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Reblogged:The Costs of Sloppy Speech

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An editorial at the Washington Post, kicks off with the following bold pronouncement:

In a few weeks, one of two things will have happened. Either covid-19 cases will abruptly reverse their decline in some of America's largest cities, and we will know that they were seeded by the days of rage we are living through ... or they won't. Either way, social distancing is over.
The piece is, of course, discussing the large mass gatherings that have been promoted and even inflamed ... by the same leaders and commentators who have just spent the last three months trying to keep everyone at home.

The author makes some good points, but her piece suffers in multiple ways because of her sloppy use of language, primarily the term social distancing, on which I'll focus in the name of brevity. Note, for example, that, despite the fact that practically everyone includes "lockdowns" (i.e., indefinite home detention of everyone in a broad geographic area) as part of social distancing, they are not equivalent to it, nor should they be part of a government response to an epidemic, at least on the time and area scales they were carried out.

A ban on crowds past a certain size might be appropriate. And even then, such a measure should have been carried out in the name of protecting individual rights. It is the government's job to protect people from other people, and not from disease.

Note further that I'm not naming the author here because she is hardly alone: Practically everyone has wrongly included lockdowns with prudence under the term social distancing from day one. Onward...

My first reaction to this was That's wishful thinking. And I think the author would agree in part:
We'll soon know if this is a safe situation. (Image by Rob Curran, via Unsplash, license.)
... First, as was pointed out when red states were protesting, you may have every right to risk your own death, but with infectious disease, protesters also risk killing other people, who might not have volunteered to die for your cause. Which brings us to the second caveat: In a diverse and highly pluralistic society, authorities don't get to declare some causes worthy and others worthless.


As individuals, we can make those distinctions. But our authorities may not except on broadly neutral terms. Some public officials seem to imagine that if they can distinguish between selling food and offering Communion, they must also have the authority to make even finer distinctions: allowing people to exercise their First Amendment right to protest police brutality, while circumscribing their First Amendment right to worship in public. Legally, I doubt it, but I'm quite positive that courts won't let governments distinguish between assembling to protest police brutality and assembling to protest public health policy. [bold added]
The author is completely right here: The motivation for a protest should have nothing to do with whether a government permits one during an epidemic. She is also correct to note that those leaders who have allowed large gatherings backing their favored causes lack legal grounds for doing so and have cost themselves legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

But is social distancing dead? I think not.

First, let's do what few do and seek out a definition. Here's one:
Social distancing is a set of actions taken to stop or slow the spread of a highly contagious disease.
This definition necessarily includes actions by individuals -- which the author rightly indicates will continue:
f it turns out that covid-19 can spread outside, if enough people gather close together, it will be too late to do anything about it. Public health officials will have forfeited their legal authority; media outlets and cultural leaders who have been much more sympathetic to protests than other sorts of gatherings will never persuade anyone who differs to go back inside. The disease will spread unhindered by anything except private, prudential decisions to avoid other people. [bold added]
So, no. That part of social distancing will remain. (One could even argue that that's all of social distancing. I am undecided at the moment.)

The author may be correct about government measures in the name of promoting social distancing going by the wayside, and that will be a mixed, short-term blessing (at best) if it is true: The lockdowns, under the guise of "social distancing," have continued and intensified a very dangerous political precedent of executive rule by decree, kicked off an economic disaster, and have gotten lots of people into the habit of being ordered around, rather than looking out for themselves when it comes to their own health.

At the same time, to the degree that the government has a proper role in fighting an epidemic, the whole idea has been discredited and lost in the confusion. (The government's role is to ensure, in proportion to the danger an infected person poses to others, that he does not violate the rights of others. This is not the same thing as isolating everyone as if we are lepers.)

And so now, a public cooped up for no good reason and in the name of a semi-fake one, have been given a permission they have been waiting for to toss aside "social distancing" (which ends up including actual social distancing, like "avoid crowds and close contact with others").

People who have sense will do what they can to protect themselves, but, yes: Governments may be hard put to bring back lockdowns, even if they seem warranted by an uptick in cases.

But I wouldn't bet on today's frightening breed of politicians not trying to do exactly that. And we risk all future discussion being about whether the government should repeat this spring's folly, rather than how it can protect individual rights in the time of a pandemic.

It is not "social distancing" that we are at risk of losing forever so much as an understanding of what government is for, and with that, our life-giving freedom.

-- CAV

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