What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
Shakespeare makes a valid point: the name that we give to something, the label we attach, does not fundamentally change its characteristics. A rose is still a rose, even when the people of Somalia call it “kacay” or the Romanians “trandafir”. But that doesn’t mean that the labels aren’t important, and sometimes they can be created or chosen in order to subtly affect how we view the object in question. In its mildest form this can be brand creators seeing a label for their product that captures the essence of its qualities; at the extreme it becomes Doublespeak, the deliberate contortion of the meaning of words described by George Orwell in his novel 1984.
There are two labels that are rapidly becoming part of our everyday language which I am attempting not to use, because I believe they are subtly changing our perception of reality.
The first is “social distancing.” To me this is a complete oxymoron. The definition of social in the OED is “needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.” In other words, the complete opposite of distancing. A “socially distanced” meet up is impossible. You can be social, or you can distance, you can’t do both. Obviously there’s nuance here, and it is possible to get close enough to be social with someone while still keeping a level of physical distance from them, but by using the phrase are we beginning to undermine the concept that the full expression of being social beings requires closeness, physical contact, intimacy?
The second phrase, which I am even more determined not to use, is “new normal.” Yes, the situation we find ourselves in now is new, unlike anything we have experienced in this part of the world for centuries, if ever. But it is decidedly not normal, and to pretend that it ever can be is disingenuous. I’ve deliberately kept this post non-theological, to hopefully appeal to a broad audience, but if I can be allowed one Bible verse:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18, NIV
I don’t believe the early chapters of Genesis to be a scientific textbook, but I think they include important principles of what it means to be human, and this is one such. We are social beings; being alone, being apart, being separated is not normal. So our current situation where we are required to keep a level of distance from one another, to limit social interaction, to go about things in a different way may be necessary for the time being, but it will never, ever, be normal.
We all have difficult decisions to make over the coming weeks. How much are we prepared to go along with the guidelines? How do we weigh up our own needs with those of our families, our friends, and wider society? How do we express our innate social natures in a way that is not irresponsible? We will not all reach the same conclusions, and we must be careful not to be quick to judge others for doing what they believe is right and necessary. But most importantly, lets think carefully about the language that we use, so we don’t lose sight of the horrific abnormality of what we are being asked to do, and of the central human need and desire for physical interaction with others. I pray that it will not be too long before we can begin to express that again in all its fulness.