Social distance” is one of the most debated concepts in international sociology. The term is extensively used today in studies of ethnicity, class, gender, socio-economic status and many other kinds of relations. It was originally developed to advance the understanding of processes of acceptance and estrangement between groups of people in cities where people who belong to different groups come into regular contact with one another.
The phenomenon of social distance has been explained in many ways by sociologists and anthropologists for the latter reason, mainly as a result of technological advances. In fact, social distance is probably understood by the majority of us as an expressed norm about who should be considered an “insider” and who should be considered an “outsider” or “foreigner.” In other words, it specifies the distinction between “us” and “them.”
Nowadays, “them” is mostly thought of as migrant, refugee or LGBT communities. This social distance can be linked to anxiety, according to some scholars. Anxiety about seeing “them” invade our social space, our neighborhood, our inner circles. This obviously generates in us a rejection of “them,” a sense of mistrust, intolerance, bitterness, even a sense of hatred.
Us and them.
When pandemics occur, the concept of us and them becomes distressingly evident. If “social distancing,” a term applied to certain actions taken by public health officials to stop or slow the spread of a highly contagious disease, is undoubtedly necessary (multisectoral coordination and communication, encouraging proper personal hygiene, school closures etc.), it inevitably leads to “social distance” referred as above.
The excessive emotional distress associated with the threat of infection addresses the question of socially disruptive behaviors. In these cases, the psychological footprint is likely to be larger than the medical footprint, some scholars argue. When pandemics unfold, the social distance created endangers the very sense of love of humankind which best defines philanthropy as a result.
Us and them is in our minds more than ever and destroys the social fabric of our societies. It is understandable (as there can be no deeper and more sensitive fear than the fear of your life being threatened) but very regrettable.
If modern philanthropy is to be reinvented, it is needed precisely in these moments, when the feeling of us and them is at the highest level on the scale of social distance. Philanthropists have a major role, through their donations and actions, in reinvesting in the love of humankind. It is a challenge and will require cooperative networks with specialized institutions, corporate social responsibility, solidarity and an understanding of cultural patterns.
Us and them must return to an “affective social distance” and that’s when philanthropy and philanthropists will be needed the most.
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner
of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).