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April 23rd, 2020 10:15:08 am

The Loss of Playfulness

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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. [This is a revised version of an original submission posted here:

To ask me to stay at home during the pandemic isn’t to ask for much. I’m an introvert. 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.”(1) Loving playfulness thus arises when we aren’t bound by expectations or rules, and no norms dictate our behaviour. We are lovingly playful when we are with others who love us and who, because of that love, create a space for us that is safe and comfortable enough for us to try on new identities. Home, then, is where we are likely to be lovingly playful. It is a private place, where uninvited guests are hardly found. It is where most of us can be as silly or as serious as we want, safe from the gaze of judgmental others and their expectations or directives. It is where we are free.

The value of loving playfulness for our sense of self and identity is an established part of feminist literature. Theorists such as Seyla Benhabib (1999) and Hilde Lindemann Nelson (2001, 2009) argue for the value of narratives in identity building. According to their theories, our sense of identity is constituted through the stories we tell about ourselves, and they are either affirmed or torn apart when others support or reject our stories. Relationships of love and solidarity are central to identity building then because they encourage storytelling and foster identities that we ourselves choose to endorse. Again, I am lucky that home, for me, is a place where I experience safety and support; I am cognizant that not all homes are safe.

For some people, the recent closures and cancellations, and the need to socially distance from nearly everyone, has trapped them at home with dominating and cruel partners or families. Marianne Hester, a sociologist who studies abusive relationships, explained to a New York Times writer that, “[d]omestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as the Christmas and summer vacations.”(2) The coronavirus shut down is no different, except that, unlike annual holidays, the coronavirus shut down is indefinite. No end date looms in sight. The folks who are experiencing violence at home would therefore disagree with me and suggest that home is not a place of freedom but of isolation-induced oppression. The 20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, would take their side.

According to Arendt, the private realm is a realm of necessity.(3) Home is where we take care of those biological needs that we can never permanently escape and which therefore will always keep us busy and, subsequently, unfree.(4) Arendt even goes as far to say that home is where inequality and violence are permitted, because attempting to maintain equality in the home results in inefficiency, which drains the time we could be spending in the public realm.(5) This is key for Arendt because the public realm is where we are free to be free. Liberated from the necessities of life, and homelife, we are free to discover who we are, through the process of disclosure, when we are with others, as equals, in public and those others offer us an opportunity to speak and act. To put it in the terms of Benhabib and Lindemann Nelson, for Arendt, we are free to develop our identities, not when we are home but rather, in public. To put it in Lugones’s terms, we are most playful, not when we are at home but rather, in public with strangers.

That playfulness 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 a store, is an interesting idea. I hadn’t had a chance to really appreciate it until recently. Strangers in a neutral sense, these folks present an excellent opportunity for playfulness. They don’t know who we are at home (or work, or wherever we have a stable role) and, likely, won’t ever get to know us in any real sense. Our relationship with strangers is, by definition, short, and so, the rules that bound us to fixed roles are few and lax. When we engage strangers, 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, doesn’t hold any ideas about who I am or who I am likely to be. Of course, she could hold prejudice about some aspect of me but, if she doesn’t, we’re just two strangers passing by, who present each other with the opportunity to see their own life from a uniquely liberating perspective.

Arendt talked about the public realm as a place where we appear to others, that is, as a place where we disclose who we are by acting and speaking with different people.(6) For her, what made the public realm valuable was that it facilitated solidarity and political action.(7) But, I think, in light of the potential playfulness of strangers, we could also say that what makes the public realm valuable is that it is a place where we can explore different aspects of ourselves with different people. Being lovingly playful, at home, is predicated on the existence of a loving relationship, in which the other cares for me and supports me. The playfulness of strangers, however, is predicated on the very lack of a relationship. Strangers don’t know us and may never know us, so strangers in the public realm give us a chance to explore who we might (want to) be. The public realm is thus a place of freedom, not only because we are liberated in the Arendtian sense but also, because it is where, for those of who can’t experience loving playfulness, we can encounter strangers and experiment with our identities, to see ourselves in truly novel ways—to be playful.

Unfortunately, social distancing jeopardizes this emancipatory space. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to be with strangers. 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. The freedom that the public realm provides is lost when strict rules govern our behaviour; it takes away our ability to be playful with strangers. There’s no time to talk to one another, to explore the possibility of narrative solidarity. 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.(8) This exemplifies the loss of the public realm and the loss of playfulness in the public realm 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.

What will this mean for those who are trapped at home? What will it mean for those who do enjoy loving playfulness? As Hester puts it, “suddenly people have got to be at home … [and] that gives [the abuser] an opportunity, suddenly, to call the shots around that. To say what [the victim] should be doing or shouldn’t.”(9) So, the people who are trapped at home aren’t just losing their physical freedom but also their freedom to be. Trapped in narratives not of their own choosing and with little recourse, they experience both physical and mental domination. To make matters worse, those fortunate enough to be at home with a loving and playful partner(or family), like me, may start to feel that the public realm isn’t all that valuable. Perhaps folks of this sort will eschew the playfulness of strangers for loving playfulness and prioritize freedom in the private sphere. After all, we do have a sense of choice in who we want and get to be at home, so why bother with the rest, especially during a pandemic?

The social distancing that is imperative to mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus presents a unique challenge for identity work. We are being told that staying at home can save lives, but staying at home can also destroy lives if home isn’t safe. Moreover, those who enjoy loving playfulness at home may grow complacent staying at home, preferring the solace and reprieve that home provides, but at the cost of contributing to a slow erosion of the public realm. For, the longer we choose the company of lovingly playful others, the more likely it is that we will grow to distrust strangers who, by contrast, don’t provide the safety conditions that we may come to expect. Thus, as the coronavirus conditions persist and the fortunate few grow complacent and comfortable in our loving homes, both who we want to be and who we get to be will be limited for everyone. For those in unloving homes, our identities will be bound up in narratives of “intimate terrorism.”(10) For those of who stay put in our loving homes, our identities will be, in a strange sense, limited by the very love that gives us a degree of freedom in the first place.

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 identity work is different from merely working together for some common cause because it requires equal parts safety to play and diversity to be creative. We need both the support of those who love us and the solidarity of those who may never know us to fully experience all that we want to be and all of who we might be. So, for me, the question is this: can we have both? By which, I mean, does loving playfulness undermine non-loving playfulness?


First, I am grateful to my two reviewers. Their feedback was tremendously helpful in drawing out some of the insights of my reflections on the coronavirus pandemic. Second, I owe thanks to Dr. Katy Fulfer, who hired me as a Graduate Research Student for her Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant, “From Rootlessness to Belonging: An Arendtian Critique of the Family as a Structure of Refugee Assimilation.” Under this grant, I have had opportunities to read and write about the work of Hannah Arendt in the context of my interests in drug addiction and relational ethics. I am also grateful to have my own research be funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (Wayne Fox). Finally, I would like to express my thanks to my partner, Jeff, who is always patient but has been especially so during our time together at home these past few weeks.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Benhabib, Seyla. ”Sexual Difference and Collective Identities: The New Global Constellation.” Signs 24, no. 2 (1999): 335-361.

Lindemann Nelson, Hilde. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

---. “Holding on to Edmund: The Relational Work of Identity.” In Naturalized Bioethics: Toward Responsible Knowing and Practice. Edited by Hilde Lindemann, Marian Verkerk, and Margaret Urban Walker, pages 65-79. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Lugones, María. “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception.” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 3-19.

O’Brien, Cillian. “People are reporting on their neighbours over COVID-19 concerns.” CTV News. Published 28 March 2020. Last updated 29 March 2020.

Taub, Amanda. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times. Published 6 April 2020. Last updated 14 April 2020.


  1.  María Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World-Travelling, and Loving Perceptions,” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 3-19, p. 17.
  2.  Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” New York Times, 6 April 2020, updated 14 April 2020,
  3.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958), 30.
  4.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958), 32.
  5.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958), 31.
  6.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958), 179.
  7.  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958), 182-83.
  8.  Cillian O’Brien, “People Are Reporting on Their Neighbours Over COVID-19 Concerns,” CTV News 28 March 2020,
  9.  Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” New York Times, 6 April 2020, updated 14 April 2020,
  10.  Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” New York Times, 6 April 2020, updated 14 April 2020,

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