What people are missing in physical distancing

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.

President Trump finds infrastructure sexy

Nesanel Segal | Monday, February 12, 2018

President Trump announced today that he finds infrastructure “very, very sexy.”

“This editor” has read about the construction of America’s railways and roadways. Although interesting, he never found the subject “sexy.”

However, he reflected and came to understand the President’s mindset.

President Trump finds that women’s infrastructure is indeed sexy. We have known this, at the very least, from how he updated the female infrastructure in his life.

To the President’s relief, though, no act of Congress was needed for these updates. Furthermore, the infrastructure fixes didn’t cost him 200 billion dollars.

A single or divorced man making do with only a little kosher body contact

Empiric evidence strongly correlates a baby’s failure to thrive with not being held. Also a lack of eye contact.  An anti-Torah stance of scientists doesn’t seem to skew the studies of failure to thrive.

My leap here is to see body contact as essential for our entire lives. My evidence is anecdotal. I’ve done no research. As I often suggest, here’s a thesis for post-grad research.

However, rushing into a marriage or a second marriage has drawbacks that may outweigh the benefits. Granted that “a man who is not married lives an aggravated life.” (This is my really loose rendering of a Midrash.) However, an ill-advised, first marriage or a rushed second marriage are liable to be aggravating or to just plain falter without being resuscitated.

I rarely dovven Kaballat Shabbat anywhere but in a Chassidishe shul. I can’t imagine such a congregation without circling into dance after L’cha Dodi. My straightforward body contact is by putting my hands strongly on the shoulder of the guy in front of me. At the same, the guy behind me puts his hands on my shoulders. Kosher body contact for a single or divorced man.

For some men there’s an issue of homophobia. If I had it, I got over it. I’m an American “ba’al teshuvah” with plenty of the baggage that comes with growing up in what I’ll call, if I may, “Goyland.” I mean nothing disparaging about them or the use of the word ‘goy’. We have a culture that strongly overlaps with theirs, but we’re still distinct.

(Some sociologists call this “persistent ethnicity” for those of us who are not first-generation Americans. I’m fourth generation on both grandmothers’ sides and third on the side of both grandfathers.)

My son often wanted to get up on my shoulders during a dance. He saw this when he was really young, and I helped his confidence that he wasn’t going to fall. When he became too heavy for me, I stopped lifting him. More kosher body contact, both when I was married and after a divorce.

It wasn’t unusual for a forlorn boy to watch but not have a father in shul or to have a father who couldn’t handle this maneuver or this body contact. I often did the boy a favor by taking him up on my shoulders — not at the expense of my own son, though.

Then there are little, innocent girls who don’t sense that boys and girls are different in Halachah. I’m now going to speak only for myself. I have knowledge of only the Orach Chayim part of the Shulchan Arukh, so I can’t be a Rav (ordained Rabbi). At the same time, those in shul who are older and wiser than me never chastised me for doing what follows.

I now have a little granddaughter. (I don’t have a daughter.) I take her up on sitting on one shoulder. She doesn’t notice the difference. I shouldn’t have to explain to readers why I change how I carry her.

It gets a little dicey when a forlorn girl looks up at me with wide-open, expectant eyes. Sometimes I wipe my brow and tell her that I’m simply worn out. On the other hand, I’ll make an on-the-spot decision to include her. She’s up — sitting on one shoulder, of course — gets a couple dance bounces, and I put her down. I might then show her the face that reads, “Now I’m really pooped out.” Also, by this time, the dance may be over.

What about the issue of a slippery slope? We now have concerns even about men molesting boys and homosexual behavior between males, and in the frum community too.

“Ha’ayin ro’ah v’ halev chomed.” Note how Chazal use the singular — ‘the single eye’ but not ‘both eyes’. I hope that an element of a Day School and a yeshivah education conditions us to use only one eye casually — in a utilitarian way — and the other seriously focused Upward.

For those of us who find ourselves a bit too close to the slippery slope, we have to really pay attention to “fences around the Torah.” There is a safe Torah domain on one hand, and on the other hand, a domain that is clearly outside Torah observance. A well-known adage is, “Know yourself.”

Making do with only a little kosher body contact — sometimes “less is more and more is less.” Getting married but not being able to handle many of the responsibilities does begin with a lot of body contact, but may end with messing up several lives including one’s own. On the other hand, we can try to appreciate quality without large quantities.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches: “The entire world is a narrow bridge,” but primarily we need to take this in stride. My sincere apologies to Rebbe Nachman for not quite repeating what I heard. At the same time, Chazal teach that “m’sayimim b’tov.” Conclude on a positive note.