Physical Distancing but Social Togethering:
Posted: Apr 07, 2020
An editorial and call for submissions
Here in Toronto, we’re about three weeks into our new status quo. Bars are closed, events are cancelled, and we’re used to it. People walk sparsely, in ones or twos, omitting the passing wave and smile that I’ve become accustomed to living here. We haven’t turned mean, we’re just concerned and inward. There’s a strange love in it.
As our society’s cohesiveness comes to be defined by its distance, I can’t say I’m surprised. Something about it feels inevitable to me. It’s neoliberal selfhood on steroids; it’s what we’ve been practicing for all along. The gadgets are here to allow our sustenance via consumption of mass goods. Social media is here to keep our identities in tact for others. And above all, we are told that our largest contribution to society right now is to distance ourselves from each other. That is our agency: Spread apart, be alone, take in the world through a screen, live your work life at home, wait inside until we got this thing under control. Sanitary life happens alone.
This is what’s being called “social distancing.” And before you send me the graph of the tall curve and the flat curve, let me reassure you that I get it. I’m complying. It’s crucial. But it’s also not the term I would use for what I’ve been seeing happening in my world, nor is it the experience I would wish on the world at large. Perhaps “physical distancing,” or something like it. But for the social, a tightening; a togethering.
By social togethering, I mean an intentional approach to community life. We (a “we” that includes the coronavirus) are rewriting the social code, and amid the fear that that brings up, there has been a recognition that socializing is not a given. In Toronto, efforts to cultivate a sense of caring community are evident in the proliferation of dance parties and free concerts over Zoom, the conversion of Little Free Libraries into de facto neighbourhood food banks, a widespread commitment to supporting small local businesses, and the creation of online places to develop networks of mutual aid (such as CaremongeringTO’s facebook group and SURJ-TO’s crowdsourced resource document). In displacing us from our usual urban wanderings, the coronavirus has stoked greater appreciation for the local as more than a geography of convenience, but rather as our geography of co-contingent wellbeing. In placing us firmly in our 600 square feet of rented home, it has also jolted us into proactivity for creating deeper forms of online relating.
Experiments in social togethering on the personal front look to be happening intuitively. However, they are largely focused on the citizenry bailing each other out. How do we enact togethering on the political front? One side-effect of COVID-19 seems to be the obliteration of any other topic from mainstream news. Reports of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations for sovereignty over traditional territories, or the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario for reversing cuts to public education, have largely disappeared. The struggles, however, have not. To come closer together politically means to not abandon our commitment to important social issues because we have to stay inside; it means learning to hold these issues in close proximity to COVID-19, rather than keeping them at arms’ distance. To do so, we can ask questions such as, who is left out of the Coronavirus story? Who is making the rules, and who is reporting them? How are society’s existing problems being highlighted and transformed in relationship to the COVID-19 world? And finally, how can we think and work in ways that allow us to address the intersection of COVID-19 and everything else, rather than put one issue aside to attend to another? Otherwise, holding it all separately is an exercise in amateur juggling: exhausting, and inevitable that everything will fall.
My own pondering of these questions has brought me to reflect on the connection between Coronavirus decision-making and socioeconomic privilege, the failures of capitalism that become all the more apparent under the stress of the virus, and the vulnerability of collective action under a neoliberal status quo. While the well-to-do can spend this time engaging in leisurely forms of waiting, physical distancing means something entirely different to those for whom job loss means the immediate precarity of their home, wellbeing of their dependents, and ability to contend in the race for hoarded food and hygiene products. Furthermore, the insidious social ethic of responsiblization fuses our lifestyle choices to the economy, in that ensuring our safety under stress requires us to have made choices to work jobs that provide long-term financial stability, to participate in the investment economy, and to stock up money and supplies for a rainy day – choices that are mainly available to those who have already made the prerequisite choice of being able-bodied men who come from financial stability and white settler heritage. The onus of responsibility for one’s own welfare puts many in the unfortunate position of having to choose poverty or make the risky choice to continue working in hazardous conditions.
Physical distancing also forces a wedge into collective projects designed to challenge capitalism’s stranglehold on wellbeing. A flagrant case of this is occurring in northern British Columbia, where the Wet’suwet’en First Nations have been locked in long battle with energy corporations and the government of Canada over their sovereign right to refuse the building of gas pipelines on their land. COVID-19 lockdowns have led to important clan meeting postponements, and raised concerns about the safety of checkpoint defenders. At the same time, TC Energy continues to build the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, a project that involves hundreds of workers who travel in from all over the country and risk introducing the coronavirus to the local community. Here, colonialism and the virus collapse into each other. The global loudness of the pandemic becomes another excuse to sideline issues of Indigenous rights, and the corporate frontier of colonialism is defended by threat of deadly disease.
So if we’re all talking about COVID-19 anyway, I would prefer to talk about it in ways that draw attention to those persistent cracks in society that grow even larger and more dangerous as they take on more stress. Correspondingly, I also think it would be important to interpret the morals of the COVID-19 story as perennial morals that make themselves evident under every rock on a capitalist planet: That money cannot be the substance that makes life (let alone good life) possible. That our wellbeing cannot be contingent on an economy predicated on the exploitation of labourers, marginalized communities, or of the Earth and its viability as the life-giver of humans and our more-than-human kin. Approaching COVID-19 with the intention of togethering invites us to look for the cure for the disease and for society in the same place. If we come through it right, we’ll have managed the pandemic by the same moves we made to cultivate intersectional solidarity, spend whatever privilege we have, dismantle systemic barriers to health and wellness, and hold governments accountable to people and land over corporations and austerity measures (to continue exploring this idea, check out this blog in Rampant, and this video by Naomi Klein). After all, could we really be said to have cured a disease if it leaves the social body further fractured and clinging to its self-destructive addictions harder than ever before?
This blog post skates around questions and topics each of which warrant a deep dive in their own right. But in the spirit of being overtaken by a new social order in what has felt like the blink of an eye, frazzled thoughts had to be put to page fast to make way for greater depth and specificity. In saying that, as current editor of Standpoints, I would like to invite anyone feeling called to do so to submit their critical perspectives, experiences with projects in togethering, and creative reactions to the coronavirus and its intersections with other social issues. Written, audio and video, and artistic pieces are all welcome. I’m looking forward to featuring works that demonstrate how COVID-19 vexes a world of binaries, bringing conversations about the pandemic together with conversations about psychology and social and ecological justice.
Tal Davidson is a PhD student in the Historical, Theoretical, and Critical Studies of Psychology program at York University. His current research explores Ecopsychology as a framework that combines social and ecological justice with personal healing and psychotherapeutics. He is also a project manager at Psychology’s Feminist Voices, and has been involved with the project since 2012.