Group Photo?

The Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Professor Joe Goldblatt

Recently I attended, with my wife, the unveiling of a historic plaque in Scotland. When we walked up to the site of the unveiling we noticed a half dozen people, carefully socially distanced from one another, somewhat uneasily standing around awaiting for the speeches to begin.

Despite all of the chaos in the world right now, this brief experience had a rare and much welcomed feeling of normalcy However, when the speeches ended, so did the normalcy as suddenly one of the guests stepped forward and invited all present to participate in a group photo.

Suddenly, each of the people froze in their place and then shifted their eyes right and left to see what others were thinking and what they might do next. No one moved for several seconds.

Finally, two of the dignataries shyly shuffled forward toward the plaque and awkwardly posed for a photo while standing two metres apart and smiling uncomfortably before the camera phones recording the event for posterity.

A few days later and thousands of miles away from this small cipher of an event in human history, there was another event that was vastly different in size, scale and responsible behaviour.

Hundreds of folks were commanded by the US President to appear at the White House to witness the announcement of his nomination for the new Justice for the US Supreme Court. The White House event did not include social distancing and immediately following the public ceremony there was a more intimate event inside the historic house where guests were seen not wearing masks. Many of the folks at the earlier outdoor event also had refused to wear masks to protect others. And unlike the small plaque dedication event, the photo opportunities that occurred at the White House did require nor consistently depict scientifically recommended social distancing to reduce the spread of disease.

There appears to be two schools of thought regarding social or physical distancing in the age of this global panedmic. One school believes that the guidance and rules must be strictly followed to insure that human beings come no closer than one or two metres of one another and the other school is simply, like the old Cole Porter song title “Anything Goes”.

As I witness day by day the heart break I see on televised news reports of adult children who have not been able to visit their ageing parents who are in care homes, I wonder what is the long term danger of social distancing and why do individuals continually seek to assemble together, despite the severe health risks? To try and answer this question I have turned to anthropology and sociology.

Victor Turner was a Glasgow, Scotland born anthropologist who conceived the concept of communitas within cultural anthropology. According to Turner, the Latin word communitas refers to an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal, allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage such as a birth, a wedding or a funeral. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. Liminality means a threshold moment when people celebrate a moment together such as at a football match when the crowd of thousands of total strangers implulsively rises and performs the wave.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim described communitas as collective effervescence. According to Durkheim, a community or society may at times come together and simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same action such as through religious rites and rituals.

Although many local and national governments have issued guidance that has allowed religious organisations to assemble for prayer and education, the number of participants is strictly limited and there are numerous other restrictions all for the sake of public safety. These regulations are being extended, albeit slowly, to other live and face to face or in person events such as professional and collegiate sports.

One of my family members is a life long supporter of his University’s football team. A few months ago he received a letter from the University notifying him that although the games would soon resume, the 50,000 seat stadium would limit capacity to 6,000 spectators per game for purposes of social distancing.

Therefore, he had to choose between either entering a lottery to perhaps be selected as a member of the lucky chosen few, donating to the University the thousands of U.S. dollars in funds he had paid for season tickets and in recognition having his photograph then displayed upon a seat in the stadium, or receiving a full refund. These are the types of complex choices that we are now daily confronting and we are simultaneously forced to make many difficult decisions during these perilous and uncertain times.

I actually find that the choice regarding social distancing is fairly simple for me. In a state of national emergency, it is expected that citizens will behave responsibly to help insure the health and safety of all society. Therefore, although I shall miss those precious moments of communitas, liminality and collective effervescence, I shall try very hard to do my duty as a citizen and look forward to that day when we shall all once again come together, rise and perform a collective wave to celebrate the eradication of this vile disease that has thus far killed over one million human beings throughout the world.

In the history of human kind, we have over and over again risen to the occasion in order to sustain life. The anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead was once asked how she knew that human beings were superior to other species. She described seeing an animal with a fractured limb and how without help the poor animal had soon died. By contrast, when a human being is injured, he or she receives compassionate care and the trained resources and expert help from others to relieve their suffering and promote healing.

It is now our time to, as best we can, through both physically distance and emotionally connectIon to strongly support one another throughout this difficult time. It is not easy nor particularly joyful, however, I am confident that one day we will look back upon this time with pride because each of us tried to find our higher power. And when the phrase “Group photo?” is proposed, we shall use greater caution, because we want to remember how this moment, our moment, was recorded for posterity.

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