Updated: 2 days ago
The coronavirus guidance and lockdown rules lead, among other things, to the disappearance of normal physical social contact as we have always known it. What role will the human dimension play in the new social contract, and are we aware of the underlying foundations?
To embrace: ‘Where meaning disappears, suspicion and control appear’.
How can you show you love someone without ‘holding’ that person? After all, if words fall short, or if we want to underline them, we use different ways of communicating. Non-verbal and effective; we touch each other.
Since World War II there has been a lot of research into the effects of social physical contact or the lack thereof. During the first year of psychology lectures, research by the late American psychologist Harry Harlow is often cited. Nowadays that is like throwing a monkey wrench in the works, and therewith causing problems for legislators in corona times. His research has become a metaphor. Harlow looked at baby rhesus monkeys that were separated from their mothers. They were offered two non-animal mother alternatives: a monkey mother made of wire and wood and a monkey mother wrapped in a cotton cloth. The baby monkeys almost all chose the surrogate mother in cloth, even when the wire mother was the only one with a bottle of milk. From this Harlow deduced that the baby monkeys needed more than just food from their mother to stay alive (1). Babies don't survive if they are not touched, adults do, but don't ask how. Various studies of the past 70 years show that physical contact makes us healthier and less stressed. From a social point of view, touching each other is an important means of communication and connection, because a well-placed touch stimulates trust and cooperation. It is the quickest way to express comfort, gratitude or sympathy. Researchers estimate that the effect of a touch is ten times stronger than that of words. It’s like the icing on the cake. In short, evolutionary, socially and psychologically, of course, touching in its accepted and appropriate form is extremely versatile and comprehensive. That is not up for discussion.
‘It is not for nothing that we say ‘I want to hold you’ if we ‘love’ somebody. It sounds like ‘holding on to’, which can be taken very literally’, one could say paraphrasing Flemish professor Paul Verhaeghe.
Which means desecrate the end?
In the spring of 2020, the corona rules, which should have prevented the spread of Covid-19, better known as the coronavirus, changed the social context and thus the meaning of physical contact within our society. Shaking hands was not allowed anymore, the term social distancing was introduced, which meant that from then on we had to maintain 1.5 metres of physical distance from others. Very odd, because there was hardly any scientific support for the above measures and rules. Governments changed the context with the stroke of a pen, including people’s overall environment and meaningful situations. Since there was a need for concrete tools to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, and the assumption was that these rules would be temporary, most people showed a flexible attitude and were socially aware. Just do not shake hands, and we can get back to 'normal' more quickly. However, more than nine months later, the meaning of interpersonal ‘touch and closeness’ was formally changed and the basis of new laws.
A comforting hand on the shoulder of an elderly person has now been criminalised, which is shocking. A nice wedding, meant to celebrate the connection between two people, has now become a meeting of anti-social lawbreakers. Effortlessly. Do we still understand what we see after such a drastic change of context? Of course we do not! It confuses us, makes us uncertain and less effective.
This new context leads to individual differences of opinion and is influencing our behaviour. Of course, policymakers will not discuss this. The new meaning must be ideologically controlled and regulated as soon as possible, in this case we are referring to the 'new normal ideology'. However, this mind shift provides a forced and static solution to a dynamic problem and certainly does not offer solace to a growing group of autonomous thinkers, who have long since exchanged ideology for data and logic. Insight and self-structuring capacity are extremely important against the background of the current changing social order. Without these insights, it is almost impossible to successfully conclude a process of giving meaning, and therefore we run a great risk of ending up in a process of intended or unintended framing and nudging.
Change of meaning does not only lead to searches for new meanings on a personal and social level, but also to the strengthening of control.
Control has many kinds of guises and disguises, which we might recognise on a social and personal level. Think for example of setting up snitch lines, where breaches of the corona rules can be reported online by the pub manager, the neighbourhood supermarket or neighbour, and of course many others.
Moralisation is another such instrument, indirectly stretching the boundaries of government incrimination. After all, a minister whose corona policy is mercilessly effective, falls from their pedestal immediately when they themselves show antisocial behaviour at their own wedding, which is actually what has happened in the Netherlands.
Could an appropriate hug between two consenting people, be antisocial? Are these kinds of discussions not at the root of the Ministry of Love's spectre, which Orwell outlined in 1984? (2)
Anyone who values individual freedom and autonomy is likely to shrug their shoulders about this with pity. Could the use of the human dimension be a reason for criminalisation? Impossible and literally antisocial.
Incidentally, the government's desire for control has led to the monstrosity of the Dutch ‘Coronavirus Act’, and similar legislation in other countries. However, we cannot ignore the more subtle processes either. Think, for example, of the various protocols for the 1.5 metre society, governments have drawn up in cooperation with various sector organisations. The fact that security and intelligence agencies could not wait for the corona apps to be introduced, does not sound strange anymore, and actually says it all.
‘The New normal' as a constant stress factor
The coronavirus causes countless victims and disrupts the economy in daily life, which will continue in the near future. Whether everything will ever return to normal is still a big question, but it seems certain that many thousands of people will be struggling to overcome the measures that have been and are being taken in the years to come. Doctors warn of a wave of people with mental health problems and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). A Mexican study has shown that more than 25% of a research group struggled with severe psychological pressure. There were symptoms of clinically significant post-traumatic stress. These are mainly related to social factors, such as 'relationship status', 'number of people in the household' and 'number of days in isolation'.
For many, social distancing implies that they literally cannot be touched. Surely this should not be the norm in a culture with roots like ours. It is unhealthy, cruel and mechanically inspired: spreadsheet survival. It deprives us of the context of loving touch and instead introduces cold-hearted control.
Where meaning disappears, control appears. Always, here and now.
Rotterdam, November 2020
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