Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture (IPEC)

A Crisis of Sociality: Diminishing Our Lives Together

by Patty Sotirin, Professor of Communication


Recently a man was shot in a Family Dollar store over an argument about wearing face masks. The incident raises the question: what kind of crisis is this? While we know this is a health crisis, it has become just as much a crisis of everyday social conduct, what we call sociality. The hyperanxiety that pervades public spaces and everyday social interactions is being exacerbated by the changes in three critical dimensions: vigilance; distance; and compassion.

Vigilance: I flew to San Jose and back days before the governor of Michigan issued an extended Stay at Home order. On the return flight to Chicago, the pilot made an announcement as we reached cruising altitude: “You’ve probably heard that an earlier Chicago flight was forced to land in Denver because a passenger was coughing.” Although the passenger explained that he had allergies, the other passengers were so alarmed that the pilot landed in Denver and the passenger was removed out of a surfeit of caution. The passenger did not have COVID-19; he had allergies. But our vigilance over possible threats of infection has become acute. After all, people near you could be “silent” carriers, infecting you without realizing that they are infectious. The possibility fosters wariness and distrust; we now stand apart and move away from each other, we are wary of strangers, acquaintances, friends, and even family. Passing each other on the sidewalk now involves a tense social choreography of mutual avoidance. There is perhaps no better illustration of vigilance and risk than the practice of social “tracing” or mapping the social networks of anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and quarantining everyone. Mobilized by the risk of infection, this practice makes social life a threat in itself. The possible consequence of tracing is to encourage more restrained social contact and interaction. If you knew that exchanging brief pleasantries with the person standing near you was likely to require a 14-day quarantine, would you still engage in such an interaction? For some people, these concerns pale in relation to the need for vigilance over personal freedoms and autonomy and the threats public health measures pose to mobility, choice, and autonomy. Defensive confrontations have become more frequent. Vigilant social conduct portends the withering of small niceties, commonplace civilities, and a general sense of social trust: a permanent crisis of social interaction.

Distance: “social distancing” is the mantra of our lives. The adjustments being made to accommodate a six-foot distance are transforming how we conduct commonplace activities like shopping, schooling, and worshipping. At the same time, standing off from each other seems to increase the desire to connect with each other. We are promised that a vaccine will restore our ability to give hugs, high fives, work and play together, hold meetings and celebrations, or just stand shoulder-to-shoulder in grocery store lines, socialize with friends at a coffeehouse or bar, or attend massive entertainment and sports events. Our hunger to return to these previously commonplace close-contact activities also makes us hyperaware of how much our everyday lives are lived in close proximity. Even invisible lines of proximity have become more apparent: for example, the supply chain proximities among everyday consumers, grocery store clerks, and agricultural workers or meat packers. The various stay-at-home restrictions we have experienced highlight the stark and consequential inequities of social resources: some have worked from home online and filled long boring hours with Zoom and streaming videos; others have been laid off from low-paying jobs, marshalling ever-dwindling resources to feed families and avoid evictions. Social, economic, technological, geographic stratifications have become vividly apparent during both isolation and recovery. It is clear that social distancing has been in effect for a long time, keeping the affluent safely distanced while race/age/poverty have increased death tolls in urban neighborhoods. People with the class-race-wealth wherewithal are beginning to move from dense-by-design urban areas into newly regenerated suburbs and more rural areas like the Upper Peninsula. We are likely to find that social distancing will continue to shape our social interactions, not by keeping us six-feet apart but through new configurations of proximity and distance that cement long-standing divisions and newly emergent enmities.

Compassion: we hear often about the compassion of frontline health workers who comfort dying patients isolated from their families and loved ones. Yet compassion, or being one in suffering, has proven an unreliable strategy for addressing newly desperate situations. Consider the stories of ethical choices made over who should be put on one of the too-few ventilators that could save a life—an 85-year-old grandmother or a 45-year-old father? Choices like this used to occupy college ethics courses yet now we hear public debates over how many deaths are the necessary price for opening the economy. More than ever, we need self- and mutual compassion. Enforced isolation and the climate of vigilance and anxiety have fostered crises of mental illness, COVID-related anxieties, and intimate violence. Experts warn about a surging emotional pandemic in response to isolation, loneliness, constant anxiety, hopelessness. There are millions of people in despair over sudden impoverishment, loss of possibilities for schooling or employment, and the deaths of those they know and love; in short, despair over loss, diminished options, and failing support. Even those who may escape such emotional devastation are faced with ongoing demands to perform difficult emotional labor. We must manage emotions-made-raw in innumerable and unavoidable ways: weeks of living too closely together with household members; the frustrations and anxieties of adapting to new rules and restrictions on where, when, and how public life can resume; the Kafkaesque experience of applying for much-needed social support programs; and the incessant online onslaught of heart-rending stories, funding appeals, opinionated commentary, amateur videos, and predatory misinformation. Collectively and individually, we are suffering even as we drain our capacities for personal and social compassion. Yet it may be that compassion is more critical to future well-being than any other public health measure. A crisis of compassion is collapsing the most vital resources we have for living well together.

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