‘Social distancing’ a most unfortunate term

If what is meant to be communicated is the need to observe a certain amount of physical distance (e.g., 1 meter) from other individuals in order to lessen the likelihood of transmitting an infectious disease, a less confusing term might have been more appropriate. For example: “safe distancing” or “hygienic distancing” or “protective distancing.”

Long before the World Health Organization gave it a different meaning, the term “social distance” had a very precise meaning as a sociological concept. It had nothing to do with preventing the spread of communicable diseases. The term specifically referred to the social differentiation that people tend to observe, consciously or unconsciously, in everyday life. This is seen in the distinctions they apply when dealing with members of different social classes, racial and ethnic groups, or religious communities.

This is a phenomenon that social psychologists in particular have tried to measure—perhaps because its persistence contradicts the democratic ethos to which the modern person supposedly subscribes. The sociologist Emory Bogardus designed a “social distance scale” that measures the predisposition or willingness of individuals to participate in social interaction of varying degrees of closeness with members of other ethnic groups or social classes, etc.

The test typically included questions like: Would you allow your daughter/son to marry someone from this group (a racial or religious group)? Would you welcome having such person as a neighbor? As a coworker? As a roommate in a dormitory? Would you be willing to accept such person as a fellow citizen in your country? The list of questions pertains to a variety of situations–all intended to measure the social distance people tend to put between themselves and those they perceive to be different.

The crucial word, I believe, is “social.” In its everyday usage, it is equated with face-to-face interaction. Thus, to “socialize” is to mix around or circulate. Epidemiologists and public health specialists may have taken off from this usage to arrive at the term “social distancing” to indicate the need to avoid physical closeness and social gatherings during an infectious disease outbreak.

This is an unfortunate use of a term that the age of digital communication has long stripped of any descriptive value. The truly “social” no longer resides in face-to-face interaction. It is to be found rather in the countless forms of communication that human beings have invented across time–from letters to SMS messages to email to the mind-boggling communication platforms we collectively call the “social media.”

The coronavirus may have physically grounded us and separated us from one another, but, mercifully, this virus is not transmissible through the internet. In physical absence and enforced isolation, we are rediscovering the value of social media as an intensifier of relationships. This mode of communication has facilitated the renewal of cherished social connections without the attendant awkwardness that sometimes marks face-to-face interactions.

The dividing line between the real world and the virtual world is fading so fast that nowadays one could hardly feel the difference. To the extent that digital technology has made communication in real time possible irrespective of distance, to that extent has human society become global. For, what we call society is nothing but the forms of communication that humans produce about their environment and about themselves.

This brings me to a core issue that the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has brought upon us. All communication about this threat is now inescapably global. We get information about how other countries are affected by it, are dealing with it, independently of what our government and the national media are telling us.

This means that nearly anyone with a smartphone is technically in a position to understand the nature of this threat and what it can do to human beings and their societies. Equipped with their practical rationality, they instinctively know what problems this poses for them, and what options they have in the face of the restrictions their governments and communities impose by way of controlling the contagion.

This is a complex situation that can easily descend into chaos. The main question people will ask is whom to trust as a source of reliable information and guidance. Trust is the simplest way to reduce complexity. In its absence, people will go ahead and decide for themselves what they must do to survive.

In traditional societies, people tend to trust those at the top of the political hierarchy who they believe have the best view of what is going on. That commanding view, for a long time, was ascribed to the state and its officials. That is no longer the case.

In the globalized society we live in, trust is not only earned; it is, more importantly, also functionally differentiated. Governments may tell us the right way to respond to a public health crisis. But they cannot tell us what a coronavirus is, how it is transmitted, and how it kills people. That kind of information is more credible when it is communicated by the science system itself.

Unfortunately, science may not always speak with one voice, particularly in the early stages of a catastrophe like a pandemic. But, the less it is tethered to external interests, the better it can perform its function. And that function is to produce truths and solutions that are available to all human beings regardless of their social class, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.