Why Arm’s-Length Cannot Be Our New Normal

Confession time.

This post has lay half-finished, moldering in my writing closet of horrors, for close to a month now. My hesitations in publishing it are numerous but the main one is that I know there are some people (whom I love and respect) who will disagree with where I’ve landed. This is not the worst thing that could happen. In fact Rosaria Butterfield once said that where everyone thinks the same, no one thinks very much. So if you are reading this, please know that I am not dismissing you or your concerns.

That being said, I can’t just sit here all day and do nothing. This might partly be because I have an attention disorder. But it’s also because I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more at work these days than most people are willing to admit.

You’re welcome to call me a conspiracy fiend, an alarmist, or–heaven-forbid–anti-science. I think I’m okay with that. If all my concerns turn out to be unfounded, me and my tinfoil-hatted companions can always just go back to being irrelevant. You’d be surprised at the mischief you can cause when no one suspects you.

Let me start by saying that I am not against taking reasonable precautions against legitimate dangers. What I am against is our culture’s increasingly hell-bent (actually) ambition to normalize abnormality. Let’s take our city’s recent decision to hermetically seal the populace as an example.

Now, I’m happy to call these measures a new dysfunction. I’d even be okay with calling them a new necessary evil. But by all that is good and green, can we all please stop calling them a “New Normal”? As if it’s the most natural thing in the world to work and play in the front lobby of a “World’s Deadliest Pathogens” lab?

From where I’m sitting, there seem to be three main groups on the issue.

First there are the Scandinavians who, no doubt drawing strength from a long line of resilient forebears, ain’t having none of any of it. There are others who genuinely believe that several feet of hallowed ground and a piece of fabric swaddled around their face will guard against the coming Ragnarök (if the second wave of second-wave experts are to be believed). In the third category are the “no harm no foul” ilk, who seem to be under the impression that the current (and hopefully more!) weapons-grade measures can be prolonged indefinitely with no negative impact to anyone whatsoever.

I’ll happily toast the Swedes. I can empathize (sort of) with those on second base. But it’s to the last category of folks that the following thoughts are primarily addressed. I want to suggest two fairly important areas where the negative impacts are already bearing fruit.

Humanity

You cannot cover half your face (especially the part that conveys words and expressions) and expect to maintain a genuinely human level of interaction. Case in point, several days ago I smiled at a toddler sitting patiently in a grocery cart. Or at least, I tried to smile. What I soon realized, however, was that said toddler couldn’t see my smile. All he (and his mother) could see was a masked man peering owlishly at them from behind a stack of cantaloupes. I’ll leave you to flesh out all the different ways that could go wrong.

And on the subject of smiles–are they really that important? I think so. One recent study “led researchers to hypothesize that genuine smiles become more valuable under states of high social need.” Folks, I’m no smile expert, but it seems to me that if there was ever a state of high social need, we are in it now. And yet at a time when people are most in need of “genuine smiles,” they are now everywhere considered negligible. Irresponsible even.

As long as we’re here, I’d like to bring up the whole issue of goods’ exchange. Six months ago, a financial transaction was one of those rare moments of human interaction in an otherwise wireless ecosystem. Granted, they weren’t often what anyone would call meaningful interactions. And yet there was something almost reassuring about dealing with an actual human being.

Fast forward to present day. You know when it’s garbage day? And you have to truss up the reeking bag of tuna casserole scraps, bacon grease, and old coffee grounds? You know that arms out, don’t wanna touch this, mad dash to the curb kind of feeling? That’s how we’re now delivering pizzas, giving receipts, and “welcoming” people into our establishments: “Great to see you! Oh, please don’t get too close to me, and if you could just sterilize any exposed skin and put a mask on that would be great. Would you prefer a table in direct sunlight or in one of our sensory-deprivation booths?”

Now of course it’s not the employees fault that they have to treat you like a piece of hazardous waste. Strangely, knowing this doesn’t make me feel any less like a piece of hazardous waste.

What I’m trying to get at here is that the only kind of society that can call the multiplying of arrows, signs, sanitizers, and safe-spacing, “normal” is the kind that has forgotten (or let go of) how actual humans relate to each other. We are not soulless machines. We are not (only) consumers of food and drink and entertainment. We are creatures built for community, and pathos, and a kind of unexplainable synergy that only unhindered exchange generates.

Now, people will argue that humans are resilient. They will say that humans are adaptable. And I won’t argue that. But just because one can adapt to circumstances, doesn’t mean one should; not all adaptation is desirable. Marriages “adapt” to abuse; bodies “adapt” to undernourishment; feet “adapt” to shoes that are three sizes to small. Perhaps my greatest fear in all of this is that we will adapt to these measures. And in so doing, acclimatize to whatever dehumanizing strategies the powers that be have in store for us in the days to come.

Reality

More worrying than the measures themselves, however, is the premise behind them all. Namely, that it is possible, and therefore necessary, to eliminate any and all risk from our lives. But is such a thing possible? Hardly. In the words of C.S. Lewis, human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. There was a point in time when most people recognized this fact and lived accordingly.

To merely exist in this world is already an incredibly risky occupation. Even if you manage to evade a virus, there are still brain aneurysms, heart attacks, and escaped pythons to worry about. Going out your door obviously increases said risks exponentially. Getting into your car, for example, is a statistically ludicrous error of judgement, with the likelihood of you being killed, or killing someone else, sitting at about 1 in 100. To put this in perspective, the likelihood of a reasonably healthy individual dying from COVID in Peterborough, Ontario is about .03 in 100. Based on Statistics Canada data, it can be estimated that for every COVID-19 death, there have been 10 deaths from other causes.

But then, driving has more social prestige than walking around without a mask, so you’re less likely to be pilloried for it.

In short? Life is risky. And it’s hard to see our increasingly frenzied attempts at staving off any and all risk as anything else than a desperate self-protectionism. Which, aside from blinding us to reality, will also prevent us from living well. There is such a thing as reasonable caution. There is also such a thing as paranoid overreach that scares citizensemboldens governmentsintoxicates media outlets, cripples freedom, and,  burdens the vulnerable.

To tie up this skeleton, it may someday be discovered that the measures we are currently under were entirely reasonable. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not quite convinced. What remains, however, is a question we can’t afford to ignore:

Is what we’re losing worth it?

One thought on “Why Arm’s-Length Cannot Be Our New Normal

Add yours

  1. Cue serious movie voiceover guy: “In a world without smiles…” I was just thinking about smiles the other day, and as a girl whose nickname is Smiley, it’s such an automatic part of who I am. So I’ve been trying to smile with my eyes as best I can. In my mind, I imagine a ridiculous scenario in the future where everyone vocalizes their facial expressions behind their mask. “Hey there! I’m smiling right now…” “So am I!” “If you could see me right now I am frowning SO hard at you!” Or…everyone has a little piece of paper on a stick with a smile or whatever expression drawn on the paper. They place it in front of their mouth like some kind of photo booth prop. Better yet, everyone has their own virtual emoji packs, you can press a button on your phone and the chosen emoji floats over your head.

    Liked by 1 person

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