new vocabulary meant that I could put into words what was happening around me and therefore gain some control in my own life. If there is ever another time we find ourselves in a year of uncertainty (I don’t doubt that there will be many ahead), I’m certain these tricks with language we play on ourselves are bound to be repeated.

[1] Michael Schulman, “Fran Lebowitz is Never Leaving New York,” The New Yorker, accessed 20 April, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/fran-lebowitz-is-never-leaving-new-york.

[2] Lily Scherlis, “Distantiated Communities; A social history of social distancing,” Cabinet Magazine, accessed 2 November, 2020, http://cabinetmagazine.org/kiosk/scherlis_lily_30_april_2020.php.

[3] Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoelon Bonaparte, during the Periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831), p. 61.

[4] “The Compact Conservatism: A United South,: The Richmond Enquirer, 12 September 1856.

[5] Lily Scherlis, “Distantiated Communities; A social history of social distancing,” Cabinet Magazine, accessed 2 November, 2020, http://cabinetmagazine.org/kiosk/scherlis_lily_30_april_2020.php.