Coronavirus Diary (29): Connect but Back Off

Here’s a short, sweet, simple piece from City of Hope about my friend William Dale MD’s efforts to bridge the gap (or apparent gap) between generations, ensuring that older people get the social support they need during this crisis. It’s easy, given the imperatives of social distancing, to forget about them.

“Mary,” a City of Hope patient and a 70-something grandmother from Beverly Hills, worries that the coronavirus and the calls to practice social distancing may actually make things worse for many seniors who already lack the close personal connections they desperately need.

“I just wish that people would not think that older people are invisible or incompetent,” she said. “I think that many of us seniors are very isolated and lonesome.”

The whole article provides a welcome contrast to the explicit ageism and the infantile enthusiasm for generational conflict that seems to dominate so much social-media discourse.

Though I agree with the substantive point William makes throughout the piece–call that on agreement on strategy–I disagree somewhat with the semantic tactic he advocates.

But it’s the risk to seniors’ mental and emotional well-being that most concerns William Dale, M.D., Ph.D., director of City of Hope’s Center for Cancer and Aging and the Arthur M. Coppola Family Chair in Supportive Care Medicine. It’s also why he dislikes the term “social distancing.”

“Those two words should never be together,” he said. “The key is physical distancing. You mustn’t stop being social. We need to maintain emotional connections even if we can’t be physically close, because isolation can be a terrible thing, leading to depression and cutting folks off from the help they need.”

As I say, I don’t disagree with the point William is making, but I think it’s too late to change the terminology–or at least, too late to discard “social distancing” as a term in widespread use. I think we should stick with “social distancing,” and just make clear, as a separate point, that social distancing means physical distancing rather than indifference to the needs of others.

William clearly thinks that we should ditch the terminology of “social distancing” altogether. I wish we could, but don’t think we can. My fear is that if we try, we will just lose whatever momentum we’ve gotten through the use of “social distancing.” “Social distancing” is now a buzzword. Its being one helps promote the actual practice. If we change the buzzword to something else, even something better and more accurate, my worry is that we dilute the buzzword effect. But the buzzword effect is an important tool for promoting the phenomenon. If people can be persuaded to distance from one another because the term “social distancing” is, so to speak, in the air, we have to capitalize on that fact. We can’t afford precision right now. We have to hammer the message home until it hits home.

I suspect that my disagreement with William reflects a difference in ground-level, first personal experiences. William is a geriatric oncologist who, for obvious reasons, spends a lot of time with older cancer patients, and has their needs uppermost on his mind. I’m a college professor at a small liberal arts college, and teach a mixed cohort of undergraduates–urban and suburban, veteran and civilian, of a variety of ethnicities and socio-economic situations. What strikes me as salient, and worries me sick, is my students’ extreme reluctance to take danger or risk seriously–whether to themselves or others.

I started doing a unit in my applied ethics class on the ethics of driving precisely to get my students to think harder, not only about how they drive, but about risk generally. The discussions I’ve had with them have been pretty hair-raising. These are students who have no qualms about texting and driving even after they’ve had accidents doing it. All of them drink and drive, and a disconcerting number drive after smoking pot. Many are puzzled that anyone would regard such behavior as questionable, and laugh out loud (or giggle sotto voce) when you suggest that it is. I’ve had a student insist to me that he smokes pot while driving because doing so improves his driving. How does he know? He relies on the intuitions he has when he’s high.

Such students were not exactly primed to hear about the need for social distancing, and took prescriptions to practice it about as seriously as they took the advice not to smoke pot or text while driving.* Do I know whether my students are representative of the larger population? No, but I’ve spent enough time as an observer in traffic court–and on the road–to know that people are jaw-droppingly careless about how they drive. If they’re careless or reckless about driving, why wouldn’t they be careless or reckless about COVID-19?

It took me two solid weeks of badgering and cajoling–from roughly March 9 until the end of March, as the COVID-19 crisis was raging before their eyes–to convince my students of the seriousness of the crisis, and of the need for assiduous (not merely casual) social distancing. Here is my March 12 online message to them, and then my March 17 one. I have no way of documenting the verbal admonitions I gave, starting on March 9, or the verbal ones I gave during class sessions on Zoom. But the relevant point is: I still have not succeeded.

Let that sink in. I still have not succeeded. I don’t think anyone who reads this blog can regard me as a person typically at a loss for words, or circumspect in my manner of speech. I have about 80 students this semester. I would estimate that maybe half of my students–more charitably two-thirds–have, as of April 3, taken my words completely to heart. The others have not. I’ve already belabored what my neighbors and others believed. I belabor it because I know, with a certainty, that once the immediate danger passes, people like me will be accused of having exaggerated the complacency of our neighbors, colleagues, students, and fellow residents.

Don’t believe it. People were complacent long after evidence of the danger was apparent, and many of them remain so–or else have exchanged complacency for explicit, callous indifference to the welfare or lives of others. It will be difficult to quantify this after the fact, but contemporaneous notes are generally regarded as at least somewhat probative. Consider this note a contemporaneous note on widespread complacency.

Reality–the sheer brute reality of reality–seems to be a real problem for a lot people. Consider a situation recounted to me by a student. There is a rule now in effect in New Jersey that prescribes that no more than 10 people are allowed to congregate in a take-out food establishment, where the count of 10 includes the employees in the room as well as the customers. Apparently, some customers have challenged the rule on the grounds that counting the employees along with the customers is an unfair form of “double counting.” Why should employees be counted when employees are there all the time? Shouldn’t the number “10” refer only to customers, subtracting employees from the equation?

Pause on that. These are people who have not fully internalized the realization that the COVID-19 virus does not play fair, whatever that’s supposed to mean. That’s why it exists. If it played fair, it would have decayed and gone away by now. The virus is not going to cut us some slack because it has scruples against double dipping. It doesn’t care that our rules are imprecise, or that we miscount, or that even following the rule is insufficient to avoid infection. It’s just going to infect us whenever it finds an appropriate host. It plays by its own rules, the rules of biology. The issue here is not that people need some advanced knowledge of biological science to get through the pandemic. It’s that people need to realize that there is such a thing as biology. If all that Bio 101 does is to instill the latter belief, it’s done its job.

Imagine someone who in this context is asked to step outside for a few minutes because there are ten people in the room, but refuses to leave because he just doesn’t feel like it. He was here to get his sandwich, he got inside the take-out place, he’s sick of standing in line outside, and it’s cold outside, and there are no cops around, so what the fuck is the problem? Why can’t there be 11 people in the room? Why not turn the dial up to 11?

What the fuck are you going to do about it, call the cops? Go ahead, bitch–I ain’t leaving. I don’t give a fuck!

What this person is saying is that he doesn’t give a fuck about killing people or consigning them to an excruciating hospitalization. He wants his eggplant parm with extra mozzadel, goddammit,** and he’ll be damned if he has to stand outside because there are ten people in the room, and “the media” is hyping some “virus bullshit.”

Please don’t tell me, after nearly fifty years of living in the New York/New Jersey metro area that I’m confabulating this person, that no one could be this belligerent, or this stupid, or this belligerently stupid. I hope others from this area will chime in to confirm what I’m saying here, but I’m not making this stuff up. You can’t make this up. Maybe people are different in Peoria, or Rapid City, or Portland, or wherever you live, but this is how people are here at the epicenter of this pandemic. You can deny it, you can minimize it, you can recite mantras about the need to “trust the People” (a phrase I got by attending a mind-blowingly stupid webinar*** on the libertarian “response” to COVID-19 yesterday with Jeffrey Tucker of AIER). But this is not a caricature. It’s reality.

Multiply this person by the thousands, or the tens of thousands, or maybe the hundreds of thousands or millions and you begin to grasp the problem we face “out here.” My students have only the mildest and most remediable case of this form of malignant narcissism.**** But when a whole society acts this way, blunt measures are called for. Nuance has to take a back seat to slogans, and force has to be met with force. If someone threatens me by coughing or spitting on me, and claiming to have COVID-19, he can’t complain when I shatter his skull. Because I will. And if lots of people go out and have parties during a pandemic, they can’t complain when the cops show up. Someone in my HOA did have a gathering, and I didn’t call the police, but that was weakness on my part. I just hoped, silently, that the gathering would be over soon, and it was. They all got in a car together and left.

I hate the term “social distancing,” but what I hate more is the fact that we are facing people–hordes of people–who refuse to respect what the widespread use of the term is intended to accomplish. We can’t reach everyone simply through the power of a buzzword, but my impression is that we’ve changed some minds by invoking the “social distancing” mantra. It’s one thing to use “physical distancing” as a synonym, and another to ditch “social distancing” altogether.

I don’t think we can do the latter. There is a place for the kind of connection that William advocates, but there is also a need to recognize the requirements of the right of self-defense under these conditions. I suppose William and I are saying the same thing from slightly different perspectives. So I don’t mind playing bad cop to William-as-good-cop. Yes, connect. But back off while you do, please.

And don’t back off because “it’s the law” and you don’t want to get caught by the cops. Do it because when you refuse to social distance during this pandemic, you spread disease, and you violate the rights of others by playing Russian roulette with their lives and health. Do it because you value justice, because you respect the rights of others, and because you know that their  lives depend on your behavior. Do it, finally, because you have respect for life itself. If you can’t manage anything that abstract or exalted, just do it because social distancing is the in thing, and  because you want to be woke like the cool kids. Just do it before someone has to make you. Because at this point, we’ve lost our patience. We won’t hesitate to make you, or have someone do it for us. 

*Issues of driving aside: they’ll turn plagiarized work in to, then profess surprise that they got caught. And risk aside: instructions are always an issue for many students; no matter how often you repeat the instructions, there are students who seem incapable of following them. Every professor is familiar with the phenomenon of student emails regarding the instructions for an assignment when the instructions are on the assignment (“OK, but where is the assignment?”).

**No, for God’s sake, I don’t mean to be suggesting that the problem in question is somehow unique to Italian-Americans. ht to Chris Sciabarra for the video.

***A Rational Response to COVID-19: A Webinar Discussion” with Edward Stringham, Jeffrey Tucker, & Gordon Charlop,” Thu Apr 2nd 4:15pm – 5:15pm (EDT).

****Not all of them, obviously. Some have stepped up magnificently, and shown real grace under pressure. But some really haven’t.

10 thoughts on “Coronavirus Diary (29): Connect but Back Off

  1. “I think it’s too late to change the terminology”

    Well, it’s not just William Dale, though. Phrases like “physical distancing and social connectedness” or “physical distancing and social solidarity” are all over the internet; it’s a pretty widespread movement.


    • Incidentally, last night I dreamed you were running for office. (What office I don’t recall.) We were standing in a parking lot chatting about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dreams can be a little garbled. It was more likely I was running from my office, and yelling at you from 100 yards’ distance to keep your distance.

        But hey, at least I was yelling. Social connectedness.


    • True, “physical distancing” has some online traction, but my point is that it hasn’t yet been downloaded from the Internet into people’s minds and habits, where the action is. And the downloading process will take valuable time. “Social distancing” has that one advantage over “physical distancing”–only that one, but an important one. It has the most action-guiding traction now.

      I guess it took a bit of dialectical working through this issue to figure out the exact point of disagreement. I hope it’s clear that William and I agree on much more than we disagree. The disagreement might be put this way: his strongest claim is incompatible with my weakest. His strongest claim is that we should never use the phrase “social distancing.” My weakest claim is that we should not discard the phrase “social distancing,” or perhaps a little more weakly, shouldn’t discard it until people have well and truly internalized what it requires.

      I guess this implies that I need to modify some of my stronger claims to be more clearly compatible with some of his weaker ones. I agree that “social distancing” (both the phrase and the phenomenon) is exacting a very unfortunate cost in social solidarity, something I value highly. Social solidarity has become collateral damage. And it’s always counter-productive to favor a discursive strategy that’s less truth-conducive to one that’s more so. Our doing so is part of the reason why we’re in the situation we’re in. Eventually, I agree, we should replace the worse phrase with the better. And I agree that “physical distance and social solidarity” is much better than “social distancing.”

      What worries me is that if we change the vocabulary too abruptly in mid-stride, literally attacking the phrase “social distancing,” we will undermine the gains we have so far made by using it. If, after all that’s happened, we now start trashing the phrase “social distancing,” there is a real danger that we’ll produce cynicism of the form, “Well, I guess they bullshitted us about this, too, because now they’re changing their story.” That is of course an unfair misinference. If we had time to explain, and people had the patience to listen to our explanations, the solution would be simple. But right now, we don’t have the time to explain, and people lack the patience to listen. In cases where they have it, fine.

      But in cases where they don’t, one has to go with what we have. Imagine demanding that all the stores that have created signage etc., about “social distancing” went out of their way to take it all down and replace it with “physical distancing”! And then had to explain it, query after query. It’s too much to ask of them. They’re already under terrible stress and putting themselves under unfortunate risks. It’s a matter of time before some of the store clerks I used to see on a daily basis will get sick, whether due to bad luck or someone’s carelessness. It’s excruciating to think that some of these people may die–and die terrible, painful, totally fucking needless deaths. On the way to the hospital, they may infect the EMTs. At the hospital, they may infect nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, janitors. I get the sense (not from you) that people elsewhere do not really appreciate the urgency of what we are dealing with. The Cassandras were right. Too right.

      I look forward to the day that we can put William’s suggestions into practice. We should have done so in the first place.


      • Way back around March 17 (which feels like long ago), my brother sent this to me, suggesting that it was the best thing he’d read on the official response to COVID-19 up to that point. I completely agree with Tufecki’s claim (actually regard it as deeply profound and right), so if you see any inconsistencies/tensions between her claims and mine, hit me with them, because I am hoping there aren’t any (more than hoping):

        But she’s focusing retrospectively on the bigger picture, and I’m focusing prospectively on a very narrow tactical issue. My hope is that that eliminates any inconsistency that might appear at first to be there.


        • Actually, I take her arguments to support the ones I’ve been making about character-based voting. Political leadership requires trust, but trust requires honesty. Since you can’t have a policy blueprint for every contingency, you need to rely on character for some. And though token contingencies are unpredictable, the type “unpredictable contingency” is totally predictable. No polity can handle a pandemic-like emergency where trust and honesty are absent. That’s why we haven’t.


  2. To call it “garbage” would be kind to garbage: AIER’s attempt to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. An embarrassment. I do admire the courage with which they’re willing publicly to display their incompetence.


  3. Pingback: Daniel Tillett’s Attenuated SARS-CoV-2 Strain Proposal | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary (54): William Dale on “Physical Distancing” Redux | Policy of Truth

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