Social Distancing and the Instinct for Closeness

Apologies for my recent absence (though those of you who’ve been with me a while know it’s nothing new); I started back at work full-time about two weeks ago, and between evening shifts and busywork, I’ve really just wanted to come home and sleep after every day. Even my days off (like today) are typically spent dozing, so writing is simply taking something of a back seat at the moment.

That being said, being back at work has revealed some interesting things out of both observation and participation. I work in retail/technical support, which means I am mostly customer-facing and supporting people as they visit our store on a daily basis. And whilst we have reasonably strict protocols for regulating customer traffic, it isn’t working as well as I had perhaps initially hoped, for several reasons.

Masks are, of course, mandatory where I work for both employees and customers; if you don’t have one we’ll give you one, and if you refuse you aren’t getting in. But this immediately presents its own issues in a noisy, busy retail environment: it becomes really difficult to hear and understand people. And whilst we have training to help us learn to speak louder and with more clarity, soft-spoken customers do not. This means that I’m constantly fighting an instinct to lean in to better hear what my customer might be saying.

The instinct to lean in to hear isn’t the only one I battle at work, either; in a normal environment I would work side-by-side with my customers, helping them navigate their devices to troubleshoot and resolve whatever problems they might be having. Now, I have to deliberately put a significant distance between myself and my customer in order to maintain a safe working environment, which means it’s a lot harder to see what the customer might be doing, to help them learn how to do something specific, or to replicate technical issues without the customer’s involvement.

I see the same issue with my customers, too, only they typically aren’t as self-aware. They approach me, reach out hands to shake, or think that it’s perfectly okay to step up to within arm’s reach to talk (all things that, pre-COVID, were of course totally acceptable). And it’s a battle to constantly remind them, as well as myself, that in the current environment, this simply isn’t safe.

But the instinct for closeness goes beyond what I experience in my day-to-day at work. It extends to every part of human nature and interaction, which is why, I suspect, it’s so difficult to manage. As humans, we naturally want to be with other humans, to communicate, see their faces and their smiles and their frowns, and social distancing makes this incredibly difficult. We had a small, outdoor party the other weekend with just a few people over, and even then we were all struggling to remember to keep our masks on, or keep our distance. It doesn’t feel natural.

And this is clearly visible across the country, and across the world. Everyone desperately wants to go back to a way of life where we don’t have to worry about these things, and unfortunately, a lot of people are under the false belief that by acting as if everything’s normal, it somehow will be.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth. The United States, where I live, is currently one of the worst-afflicted countries in the world, and sadly I think it’s because there’s a notion in this country that one’s own personal beliefs and desires are paramount above anything – or anyone – else. From protests to acts of defiance to political figures – people in elevated positions of power and influence – outright refusing to acknowledge the dangers of not social distancing, this country is in rough shape because people cannot – or will not – overcome their instinct for social closeness.

We have to fight this instinct. We have to resist the urge to shake hands, to hug, to simply be around others, because every time we do, we are putting ourselves and everyone else in danger. And as we’ve clearly seen, it isn’t just a danger of getting the flu – there is a very real danger of death, and by all accounts an exceptionally unpleasant one.

So please, take an extra moment with every decision you make to ask yourself: do I need to do this, or do I want to? Will this action I’m about to take put me in closer contact with another human being than I need to be? And most of all, is there any chance that the person I’m about to interact with may be at risk of dying from an illness I may not even know I have?

Social distancing, and every other precaution we must take during this pandemic, is not a thing to be taken lightly. This is incredibly serious, and so far there seems to be no end in sight. Things won’t get better by themselves, and they won’t get better by pretending things are normal. And if you can’t bring yourself to care about other people, then at the very least consider your own health: is that party at the beach really worth dying for?

One out of every hundred people in the United States has already tested positive for COVID-19, and there are likely many, many more cases that go unreported. You know more than 100 people – I guarantee it. Which of those people are you willing to see die just so you can have some notion of personal freedom that isn’t even being taken away?

Please, think about these things … and do the right thing.

Fear and Denial

About a week ago I woke up with a sore throat. Nothing outrageous – what felt like a little back drip, maybe from allergies, but I felt slightly achey, too. I’d been through periods of feeling somewhat unwell already over the course of the past four months, so I didn’t wonder too much about it, although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind: what if it was COVID-19?

I’m not usually given to paranoia, which can at times be a strength, but the opposite can lead to denial, which is just as dangerous. For a week now, I’ve been living in denial about the possibility of having contracted COVID-19, going about my day, stuck at home, working and sleeping and all of that good stuff. But the feelings of slight unwellness didn’t go away, and this morning after my shower I thought I might be feeling slightly feverish, too.

So I made an appointment for tomorrow at a local urgent care, and … well, we’ll soon find out. But the thought processes in my head over the past week have, I think, taught me something about fear and denial.

I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this world that truly frightens me. I’m not scared to walk through a parking lot at night; I’m not scared of dying in a car crash; I don’t feel afraid of potentially threatening people most of the time. At most, I feel uneasy, perhaps afraid to act at times, but I don’t live in fear, for the most part, most of the time.

But I have to ask, of course, why I don’t live in fear. I mean, there are a lot of scary things out there in the world, and logically it makes sense – even from just a self-preservation perspective – to be afraid of them. Be afraid of alligators, be afraid of men with guns, be afraid of drunk drivers. These are real things, and they can really cause you harm. And I think the answer is that I largely deny these things entrance to my thoughts – I just don’t think about them, or consider the full extent of consequences of coming across them.

To an extent, I think this form of denial can be healthy; after all, if all of us worried all the time about all the things that can hurt us, we’d all be completely paranoid, and society would crumble. But taken to an extreme, and it can be almost as dangerous as thinking too much about things. On a personal level, my denial of the possibility of having COVID-19 could lead to a delay in treatment, which could lead to much worse complications. On a social level, it could be argued as outright irresponsible to my family and those I forcibly interact with (say, at the supermarket) to not have been tested sooner, as I walk through the world infecting all those around me (maybe).

And sometimes, we need to confront our denial the greater good of humanity. Denial is a strong coping mechanism to trauma, but it has its limitations. For example, there is a great deal of fear in the world right now around racism. Black communities fear, as they always have, that the protests and voices being raised now in the wake of George Floyd’s death will eventually be silenced, and they will continue to exist in a place where they fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

But there are white people who are afraid, too. Afraid of the consequences. And I don’t mean in the sense that there are white people who are afraid black people will take their jobs, or steal their wives; I mean, there might be some, but no – the worse consequence of facing the racism in this country is that it is forcing people who would have otherwise lived in denial to see reality for what it is. White people who are afraid that, if they are forced to confront racism on their front lawn, it might reveal them to be racist themselves.

Think about it – the easiest way to deal with racism is to ignore it. Deny its existence; spout ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric and claim to be ‘colorblind’. Pretty much everyone, I think, is in agreement that racism is bad; but very few people are willing to admit that they might be bad themselves. Very few people have the courage to face their own racism, and to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem. But we have to – we have to, or we can’t be part of the solution.

So listen; if I can overcome my own denial about COVID-19 and accept that I need to get tested, then surely as a community, as a country, we can overcome our own denial of prejudice and racism and accept that we aren’t just part of the problem – we are the problem. And it’s a fixable one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and will take check-ins every day to see how we’re doing in being allies to oppressed minorities. Some days we’ll do better than others. But if we can at the very least recognize our part – each one of us – in the systemic oppression of black and minority communities across the country, then perhaps things can slowly change for the better.

It’s okay to be afraid that you might have racist thoughts; it’s okay to be afraid of conflict, especially internal conflict. But the worse option is to continue living in denial.

Don’t live in fear; but don’t live in denial. There’s a happy medium.

Black Art and Film

I want to preface this by saying this is a topic I know very little about. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. I can’t strictly call myself a film buff; I enjoy movies, and have a reasonable collection of digital films in my library, but I didn’t study film history in school, I don’t go out to the movies every Friday (or didn’t, prior to COVID-19), and honestly, as I age, find myself less and less inclined to watch something I haven’t seen before.

That being said, I enjoy the art of cinema, and enjoy the emotions, thrills, scares and joys that come with it. But with current events, it didn’t feel right to go on about another favorite film of mine tonight, not because film is any less important, but because cinema, Hollywood and society’s perception of film is possibly one of the largest bastions of industry-wide white privilege I can think of.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t black cinema, or that it isn’t good; nor does it mean that there aren’t famous black actors and actresses – of course there are. But in a space where tokenism remains dominant and white film is the norm, there is, I believe a lot of room for improvement. And it starts with me, and you, and all of us.

Take the following numbers as an example. I currently own 267 movies digitally, and I’m not going to start on the movies I’ve owned previously on DVD and VHS. Of those 267 films, the following contain black primary protagonists:

  • Black Panther
  • Blade 1-3
  • Independence Day (co-protagonist)
  • Lethal Weapon 1-4 (co-protagonist)
  • Men In Black 1-3
  • Rush Hour
  • The Shawshank Redemption (narrator, but not necessarily primary protagonist)
  • Suicide Squad (sorry)
  • 48 Hours

That’s 16 out of 267, or roughly 6%. Ninety-four percent of my movies are either entirely white, or the black characters feature as a minor, secondary, or token role. And arguably, the movies above are a) exceptions to the Hollywood rule, b) written, directed and produced by white people, and c) major blockbusters that everyone went to see anyway.

I can do better. There’s no reason I can’t expose myself to black cinema more, immerse myself in a world of stories that are every bit as engaging, fantastical, and human-centric. There are incredible movies out there written by black people, directed by black people, starring black people, that I can and should seek out.

Except … actually, there is a reason why I can’t expose myself to this realm of art more: it’s harder to find. As someone who primarily watches Hollywood films over independent cinema because it’s easier to access, I end up limited in my choices because those kinds of films don’t usually include an awful lot of diversity. Let’s look at the top ten films from a domestic box office revenue perspective in 2019:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Toy Story 4
  4. Frozen II
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Spider-Man: Far from Home
  8. Aladdin
  9. Joker
  10. It Chapter Two

Of these films, five have black actors within the first four credited actors (two are the same actor, however), but only two have a first-billed black actor – The Lion King and Aladdin (in neither of which do we actually see the actors themselves). Of these same 10 films, none were directed by black directors, and none were written by black writers.

Oscars are great, and critical reception is wonderful, but if people don’t pay to see a more diverse ensemble of cinematic talent, those films will never achieve the recognition they might otherwise deserve. And it’s a difficult thing to tackle; Hollywood loves old stories that it can repurpose again and again, and the old stories aren’t black stories. The adaptations, the rewrites and the re-imaginings of everything from Jane Austen to Philip K Dick, those enduring stories of humanity were, nonetheless, written by white people.

It’s difficult to ask Hollywood to take a risk on a new story, naturally; a lot of money goes into these films, and no one wants to risk millions of dollars on something no one might want to see. And the only old stories that feature black people are, naturally, ones about slavery – and no white person wants to be reminded of that, even though they should.

I think, perhaps, this is what it means to support black artists. Their stories should be told, and they should be heard. But they won’t be, and can’t be, unless everyone chooses to hear them. They might be uncomfortable; they might be hard to see. But change can’t come through comfort. And if the only language Hollywood understands is that of money, then we need to put our money where our mouths are.

And this, perhaps, could be the most difficult thing for us to do. Because of my environment, my upbringing, my exposure to art as I grew up, I’ve only ever associated art with white artists. I love western classical music, composed by white men. I adore European heavy metal – created by white artists. I love classic stories of hope and failure, written by white authors. I love these things because I grew up with them.

By nature, it means I end up associating non-white art with difference; with ‘otherness’, with change. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, or rap; I don’t know anything about black authors. And change is scary; it closes the mind to new experiences. It makes me say, “I don’t like this”, when in reality I haven’t even given it a chance. It turns me into a kid again, refusing to eat his broccoli.

But my starting point is this: I acknowledge this failing in me, and I acknowledge that change starts from within. It starts by giving others a chance.

So if that means that I look a little deeper into myself, and ask where I can find black art, then perhaps more people the world over can, too. And of course, art is interpretive – you don’t have to like it, just because it’s black! But don’t dismiss it for the same reason.

Support black artists. They deserve to have their stories heard.