I try to avoid euphemisms like the plague. Language that intentionally masks meaning too often becomes a toxin in the body politic. It can threaten moral and civic life.
Watching the phrase “social distancing” spread rapidly through media reports on the novel coronavirus, then, produced in me a virulent auto-immune queasiness. Worse was the way, as with many contaminants, people adapted to its intrusion as if it has always been present and normal among us.
Of course, a pandemic is no time for us all to become amateur etymologists. Tracking down word origins is hardly on the to-do list when the world’s epidemiologists are trying to keep our attention on the menacing wave of infection sweeping over us. A best guess is that “social distancing” comes from some rarefied sphere of academic life or the higher reaches of crisis management theory.
We’re being pushed by the term toward something far from social distancing’s neutral, even soothing, surface sound. As Marni Soupcoff pointed out in a fine National Post column this week, we’re witnesses to widespread suspension, if not outright erosion, of civil liberties without any real chance for pushback.
Even the current level of State impingement on freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of choice would historically have required justification by an authoritative, clear, and public declaration invoking government emergency powers. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it’s a dead certainty its reality won’t bear any resemblance to the velvet fog of euphemism in which all measures are now being wrapped.
Frankly, as sceptical as I’ve been about the incessant apocalyptic media prophecies about the novel coronavirus, I find the aw-shucks-folks-soft-shoe approach from certain political actors at least as infuriating and menacing. I blanched when legendary health writer André Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday that it’s time to “shut Canada down” until further notice. It seemed on first read serious overkill. Yet I’ve come to consider it far more honest than, and infinitely preferable to, the series of piecemeal half steps that characterized the novel coronavirus outbreak for far too long.
Surely it would have been better, relatively early on, to dangle our theatrically-inclined Prime Minister on a rope from a helicopter and transport him across the Canadian landscape bellowing through a bull horn “This is an Emergency. Go to your homes and don’t come out until I ring the bell” than to be left wondering why some provinces have limited crowd sizes to 100, some to 250 and some to Choose Another Amount. What is this? The ATM withdrawal method of public health policy?
No compos mentis Canadian objects to temporary limitation of civil liberties in the face of genuine, demonstrable national crisis. Those of us who are authentic adults understand implicitly that “You’re not the boss of me” isn’t an acceptable response when our families, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens are at risk of being brought low by a pandemic. But the quid pro quo is that the evidence needs to be communicated with crystal clarity by unimpeachable experts. It needs to include, above all, the old reliable of the honesty game: “We just don’t know.”
How much better is it to admit ignorance while insisting on the primacy of safety first? How much more effective than exposing everyone to the current mishmash of half-information, uncoordinated and seemingly contradictory commandments? How crucial, then, to avoid euphemisms such as “social distancing” like a virus feeding off the part of our minds perpetually convinced that no one really knows what’s going on or has a clue how to react at the best of times.
Pulling off the mask of obscuring language would open a real possibility that the coronavirus could, paradoxically, reverse the decades-long plague of social distancing that afflicts us through various strains such as social media isolation, tribal political sequestration, and the pandemic delusion that we are entirely autonomous creatures and our actions are inherently of consequence only to ourselves.
In place of the euphemistic “social distancing” as a softening tactic, let’s accept the hard reality that using quarantine to defeat the coronavirus might be just what the doctor ordered to oust the ills of the body politic as well. Let it serve as a tough-love reminder of the intense connectedness of our lives. What begins in Wuhan easily lands in Winnipeg. What starts in Hubei can quickly find its way to Hamilton or Halifax or own homes and hearts wherever they might be. A new moral order – or a return to a very old one – might be the welcome result of speaking the truth clearly and emphatically.