Can a "Return to Normal" Happen Without Repairing Sociability?

Roundup
tags: labor, cultural history, work, COVID-19

Pandemic life remains terribly lonely. It’s recently become differently so. Elements of pre-pandemic normal social life have returned, but not for us those of us who aren’t going along with the so-called “back to normal.” I want a name for this painful situation. Lacking a better one, I’ve started calling it broken sociality.

 The pseudo-return in the “new normal” means social life and community appear to be more available, but for many of us, they aren’t, really - no more than a meal someone spat on is really available as food. Experiences of community are offered but not actually present, in that they're present only via serious risks which are often un- or under-acknowledged. I think of this facet of broken sociality as social loneliness. This involves more time spent alone -- reduced time doing things and seeing people compared to pre-pandemic -- because fewer places are doing anything (let alone enough) to mitigate covid exposure.

Sometimes we're required to be in places in-person that lack adequate mitigation, and others in those places don't seem concerned. For instance, in my first week teaching this semester I saw exactly one person at work wearing a mask, a student. I felt terribly alone, specifically in the sense of being alone in a crowd - around people but in important respects cut off from them. (There may well be more people masking and feeling like I do and we’re just not seeing each other; in the headspace I’m in at work now, my first impulse is to move pretty briskly and disengage, compared to the place of openness and excitement I used to have at work pre-pandemic. This colors my perceptions: while I go from place to place, if I see, at a glance, that no one’s wearing a mask, well, that fits with how I’m already feeling, so it feels like confirmation.)

Social loneliness blurs into another facet of broken sociality, what I think of as political loneliness. This is the sense of a gulf in values or in understanding of some very important aspects of the world. Knowing that the return to normal means even more dying and life-altering suffering is terrible. Knowing that many people seem not to realize this, that people in officially respected positions seem to find this acceptable, that fellow travelers on the left don’t treat this as a priority, that all feels isolating to a degree I find hard to overstate. What’s happening, I think, is that there’s no consensus on the reality we’re living in: ideologically, the pandemic continues for some of us and is over for others, while, of course, it hasn’t *actually* ended; it feels like living in a different world from other people, but still interacting. In some cases, this means old relationships feel different, and not for the better.

What I've called political and social loneliness overlap and are related significantly. Political loneliness is less place dependent. It isn’t so much a matter where I am and who I’m around (it’s possible to feel it, as I often do, even when I’m literally alone, as I often am), but rather comes from a sense of differing from other people on the values, assessments, and explanations through which we understand the pandemic and the management of the pandemic by institutions. This comes up sometimes in casual phone calls with far-flung friends and family as we chat about our lives. I try to suppress any urge to be judgmental about individual choices and to focus my anger at those with the most institutional power, but I do notice differences on this stuff. Those differences increase the sense of isolation. This is heavily reinforced by various explicit and implicit messages from public officials and other high-status actors.

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