The mis­use of the term ‘so­cial dis­tanc­ing’

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Michael Bar­nett CON­TRIB­U­TOR Michael Bar­nett is a se­nior lec­turer in so­ci­ol­ogy at The Univer­sity of the West Indies.

THE CUR­RENT coro­n­avirus pan­demic has un­doubt­edly ex­acted an un­mea­sur­able toll on the med­i­cal health and the economies of na­tions glob­ally. How­ever, what I would like to fo­cus on is the so­cial im­pact that it has had on ci­ti­zens the world over.

At a fun­da­men­tal level, a key thing that I think needs to be tack­led is the mis­use of the term ‘so­cial dis­tanc­ing’ in the midst of this pan­demic. Wear­ing the hat of a so­ci­ol­o­gist in this in­stance, let me say that we should first recog­nise that hu­man be­ings are im­plic­itly so­cial be­ings, and while we recog­nise the im­por­tance of main­tain­ing a phys­i­cal dis­tance from one an­other to cur­tail the spread of the virus, we should not be en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be so­cially dis­tant from one an­other, which is what we are im­ply­ing when we use the term ‘so­cial dis­tanc­ing’, whether we re­alise it or not.

To be phys­i­cally dis­tant does not ne­ces­si­tate be­ing so­cially dis­tant from one an­other, and if any­thing, we should be guard­ing against this. In fact, we should be striv­ing to main­tain so­cial con­nec­tiv­ity while be­ing phys­i­cally dis­tant. This might be more dif­fi­cult in these un­usual times, but it is some­thing that we should all strive to do, via the In­ter­net, via the var­i­ous telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices at our dis­posal, and via the var­i­ous me­dia plat­forms to which we may have ac­cess. This is more im­por­tant now than be­fore, be­cause di­min­ished so­cial con­nec­tiv­ity as a re­sult of phys­i­cal iso­la­tion will have grave con­se­quences for us at all lev­els, as com­mu­ni­ties, so­ci­eties, na­tions and as a global com­mu­nity. The so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing of in­di­vid­u­als has to be some­thing that we all take se­ri­ously as a global fam­ily. And in this light, band­ing around the term ‘so­cial dis­tanc­ing’ should not be done as ca­su­ally as it is at present.

‘So­cial dis­tanc­ing’ sug­gests be­ing so­cially dis­tant, or in plain terms be­ing an­ti­so­cial, whether we are con­sciously aware of it or not. This is the mes­sage that we are pro­ject­ing, at a sub­lim­i­nal level (if not overtly), when­ever we ut­ter the term pub­licly.

IN­AP­PRO­PRI­ATE TERM

I don’t know who con­strued this term in the first place, but I am al­most cer­tain that it was not a so­ci­ol­o­gist. Yes, the term has now gar­nered world­wide use by peo­ple from all walks of life, from politi­cians to in­tel­lec­tu­als, to jour­nal­ists, to lay per­sons, but does that make it ap­pro­pri­ate? In my mind, no; it is not.

As I men­tioned be­fore, while be­ing phys­i­cally dis­tant is a nec­es­sary evil be­cause of the per­ilous na­ture of the novel coro­n­avirus, we, at the same time, should not be striv­ing to be so­cially dis­tant, so­cially dis­con­nected or so­cially iso­lated from one an­other if we can help it at all. If any­thing, we should be com­pen­sat­ing for phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing by mak­ing more ef­forts to fa­cil­i­tate and main­tain so­cial con­nec­tiv­ity through in­ge­nious non-phys­i­cal means. This is not just im­por­tant from the per­spec­tive of so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing (i.e., men­tal health), but also from the per­spec­tive of main­tain­ing our very hu­man­ity.

Let the new mantra be ‘phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing’, not ‘so­cial dis­tanc­ing’.

‘To be phys­i­cally dis­tant does not ne­ces­si­tate be­ing so­cially dis­tant from one an­other, and if any­thing, we should be guard­ing against this. In fact, we should be striv­ing to main­tain so­cial con­nec­tiv­ity while be­ing phys­i­cally dis­tant.’

So­cial dis­tanc­ing be­ing prac­tised in the cus­tomers’ wait­ing area of a com­pany.

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