REVIEW COORDINATOR: Kurt Milberger
The Loss of Playfulness
How does social distancing affect our sense of self? Our ability to create ourselves? In this article, I explore the value of interacting with strangers for our sense of self and the impact of COVID-19 safety measures on our relationships with others. Specifically, I suggest that strangers can offer us opportunities to try on new identities but that this opportunity is lost as the public realm erodes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Loss of Playfulness
As an introvert, asking me to stay at home isn’t asking for much. I enjoy working from home and love the company I keep. My partner isn’t an academic – far from it. He works in the fitness and health industry so we don’t talk shop extensively. Mostly, we get to be a more personal version of ourselves at home. We talk about books, tv, our friends and family. I am lucky that my home is filled with laughter.
If I think about the nature of my life at home, I am inclined to put it into the words of María Lugones: home is where I am lovingly playful. In her paper, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Lugones suggests that we can construct ourselves and our worlds when we are with others who allow us to be playful. For her, playfulness is an attitude which “involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction” (1987, 17). We can have fun trying on new identities, in new worlds we create when the other people around us contribute to an atmosphere that is safe and comfortable. We aren’t bound by expectations or rules and no norms dictate our behaviour.
Feminist theorists have long proclaimed the value of narratives in identity building. According to these theories, our sense of identity is constituted through the stories we tell about ourselves and our identities are either affirmed or torn apart when others support or reject our stories. I used to think that this meant that we need only seek out and develop relationships of solidarity, of loving playfulness. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed my mind.
With the recent closures and cancellations, and the need to socially distance from everyone, I have started to think that loving playfulness is not reserved exclusively for well developed or intimate relationships. Our sense of self, in other words, need not be exclusively endorsed by those closest to us. We also need strangers, others who don’t know us and may never know us.
Loving playfulness can arise when we feel safe and comfortable with someone else, like I am with my partner. But it can also arise when we are out in public, when we have a passing conversation with someone on the street or share jokes with the cashier at the store. Strangers in a neutral sense, these folks don’t know who we are at home or work and, likely, won’t ever get to know us in any real sense. For that reason, they present an excellent opportunity for loving playfulness.
When we converse with people we see for only a brief moment, we can abandon the roles we have been pushed into or built up for ourselves. As an introvert, for example, I can become a social butterfly for the few minutes I’m in a coffee shop. The barista doesn’t know me and so, can’t hold me to the norms that I am normally subject to. Of course, she could hold prejudice about some aspect of me but, if she doesn’t, we’re just two strangers passing by, who catch only a brief clip of the other’s life story.
It’s exhilarating when we get this opportunity because, for a little while, we can see ourselves through someone else’s eyes; we can see who we might be instead of who we are or are told to be. But social distancing has taken this away from us. Now, there aren’t opportunities for us to be with strangers because we can’t be out and about in public and, even when we are, everything is done with an almost militant efficiency. Stand two metres apart. Follow the blue tape lines. Wear masks and gloves. There’s no time to talk to one another, to be playful.
Hannah Arendt talked about the public realm as a place we create when we act and speak with others. It is a place of freedom that manifests when we can be with others. For Arendt, what made the public realm valuable was that it facilitated solidarity and political action; we can find others who believe in our cause. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, I am beginning to see the public realm as a place of freedom because of its ability to connect strangers with each other, to facilitate the endorsement of temporary identities with which we want to experiment.
The problem is, social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic, in general, is starting to erode the public realm. The freedom that the public realm provides is lost when strict rules govern our behaviour; it takes away our ability to be playful. This is evident in the way we are losing trust in each other. For instance, in the Canadian province of Ontario, municipalities are opening up ‘snitch lines’, dedicated phone numbers and emails to contact if one witnesses a violation of the social distancing measures. This exemplifies the loss of the public realm and the loss of playfulness because, now, instead of being open to others, we are on the lookout. Others don’t represent opportunities for freedom and growth; they are strangers to be watched, in case they act in a way that could hurt us.
I have heard people say that crises can bring people together, that new communities can be built across existing communities when something like a pandemic shows us the need to work together. But the social distancing that is imperative to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 presents a unique challenge. Will the spaces between us encourage distrust? Will we be spread too far apart to be together?
Lugones, María. “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception.”Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 3-19.