What we’re missing is a higher level of existence. We’re missing the dynamism of group activities. We’re not getting the experience of bees in the hive. Bees can’t survive alone or in pairs. We also need group experiences, and this is what is missing.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduces the idea that although humans are autonomous individuals who engage in one-on-one relationships, we are also “groupish” like the bees in their hives. The individual becomes simply part of the whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Haidt bases this hypothesis on Emile Durkheim’s sociology. Durkheim’s description of higher-level sentiments is “collective effervescence,” which describes the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate. Members of marching bands experience this. Their “muscular bonding” – everyone is physically synchronized – turns on what Haidt calls the “hive switch.” Members of popular bands and orchestras experience a sort of “electricity” which “quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” like muscular bonding. The hive switch turns on something that is akin to the “sacred” when compared to the day-to-day, ordinary, mundane individualism – a sort of “profane.”
People attend sports events and experience collective effervescence because their hive switch turns on. All attendees are riveted to the action on the field (more or less) and this turns on the hive switch. Especially when all are cheering – sometimes the same chant together – sometimes booing. In the early winter, people will attend outdoor football games with weather gear and blankets rather than watch the game on television. The hive switch again.
Live theater and concerts turn on the hive switch.
But all this is missing. Stadiums, theaters, and comedy clubs are shut down in many places. In many places, bars are shut down.
My sense is that over this Labor Day weekend, Americans have congregated over barbecues and softball games. And doing these without physical distancing * and masks. It remains to be seen if there will be a spike in covid-19 cases in the next couple of weeks. People just want to turn on the hive switch, and fear of contagion doesn’t stop them. The effervescence and ecstasy of group activities are irresistible.
Beyond this, I want to suggest a possibility that the racial justice demonstrations in a number of American cities persist because these are hive experiences. Demonstrators, to their credit, from pictures that I’ve seen, are mostly wearing masks. More power to them. We need social justice, and they need group experiences like the rest of us.
Based on: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012) pp. 260-262.
Also see: Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019).
* I call staying six feet apart and wearing masks “physical distancing.” Health restrictions don’t limit us in social interaction, even in person. Whatever you call this, it need not be social isolation. When you don’t have family or friends to call, that’s social isolation. When you work from home and have no contact with coworkers, that’s social isolation.
Families have social contact. Couples who live together have social contact. Roommates have social contact. People in these groups may get tired of each other, may get on each other’s nerves, but they are not socially isolated.
When students start living in dormitories, they’re not socially isolated, and they can still maintain distance and wear masks outside their rooms – outside their health bubbles. (I’m not addressing what they are likely to do.)
I do recognize, though, that many people don’t have access to meet safely out of doors unless they have a car and unless they are willing to put up with hassles of driving and parking. I didn’t even mention inclement weather. During the summer’s inclement weather here in central Arizona, Phoenix in particular, you can meet outdoors at dawn before the sun becomes oppressive and the air temperature reaches the low 90s. That amounts to no more than an hour after sunrise. And in a grassy area in the shade – before nearby pavements heat up.
However, in temperate climates – where most Americans live – inclement weather abounds and begins after Labor Day, and social isolation is more likely.
I’m not forgetting telephone calls, WhatsApp, Skype, or Zoom. There’s no risk of contracting a virus over these modalities. There’s no social distancing here. Just the ultimate physical distancing.