The Social Psychology of Distance-Safety
Or, Keeping in Touch Without ‘Touching’
There is nothing more important for human well-being than touch. Touch like gesture, is the foundational way of human knowing. Children learn how to communicate emotions and feelings by gesture and touch well before they can speak or write text. Indeed, text and speech only make meaning and sense through connecting the language of touch and gesture to text. We learn language through the embodiment of gesture and touch, only later do we connect language and text to experience.
Touch in particular is an essential mode of social connection. What happens then when this foundational sense of being is restricted or taken away? What are the implications for social health when regulation, public health and science demand social distancing? Whilst we might be careful about physical health, what happens to our mental health when the critical meaning of touch is removed? This often only leaves us with gesture, but what if we don’t know what gesture is or the power of gesture?
It is important at the outset to understand that being a person is contingent on social identity. Humans define themselves as persons ‘in relation’ to others and the world. This is learned as a child through touch and gesture, such is the nature of embodied learning. Further see McNeill (2005) Gesture and Thought.
Our names are given to us at birth by parents and/or community and that is how we are ‘known’. From our first moments of breath we know we are social beings and learn about self-in-relation to others by gesture and touch. Social being is the foundation of all well-being, belonging and being. We only feel safe, when we are socially safe. The individualist and behaviourist ideas common to the safety industry, that humans are objects and individuals is nonsense. Persons are never just i, we are always i-thou (Buber). This is why when it comes to risk it should be understood relationally-socially. There is no risk that doesn’t carry an effect on another. Harm always carries a ripple effect on those with whom you are in relation. This is why loneliness is so harmful for persons.
We knew well before the COVID pandemic that loneliness is in epidemic proportions in Australian society (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328333287_An_epidemic_of_loneliness_2001-2017; https://fionapatten.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Loneliness-An-Epidemic-by-Ben-McDonald.pdf ). Even though we are more digitally connected than ever, Sherry Turkle (https://hci.stanford.edu/courses/cs047n/readings/Alone_Together.pdf) captured it well in 2012 when she wrote her book Alone Together. Obviously being digitally connected does very little for the problems of isolation, loneliness and mental health.
In November 2020 the Report; Ending Loneliness Together in Australia (https://endingloneliness.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Ending-Loneliness-Together-in-Australia_Nov20.pdf) was released. This is what the Report says about loneliness and work:
‘Approximately 37% of Australian workers feel lonely while nearly a quarter do not engage in any activities to connect them with their colleagues. The flow-on impact on workplace safety, absenteeism, employee retention, and business productivity means that workplace loneliness is also a significant issue for the Australian economy’.
It is important to know that social isolation is NOT synonymous with loneliness although it does exacerbate it. Strategies to reduce social isolation do not necessarily reduce loneliness. One can be digitally well connected, socially connected and surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Loneliness is also stigmatized and so few people talk about it. This is amplified when the enactment of Work, Health and Safety is characterized by the counting of numbers, the metrics of objects and the discourse of zero.
If Work Health and Safety is the nature of the occupation, then surely Health and mental health should receive equal priority to physical health? Unfortunately, poor olde Safety has a long way to go before it has any chance of helping others with the challenges of loneliness. Safety doesn’t even use the language of ‘helping’ and ‘care’ in its discourse on ethics! (https://safetyrisk.net/a-safety-sense-of-ethics/).
When one looks at how Safety responds to COVID its always about the nature of objects and hazards, personhood never gets a mention (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces). There is never discussion about gesture or the semiotics of well-being. It’s always a mechanistic worldview about psychosocial health and it never tackles the challenges of loneliness.
Just look at the infographic here ((https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/infographic-four-steps-preventing-psychological-injury-work ), it’s still individualistic and a problem associated with what happens in an individual’s head. Brain-centrism, that’s sure top help thinking of COVID as a social challenge! The largest aspect of this infographic is the numerical economic cost to productivity. Hmmm, great encouragement to NOT speak up, no wonder Safety stigmatizes loneliness. And of course the response is about an ethic of duty (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/work-related-psychological-health-and-safety-systematic-approach-meeting-your-duties), perfectly in line with the AIHS BoK deontological ethic (https://safetyrisk.net/the-aihs-bok-and-ethics-check-your-gut/). No wonder Safety has no clue what to do wits social psychological injury and harm in response to the Pandemic.
So, what can Safety do?
- The first thing Safety can do to ‘help’ others in social well-being and mental health by move away from ideologies that focus on objects, numerics, metrics and brain-centrism.
The second thing Safety can do to ‘help’ tackle loneliness is drop the language and semiotics of zero. Nothing is more alienating to people than the prioritization of numerics. When zero is your identity, personhood comes last.
The third thing Safety can do is to move away from the worldviews of Scientism, Behaviourism, Materialism and Engineering. None of these worldviews ‘help’ in understand persons or mindfulness as understood in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR).
The fourth thing safety can do is reform the WHS Curriculum and Body of Knowledge so that a focus on ethics, humanization and personhood is put in balance. The weighting of the WHS Curriculum and AIHS BoK at present has NO focus on personhood, ethics or humanizing risk.
The fifth thing Safety can do is start to understand the semiotics of gesture. It is through gesture in times of social distance that real connections can be made. This is why the latest CLLR Newsletter (https://spor.com.au/downloads/newsletter-archive )had its primary focus on the importance of gesture in Social Psychology of Risk.
The sixth thing Safety can do is to focus on the semiotics of communication, listening and observation skills, the only way to really know others.
The seventh thing Safety can do is start to consider the nature of the human unconscious and the fact that much that goes on regarding loneliness is not visible. Behaviourism is one of the great delusions of the safety industry (https://safetyrisk.net/kicking-the-behaviourism-habit/). Psychological harm is never visible nor counted by Safety in its rhetoric on zero. You won’t find anything in the AIHS BoK or WHS Curriculum that begins to recognize the importance of tackling the nature of the human unconscious.
The eighth thing Safety can do is to put less trust in digital solutions to everything and learn the semiotic power of gesture. The power of visual semiotics as gesture is a key to mental health and well-being during periods of isolation, social distancing and lockdowns. An Introduction the SPoR would help get Safety started in a new journey to mental health and well-being.
The ninth thing Safety can do is stop reading the Safety view on health and social issues and start reading outside of the the AIHS Body of Knowledge. It’s about time Safety realized it doesn’t know much about: persons, mental health and well-being.
- The tenth thing Safety can do is to get its Mind away from petty risk, PPE, brain-centrism and the fixation/wasting time in counting injury rates. One of the worst things that COVID has done to Safety is elevate its fixation with PPE. PPE doesn’t tell anything about psychological harm.
One thing is guaranteed, people never speak up to an industry that identifies itself as a number. People never speak up to an industry that doesn’t know how to listen but only knows how to ‘tell’. People never confess loneliness to the brutalism of metrics and numerics.
People only speak up when safety is humanized, intelligent, listens and has an ethic of helping. When these characteristics are in place, people are touched by every gesture that emerges out of such a worldview. Anything else just alienates and further distances persons even when there is no social distancing.