Reflections from the Center (March 2020)

By Max Latona | March 27, 2020

Max Latona

[Reflections from the Center is the quarterly email newsletter of the Saint Anselm College Center for Ethics in Business and Governance.]

Dear Friends of the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance,

There is much to worry about with this coronavirus pandemic, not the least of which is the threat to human health and life, the overwhelming burden that might lie ahead for our health care system, and the simply brutal hit that this crisis is inflicting on our economy. These are the most immediate concerns, but there are other concerns too–less urgent perhaps–but no less real.  
For example, public officials are everywhere urging us to practice “social distancing,” i.e., to create more physical space between ourselves and others in order to avoid the spread of the virus. Of course we can and should heed their advice, but it is worth noting (sadly) that we have already been working on this for years, haven’t we? What will be the effect if we further reinforce these anti-social trends?
As has been noted by Robert Putnam and others, since the 1960’s Americans have been increasingly distancing themselves from others by drastically reducing their involvement in communal organizations and spaces, neighborhood volunteering, membership in civic groups, and even religious associations. More recently, our laptops and smartphones have made it easier to do virtually everything virtually– i.e., work, recreation, exercise, shopping etc. completely and utterly alone. Yes, there may be many other possible reasons for the social distancing that has been happening over the last half-century, but no one would deny that technology is a primary culprit. Technology has even made it possible to remain isolated while engaging in those activities that once absolutely required face-to-face interaction with others—courtship (see dating apps and sites), education (see online courses, webinars, and degree programs), and everyday communication among family, friends and co-workers (see, well, just about everything else in this digital revolution, including digital communication, social media, virtual meeting platforms, etc).
The concern is that the longer we find ourselves practicing this intensified social distancing to fight the pandemic, the more that these existing trends will be psychologically and socially magnified so that when the crisis passes (and it will!), there will be even fewer opportunities for physical interaction between persons.
And that is what we are losing here, isn’t it—meaningful physical interactions between real persons? Aristotle once said that the human being is a creature of the community. While we can admire and celebrate all of the good things that have come about by means of the technological revolution, we should worry about further erosion to our communities, the strongest of which involve face-to-face interaction. The bodily presence of another cannot be replicated in a digital medium. The real face and physical body of another reminds me that there are others in the world just as real as me, whose happiness and misery is just as real and as important as my own. I am reminded of my obligations to others when I see their physical struggles and misfortunes, when I witness their handicaps, or see in their faces and gestures their frustrations and tears. But I am also uniquely rewarded by the physical presence of others in a variety of subtle ways. They acknowledge me as a real person when they speak to me, look me in the eye, listen to my voice, or give me a handshake, a hug, and a kiss. And when I disagree with other people, it is much harder to demonize them when they are sitting there in front of me.
As I write this, Saint Anselm College faculty and students have adroitly implemented remote-learning, and the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance is currently developing an exciting line-up of virtual programs. But I wouldn’t replace the physical classroom experience or our Center’s roundtable forums for any of these virtual programs, no matter how good they are.
The longer that this social distancing continues for combating the coronavirus, the more society will further restructure itself to thrive without meaningful physical interactions between real persons. On-line industries will boom, and the hold-outs among businesses, universities, and retailers may finally be compelled to go permanently digital. One wonders how our lives will be changed immeasurably if the gathering places that force us to interact disappear. At one time, people did not need to set aside time to exercise because their daily lives involved a sufficient amount of walking and physical exertion. It will be a sad day indeed if our daily regimen of self-maintenance requires that we set aside time for in-person interactions with others.
It is discouraging to think like this. Let us practice our social distancing now, but let us yearn for the day when we can once again congregate with others at school, at work, and at the café. And let us never lose that yearning. It is what drives our Center’s work, and it is what makes us all human.