Physical Distance Doesn’t Mean Social Distance: A Philosophical Dispute

In the light of recent events, when we are facing coronavirus pandemic, we were advised to practice "social distancing". The term is not clear, rather confusing and the choice of words is inappropriate. We need to choose our words wisely.

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Physical Distance Doesn't Mean Social Distance

Words are delicate. Can be uncertain. Can be complex when used carelessly. Words can anger. They can spur us to action. 

Words hide irony.

People tend to use words recklessly rarely understanding the social or emotional impacts.

What is “bad” or “good” with words?

Words go beyond the polarity of good and bad, right and wrong, we just need to use our words wisely.

When we first read Plato’s Phaedrus in high school, we were obsessed.

Moreover, we were intellectually provoked, exploring the book in detail and found it interesting (being young and foolish) how Plato argues against writing in a written text. I still love the book.

In the dialogue, Socrates goes on to compare writing with painting:

You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive. But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.

It is the same with written words. They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.

And they will keep telling you the same things forever unless you change your mindset, your approach.

To Socrates, writing is not an effective way of communicating (knowledge).

Graphite drawing of the charioteer from “Phaedrus”. Source: Wikipedia

He believed that face-to-face communication was a powerful way to transmit and share knowledge, send a message to another person. Precisely, he believed that direct communication was the only way a person could send a clear message.

And what happens when face-to-face communication is not possible?

Thanks to technology, we have many ways to overcome the lack of direct contact. But, we still use words carelessly, regardless of how we communicate.

Social distance is different from physical distance.

It’s especially different today, when we can use different technologies to communicate and collaborate.

Let’s ask the dictionary.

Physical (adjective)

  • Relating to the body as opposed to the mind;
  • Relating to the things perceived thorough the senses as opposed to the mind;
  • Tangible, concrete;

Physical (noun)

  • A medical examination to determine a person’s bodily fitness;

Social (adjective)

  • Relating to society or its organization;
  • Relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure;
  • Relating to activities in which you meet and spend time with other people and that happen during the time when you are not working;
  • Relating to rank and status in society;

There is one more explanation.

Social (noun)

  • An event or an informal social gathering, at which people can meet and enjoy themselves, especially one organized by the members of a particular club or group. Example, a church social (?)

So, what distance should we “practice”?

One thing we’re not doing as effectively today as we’ve perhaps done in the past (if not effectively then at least better) is doing our best to eliminate confusion in communication.

It’s important to maintain social ties with friends and family. Today is as important as ever to speak or write consciously.

Clarity is needed

One Chinese proverb explains it nicely.

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.

To eliminate confusion means to get involved. The next time you talk/write to your family, friends or talk to a person in the street you don’t know, keep the channels (and mind) open and step back and reflect. Don’t take things for granted.

Don’t use words unconsciously, regardless of the form or media of communication.

The article originally published on LinkedIn.

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