Photo: Amsterdam, 22 March, 2020
In the midst of this strange collective quarantine, many of us long for physical contact, hugs, lunches and dinners with parents, brothers and sisters, friends and workmates; and even the exchange of a few words with a stranger in a café or at the counter of a bar.
All this forms part of what we believe is worthwhile in life, or at least our way of life, our culture or, if you will, what we take to be a civilised life.
I have been thinking about all this over the last few days, as I started one of those books that are always on the “to be read” list: The civilizing process by Norbert Elias. The book asks: What do we mean when we talk of civilisation? How has the meaning of this word come to be shaped? What social and political structures, and what individual behaviour, do we associate with civilisation?
To answer these questions, the author delves into (among other things) the changes in table manners and other sorts of social interactions that began in the 16th century.
In particular, it spotlights the advice given by Erasmus of Rotterdam in what became something of a bestseller of the time: don’t make noises with your mouth while eating, wash your hands before you eat, make an effort not to spit everywhere, don’t blow your nose on the tablecloth, don’t dip your fingers into a shared pan, and other surprising tips.
This advice (and the enthusiasm with which it was received) shows that at that time a new awareness was taking root of the distance between oneself and others, and a greater concern about what others will think of us. This distancing and this awareness are among the elements that set in motion, according to Elias, the civilising process, at least in Western Europe.
So where is all this leading? Well, I was wondering if it was appropriate to focus on the current situation of confinement using the worn-out metaphor of the war against the virus, which evokes a de-humanising and de-civilising situation.
This idea that the trenches and the fight against the enemy bring out the best in us is recurring (and highly questionable). But perhaps we could approach it differently, drawing inspiration from the concept of civilisation, mentioned above: Is the behaviour we expect from ourselves and others in this confinement civilised behaviour?
Although we clearly want to recover all the things we miss, which of these new conducts, habits or customs would we like to keep when all this is over? Will they be lasting and seen afterwards as part of the civilising process? Probably not all of them (for example, wearing masks in shops, or using our elbow for activities we used to do with our hands, like opening doors, covering our mouth, or greeting one another).
Is the behaviour we expect from ourselves and others in this confinement civilised behaviour?
But maybe others will, like stricter hygiene measures in the home and in the street. And maybe a new sensitivity will take root too: the idea that we take these measures not just for our own sake but to protect others.
In the wake of this, perhaps there will also be a heightened awareness of the fragility of our own body and those of others, and that these fragilities are interconnected.
Unlike in the 16th century, these new behavioural expectations and this new sensitivity have nothing to do with marking differences of origin or class: they apply equally to Orientals and Westerners, Italians and Danes, rich and poor alike.
Lastly, perhaps we will also see a strengthening of the shared conviction that we need a public health system that is well equipped with resources to cope with situations like this. Maybe some of these elements, then, really can be understood as civilising; or at least, maybe we are better off looking at it this way, instead of always harking back to war comparisons.
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