We all know what is meant by the most popular phrase in the universe right now, ‘social distancing,’ but the term is unacceptable to me on at least three levels. I would rather go for the term ‘spatial distancing’ than ‘social distancing,’ and here’s why.
The world is in wartime mode, fighting a pandemic that hasn’t spared any country or territory on the globe and so this is not the moment to be squabbling over words. But for what it’s worth let me get this ‘social’ versus ‘spatial’ debate off my chest!
The COVID-19 formula to contain the pandemic locally and to ‘flatten the curve’ globally has mainly been hand washing (or sanitizing), masking up (depending on who you listen to) and ‘social distancing.’ The latter has meant anything from being six feet away from your neighbour to simply staying at home.
While the mode of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus calls for such a physical distancing from one another in order not to contract the disease or infect others (if you already have it) my problem with the term ‘social distancing’ is three-fold.
1. THE SOCIOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
First of all, we are social beings. We all know ‘No man is an island,’ a popular quote from the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631). Distancing ourselves from one another at anytime has harmful consequences let alone at such a time as this. My friends on Face Book and I, knowing what was meant by ‘social distancing’ yet unhappy with what it connotes, began this discussion a couple of weeks ago and tried to find another term. We initially landed on ‘physical distancing’ which is as clear as day yet doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘social distancing.’ As succinctly put by Nana Efua, “‘social distancing’ sounds more hip.” Theo Aryee even went ahead to take screenshots of dictionary definitions of physical (“relating to the body as opposed to the mind”/”involving bodily contact or activity”) and social (“relating to society or its organization”/”needing companionship and therefore be suited to living in communities”) for comparison online.
Some don’t mind the term ‘social distancing’; it’s no big deal to them. As Esi put it, “I personally don’t see the fuss… When in SOCIAL contexts, (as in, when with other human beings), keep your distance. “Same Difference”, and since the memo has been circulated already, we might as well not muddy the waters.” I was pleased to read in the Los Angeles Times that those of us fussing on Face Book were not alone. In an article entitled “Isolation is hazardous to your health. The term ‘social distancing’ doesn’t help,” the staff writer refers to a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Daniel Aldrich, who says, “The moment I heard public health authorities use the term, I thought they were making a mistake.” I was pleased to read that his preference, like my friends and I, was “physical distancing.”
“Aldrich fears the phrase “social distancing” suggests we should be turning inward and closing ourselves off from friends and neighbors in the outside world.” I concur. He hits the nail right on the head: “That’s the exact opposite of what we want people to do. You need to have as close social ties as possible when physical distancing is in effect.” As a medical doctor I know social connections affect many socioeconomic and health indicators and from Aldrich’s own post-disaster studies, actually directly affect death rates.
2. THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
I find the anti ‘social distancing’ reaction of experts from a generally individualistic Western society intriguing as anthropologically, they are more likely to come up with a term like that. For the West, especially since the Enlightenment with its “I think therefore I am” movement, autonomy and individualism are rife. As someone born and raised in the global south, where to be is to be in community, I would say if ‘social distancing’ sounds bad to a Westerner then it’s anathema to the Majority World.
For the Global North, generally, I am because I think; for the rest, I am because we are. The South African Bantu term Ubuntu, to wit “I am because you are,” encapsulates the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. There is no personhood without the other and we depend on community connection, conversation and caring. For honor-shame cultures, which two-thirds of the world is, social distancing is synonymous with having a cause for shame. If you consider Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition of ubuntu in his 1999 book you will see how it’s the exact opposite of ‘social distancing’: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
3. THE THEOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
Finally as a Christ-follower, and a pastor at that, I always try to theologically reflect on the words, terms and concepts I use. ‘Social distancing’ (again while we all know what is meant) wouldn’t cut it theologically. The nature of the Triune God—one-in-three, three-in-one—of the Christian faith, as argued by Tertullian (c.155-220 A.D.) of Tunisia, is that “from all eternity God is one, but God is not alone.” Right from Genesis 1:1, Elohim (the Hebrew word for God) is a plural noun, most explicitly seen in Genesis 1:26 where God says, “Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness.” As another theologian put it, “at the centre of the universe is a relationship.” At the centre of the universe is a community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Since this article is not an apologetic for the Trinity, suffice it to say that mankind having been made in the image and likeness of the Triune God who is himself relationship, family, community and social, cannot be ‘socially distant’ and remain human. In the above March 18, 2020 Facebook post I wanted to sound a caution, especially since churches were at the cusp of being forced to close for physical meetings, that the last thing anyone should do at this time is to lose not only the horizontal relationship with each other (as explained in the first two points above) but also the vertical relationship with God as well. God’s family, the ‘household of faith,’ is not referred to as ‘the body of Christ’ for nothing. There can be no social or spiritual distancing of any of the body parts.
So it was with utmost excitement on the eve of April Fool’s day that I posted the following on my Face Book wall (which has suffered a lot of graffiti since the COVID-19 broke out): “Eureka! I’ve found it! “SPACIAL DISTANCING”; that’s the word that does the job, doesn’t kill the socially and spiritually close beings we’re meant to be but still sounds as cool as “social distancing”!”
I’m on a personal campaign to kill ‘social distancing’ and replace it with ‘spacial distancing.’ Human beings can afford to be physically distant for a season but die in more ways than one when we become socially and spiritually distant, even for a brief moment. Off to keep up the fight with clean hands against the Coronavirus; spacial distancing it is while at it. Selah.