Every created thing we can think of is subject to change. That might be the thought process that triggered the propagation of the theory of evolution. Things are evolving from the present state to a new state of its existence. Well, I am not delving on to any philosophy here. But this thought of changing phenomenon engaged my mind when a dear friend of mine initiated a dialogue based on my recent teaser write up “Social Distancing or Physical Distancing?” in his social media. The write up is available at www.kedhikari.home.blog. I am highly amused at the responses he received and the arguments put forth for and against their choice of these phrases.
For me the phrase Social Distancing is a fairly new concept, recently being popularized by its usage in the media, in reference to keeping ourselves safe from contracting or spreading the Corona virus. People all over the world are firmly instructed by respective governments to keep physical distance from other people or avoid direct contact with people or objects in public places. As a measure to ensure this, many cities and states are put under complete lock down. Because of Covid-19 scare, handshakes are automatically avoided.
I am not here to report on the obvious and over-engaging current state of affairs concerning Covid-19. Here I am to share my lookout on the evolution of new meanings of the words we have been employing to express ourselves. The “social” part of the phrase Social Distancing, as being used in plenty these days, compelled me to dig into the concept and situation this phrase was trying to convey through various media. My mind got uncomfortable picturizing the phrase conveying something like dispersing or spreading out some grain with the purpose of collecting them tidily in one place. Like shooting your dear pet to keep it alive. In today’s context of pandemic, the necessity of Distancing is very well understood. But the word Social, as the adjective used to qualify it, looks absurd in today’s popular understanding of the word social. The Webster dictionary defines Social Distancing as ‘the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or avoiding direct contact with people…..’ This would have conveyed the correct concept till the first part of 20th century when the word social could not mean anything other than people coming together physically at one place with close proximity. But after the entry and popularization of international networking (internet) and worldwide web channels, the meaning of the word social has evolved to a new position. It is still people coming together but the earlier concept of physical togetherness is diluted by virtual togetherness. This shift from ‘only physical’ to ‘not limited to physical’ is automatically occured in the meaning of the word. With the virtual world of technology occupying increasing areas of our lifestyle, I would even say that the weightage of physical contacts are subtly losing grounds to virtual or technological contacts. This should not be difficult to understand only if we compare our mode of social interactions with our family members 10 years ago and the same now. But we do not ever think that our social contact is reduced, but surely our physical contact is drastically reduced. Said so, when concerned authorities instructed to observe Social Distancing, they were borrowing the 19th century term when a similar flu crisis had occurred and I am sure they had intended for the people to maintain some physical distance from person to person. When the intention is only to keep physical distance then, would it not be more accurate to call it Physical Distancing?
Linguistics delve on how words evolve as well as how the underlying meanings of words alter over time. There are many examples of words which have shed their old meanings and/or incorporated new meanings even in our present day usage. ‘Social’ is one such word which has undergone metamorphosis of meaning by virtue of the developments and ease of access in communication technology. Another one which has unmistakably displayed its drastic change of meaning from white to black and day to night in present time is ‘religion’. If interested, the reader may find it entertaining to think of this word during this time of complete lockdown, credit invisible virus. There is a vast chasm between its dictionary meaning and the real meaning it conveys in the present practical world.
Returning to the heading of this talk, the Distancing recommendation, rather instruction, given by the concerned governmental and social authorities; whatever qualifying term they may use, in real terms, is it Social or Physical?
I think it was the BBC where I read this phrase first: Social Distancing. It is being highly propagated and accepted as one of the two major recommendations for containing the spread of Corona virus along with frequent washing of hands with soap & water. Well, I fully agree with the concept this phrase intends to communicate to the people in our global society which is in a fear mode due to the rapid spread and scaring damage of lives caused by this very little known Covid-19 flu. On the basis of whatever little the world knows about the nature and behaviour of this virus, the best we can do to minimize the damage and to contain its spread, is to follow the above two recommendations very responsibly and strictly. I do pray and believe, along with all the well wishing people of the world, that by making use of the accumulated knowledge so far archived in this earth of ours, the medical fraternity will soon be able to contain and cure the effect of this new enemy, by coming up with the necessary medication and prevention formulae.
While expressing my full agreement with the concept of communication this phrase intends to make, I find some discomfort with the word-content of the phrase. I believe the message of the communication would be more appropriately conveyed by formatting the phrase as Physical Distancing. The experts in the concerned fields are advising that we should maintain a distance of at least one meter to put a break in the spread of the virus. This one meter distance is meant to be from one physical person to another physical person. A social person encompasses much more social aspects than the mere physical contents a person has. A person’s social presence is not limited by the physical body she wears. Similarly, a society is not limited within a geographical boundary. There should not be any difficulty agreeing with it in this age of ever evolving international networking facilities.
An exemplification of my musings would be this fresh instance of this morning. I had a talk with our son Sharad who is in the middle of his internship at Alabama. Along with many other chit-chat, we talked about the cancellation, rescheduling, route option, availability difficulties of his return travel. While talking all these for more than 30 minutes, we never had any realization that we were physically 13,281 Kms. apart and more than 11 hours time difference, my this morning was his yesterday night. But we were socially together as if in our sitting room sofas. Similar talks and video chats were done with the dear ones at Hyderabad, Kalimpong, Kolkata and Hetauda. All these contacts made us more close to each other and enriched us in our mutual understanding, feelings, learning, sharing, advising, assisting, encouraging, restricting – all the things we carry out in our societies. And undoubtedly, these are the people in the innermost circle of my society. One can easily see that my social proximity with all these members of my society was enhanced – not pushed off or depleted. I would give full credit of this enhancement of our social proximity to the total lockdown of our nation due to Covid-19 progress. Obvious reason – all these people including me would have been busy with daily core and our respective engagements would not make it possible for us to communicate freely at any time and/or for any length of time. May I put it this way that the world lockdown has compensated our physical distancing with social proximity.
With the help of the example cited above, I only wanted to home in on the thought process I have in my mind while saying that it is not Social Distance we intend to maintain but definitely we need to keep Physical Distance to help break the spread of the present Covid-19 crisis.
Wish you all a happy social proximity with temporary physical distancing.