Coronavirus and ‘Physical Distancing’

We need to “physically distance” even while we keep our social ties close — because the physical matters.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

You knew it wouldn’t be long before the politically correct got into the coronavirus debate.

Recently, The Washington Post announced that it has found both an “expert” (a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern) and the World Health Organization who agreed that society should replace “social distancing,” the current term-of-arm for our effort to keep people away from each other, with the term “physical distancing.” The argument is that people need to enhance, not diminish their social bonds in this time of contagion, even as they need to ensure greater physical distance among each other to lessen the risk of spreading infection.

The general reaction to the article in the comments section ranged from “a rose by any other name” to “do you really have nothing else useful to do than split hairs about these things?” I do confess some sympathy to those reactions, but I think there is something to be said about “physical distancing” — and why we didn’t go with that term in the first place.

I would argue that we didn’t go with “physical distancing” to describe the debate over the proxemics of personal contact because we denigrate the physical. We are very much children of Descartes, and Cartesianism is — like it or not — the default category by which we think of human persons in our public Western culture.

Ever since the (I would argue destructive) turn of Cartesianism in Western thought, starting in the 17th century, we have drifted more and more away from the body and the physical. Descartes’ famous maxim, cogito, ergo sum — “I think; therefore, I am” — has it exactly backward. I do not exist because I think; I think because I exist. Our Frenchman put the cart before the horse. The world is not built from my head outwards, because if that were true, the world would arguably not exist if I didn’t think about it — and yet nobody who inhabits the real world thinks the existence of the other 7.7 billion people on this planet is dependent on my mind. Perhaps that world no longer exists for me if I don’t or can’t think about it, which presumably drives the people who might say something like “well, if I’m dead, the world doesn’t exist for me so what does it matter?” but hopefully our image of reality is not so egotistical as to think that the universe is merely my oyster.

Yet that is exactly the trajectory we have embraced, especially in the last half-century and especially in the area of medical and bioethics.

The whole rationale behind putting more physical space between people is to reduce the possibilities of physical contact that allow physical viruses to move from one physical being to another. COVID-19 is not a state of mind. It is not shared by thought. It is shared by the things that living, breathing, physical human beings do: breathe, touch, sweat.

But our culture is afraid of the physical. Consider, for example, the current effort underway to eliminate the reality of physical sex in the name of some notional, conceptual “gender.” If we abandon the scientific reality of sex being grounded at the physical level, then “gender” becomes an idea, a mental construct: we can have a “boy,” “girl,” “birl,” or maybe “bird,” all based on states of mind and mental intentions. But it’s not just labels or “because I say it is.”

Our culture is afraid of the physical at the other end of life, too. Consider the tendency to call a human being who is gravely, perhaps even irreversibly (although I am generally very cautious with that term) medically compromised a “vegetable?” Alchemy was supposed to be a quality of elevation, making gold out of base metals. Instead we have a kind of bioethical “anti-alchemy,” where human beings are transmuted into “vegetables” because they are sick and disabled – a term that wipes out their humanity and makes it all the easier for us to pull life support. After all, nobody talks about a right to life for broccoli.

The ascendance of Cartesianism has paradoxically gone hand in hand with a resurgence of Gnosticism, that ancient heresy that Christianity combated which declared the body to be sub-personal, sub-human, dirty, impure. The depreciation of the physical generated two antithetical responses, even in Antiquity. On the one hand, it fueled the Stoics who wanted to flee the body as something bad, which found a counterpart in Victorian prudery. On the other hand, it stoked the Epicureans who, if the body really doesn’t matter, wanted to “eat, drink and be merry,” a response St. Paul had to correct in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

It’s true today, too. We need “physical distancing” because diseases are exchanged at the level of the physical, not the mental. We need “social bonding” because no man is an island and, especially in illness, people — families, communities, nations — need solidarity. Richard Lowry’s excellent little article on the invidious, anti-physical, anti-solidarity nature of COVID-19 points to its particularly “cruel” nature precisely because it undermines the physical: “ if the infected get very sick, they are isolated to die alone, with no one holding their hands, talking to them, singing to them or praying for them, while they are surrounded by strangers dressed in spacesuits.” In some sense, it’s a disease tailored to our anti-physical worldview.

The Washington Post and New York Times also offered additional observations that I think bolster the case of our anti-physical orientation. WaPo noted that, while in many past cases of enforced staying at home (extended power failures, snow-ins, martial law in 1981-83 Poland) there was a demographic blip nine months later, a baby boomlet is not expected after our current domestic quarantine. That tallies with the general observation about the frequency of sexual intercourse among today’s young people, especially in their 20s and 30s, as markedly less than previous decades. Is it a telling commentary that the Times ran a March 26 article about the work of a nonagenarian (clearly no fertility issue there) extolling the virtues of … masturbation. Can’t think of a better symbol for our sterilized, anti-physical COVID world.

I make these observations also because I detect a note of Gnosticism in the mainstream Catholic response to Coronavirus. Like it or not, Catholicism is a physical religion. Salvation is carried out through water, oil, bread, wine, and — most essentially — bodies. Bodies that are washed in baptismal waters, anointed with the oil of the sick, and fed with the Body and Blood of Christ which, in the Catholic theological understanding of transubstantiation, is the real “body and blood, soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ, not some mental memory or thought of him.

I am aware of the debate (to which the typical diocesan press gives no expression) of the wisdom of the bishops’ responses basically to render Mass unavailable from sea to shining sea. While I acknowledge the public health arguments that some might advance for them, I cannot deny that I also smell the whiff of Gnosticism here. A “commendation” to God is not the same thing as Anointing or Baptism. An act of perfect contrition is not the same thing as real confession. When I read that the Bishop of Springfield in Massachusetts limits access to Anointing, the Archbishop of Chicago wants recourse to the bishop where possible for emergency infant baptism (which kind of defeats the notion of “emergency,” especially in a time of contagion), and the Archbishop of Newark shuts off scheduled confessions even though many dioceses have safely implemented regimens making the hearing of confessions possible, I cannot but ask whether there is a flight from the physical here. The sacraments are not just intentional acts to which a pretty but optional external ritual have been attached: that external rite, that “matter” is essential to the sacrament because sacraments are physical and spiritual realities. I am not hearing enough said about that and, with the poor catechesis of the past half-century, enough of a response why we just “can’t go to God directly” even outside of a “time of cholera.”

So, yes, we need to “physically distance” even while we keep our social ties close … because the physical matters.