Let’s speak frankly about a strange protocol foisted on us nearly a year ago – not just us but also people all over the world! – but about which there has been very little open discussion. I’m speaking of a phrase with which I’m so exasperated that it can barely come out of my mouth: “social distancing.”
It makes an appearance in the movie Contagion from 2011 but otherwise has no precedent in American-English vernacular before March 1, 2020.
For twenty years, I’ve written about goofy government regulations and their perverse effects. I’ve covered malfunctioning gas cans, toilets, faucets, garbage disposals, hot-water heaters, showerheads, and sprinklers, I’ve written about the terrible effects of corn subsidies, tariffs of all sorts, high taxes, patents, curbs on insurance, price controls, wage controls, and school regulations. I’ve pointed to terrible foreign policy failures that make people less free and less safe.
In all this, I’ve developed a rule: if something is not working quite right or makes no sense and yet keeps not being fixed, there’s a good chance that a government regulation is the underlying cause.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the easily observable cockamamie preposteries of “social distancing” mandates enforced in the name of controlling a virus. The phrase is itself a euphemistic neologism, one that appears in no textbook on medical or public policy. Indeed it was invented in 2006 in conformity with the cooties-based intuition of a middle-school prodigy.
In practice, it means forced human separation. Or more clearly: don’t get closer than six feet to anyone. Just think about that. What could that even mean? When in the whole history of humanity has there been a people who would take such an injunction seriously?
Such a practice rules out most all forms of human interaction. Apparently, this is what government these days really wants of us – all of us, regardless of whether we are sick or vulnerable to serious outcomes, young or old, inside or out, infected or immune. We are nothing but agents in their computer-based models. Our job is to conform to the models regardless of our circumstances or intentions.
There is plenty of evidence that people are not complying. Nor can they. Google Trends shows that it’s rapidly on the decline in usage, which seems to reflect what I’ve experienced.
Consider two completely ridiculous pieces of anecdotal evidence that “social distancing” has become health theater, not genuinely practiced by most people because doing so is impossible.
Scene one is a cocktail party I recently attended before giving a speech. It was in an upstairs bar area reserved for the event. Everyone was normal. Handshakes. Hugs. Air kisses. Pats on the back. Selfies. Clinking drinks. Finger food plates with people reaching here and there. Just people being people, happy to finally be living normally again. Indeed the physical closeness was ostentatious. Everyone was happy to be showing their lack of fear, even their own defiance of media hectoring. Not radicals, just people doing a cocktail party like in the old days of one year ago. All of this was before my speech.
Then it was time for my speech. We moved to an auditorium. The organizers were required to block off two of three of the seats. Everyone took their places. One person, two empty seats, one person, two empty seats, and so on through the whole room. Even husbands and wives had to sit separately. Compliance!
It looked pretty ridiculous from the stage view. Are we really supposed to believe that the coronavirus was hanging out in the room waiting to get us but our fancy seating pattern confounded the pathogen? The whole scene made me laugh, such silliness, especially given the social closening we had just left.
Following the speech, there was a post-event party at the bar/restaurant across the street. It started all over again, the handshakes, the close talking, the hugs, the pats on the back, the smiles, and so on. It was just life like normal. It became very obvious to me that though these people didn’t grouse about the performative distancing in the theater itself, none of them believed a word of the “science” of distancing and didn’t give a flying fig about following the official protocols.
Everyone is respectful of the edict but incredulous toward its efficacy.
Scene two is at the airport. The rule is to maintain a “safe distance” from all your fellow potentially diseased passengers. Anyone could be carrying the dreaded pathogen! You might forget so there is a sticker on the floor that you walk on every ten feet. Still, you might forget so there is an announcement on the loudspeaker. “The CDC recommends social distancing. Please stay six feet away from others.” It was the only announcement, and you might forget so it comes on every 10 minutes or so.
Keep in mind that the idea of an airport is to shove hundreds of people together on aluminum tubes and hurl them through the air. That’s exactly what the plane did to me while sitting shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers for a 4-hour flight. But before and after said flight I had to stay away from others lest I give and get Covid even though I’m not sick and likely have antibodies (even if I get it, my risk of severe outcomes is ridiculously low and much higher for many other possible pathogens).
This was even true in the restaurant and bar, which could only be full to 25% with tables spaced out and bar stools also 6 feet apart. That of course required that people wait to get into the restaurant. People lined up in a tight and long long outside the seating area and into the airport hallway, standing shoulder to shoulder, even as they listened to CDC announcements explaining how bad this is.
There is an element of hilarity about the whole of it. Of course there is not and cannot be compliance. At six feet apart – as a general rule or even a temporary edict that lasts far too long – human society cannot function normally much less flourish or progress. There is no dancing, contact sports, choirs, ballet, fun restaurants and bars, shopping malls, or anything else normal. We did not evolve to rationalistically prescribe and impose distance between people regardless of risk.
The idea that individual human proximity to other humans in all areas of life can and should be scripted by some centralized government plan should offend anyone with a modicum of respect for human volition, dignity, and freedom. Not only does “social distancing” wrongly presume that everyone has equal potential for being sick, contagious, and vulnerable; it presumes that everyone is equally stupid in believing that government knows better than you and me how to mitigate risk.
Never before in the history of humanity have governments imposed universal rules for how close we can get to each other in the normal course of life. Does this not trigger some sense that we are being trolled? It should. The very notion comes not from medicine, public health, virology, or any kind of real-life experience. It comes from computer science and disease modeling, a form of gaming born only twenty years ago that has been heretofore never deployed on real people.
You are the experiment. And so far, after a full year of this “distancing” kabuki dance, there is not one study with control groups that proves it has made any contribution to disease mitigation. And yet we keep doing it. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve all become cynical about government and its public-health edicts, as if we all know this is preposterous but we do it anyway because, hey, what choice do we have?
It might be that we do not have a choice now. But we will have a choice in the future. My personal hope is that the phrase falls into disrepute and disgrace, just before it becomes a party joke. And we look back and wonder how we could have fallen for such nonsense, sort of how we feel about 1970s fashions.