Social Distance Matters: Towards the Age of Brave New Normal

by Dr. Wai Yip Ho (the Education University of Hong Kong)

End of Intimacy: What holds France in the Time of Social Ambiguity?

After lifting the national lockdown caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus, France made mask-wearing mandatory in public transport and high schools. This unprecedented situation finds its symbol in masking statues all around the world, including Philippe Ramette’s monumental bronze sculpture Éloge du pas de côté in Nantes, France (Figure 1). Furthermore, the new mandate of mask-wearing and social-distancing suddenly puts a (preliminary) end to the traditional French salutation ritual of exchanging ‘la bise’, an intimate cheek-kiss,, but unexpectedly encourages artistic creativity in designing home-made masks. Nevertheless, the law  banning face veiling mostly worn by Muslim women legislated in 2011 remains unchanged. Obviously, making mask-wearing essential but at the same time banning face veil sounds counter-intuitive and inconsistent. As one of the unintended consequences of the outbreak of the Coronavirus it was apparently exposed how the French policy of secularism (laïcité) is biased and excludes veiled Muslim women from the public sphere. Establishing a new law that makes mask-wearing obligatory to prevent  the virus from spreading while at the same time upholding the Republic values of uncovering the face in public places reveals a new social ambiguity. As a result of the new era of relative normlessness (in Emile Durkheim’s notion “Anomie”) after the outbreak of coronavirus, it initiates French society refiguring of interpersonal intimacy and social distancing. Most importantly, the new social condition opens an uncharted path and platform of dialogue in pursing new common values, identity and social solidarity in France. 

Figure 1:
Éloge du pas de côté at Nantes
Photo taken in 18 April 2020 © Ho Wai-Yip

Extinguish Tiananmen Candlelight: Be Water, Flowers Blossom Everywhere?

Figure 2:
Fight for Truth, Freedom and Life”, 31st Anniversary of June 4 Online Candlelight
Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements in China

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, state authority has a legitimate ground in banning public demonstrations: protestors are physically too close and thus violate the public health guidelines of social distancing. After weeks of lockdown, organized protests reappear in Labour Day demonstrations and the global anti-racism protests chanting “Black Lives Matter” after the death of George Floyd. But organized mass protests after coronavirus can be banned when demonstrators violate the rule of social distancing. In the name of preventing further corona virus outbreaks, the extension of social distancing through restricting group gatherings coincidently results in blocking Hong Kong’s iconic commemoration, the annual Tiananmen vigil on June 4. For the first time in thirty years since 1989, demonstrators are not allowed to access  Victoria Park, Hong Kong, to commemorate. Instead of accepting the government’s rationale, thousands of protestors defy the police ban and attend the Tiananmen Square anniversary vigil. To Hong Kong demonstrators attending the annual Tiananmen vigil in Victoria Park on June 4, the rule of social distancing nearly extinguishes the candlelight commemoration. At first the Hong Kong SAR government denied its decision to extend the prohibition of mass gatherings being politically motivated and claimed it to be based purely on concerns on public health. However, its public health measure have now been politicized. In terms of civil liberty, the implications of social distancing could become far-reaching once the Corona pandemic will come to an end. . Would the ban of collective ritual of candlelight vigil at Victoria Park mean the end of remembering martyred protestors in 1989 Tiananmen? Or it is the beginning of the new protest logic of ‘Be Water’, so-called ‘Flowers Blossom Everywhere’ in rekindling candlelight online (Figure 2)?

Social Distance Matters: No Return to Normal but towards ‘Brave New Normal’ 

Facing the outbreak of coronavirus, it becomes clear that social distance matters. People are warned that refraining from social distancing comes with the risk of another wave of the corona virus. Seeing that people in France are discouraged from greeting each other with “la bise” and that the annual public gathering for Tiananmen vigil on June 4 is skipped, one cannot  help but wonder when and if going back to normal will ever be possible?  Unintended consequences of maintaining social-distancing are the redesign of an interpersonal salutation custom in France and the recreation of the Hong Kong memorial ritual for Tiananmen, which drives the local demonstrators to rekindle their symbolic candlelight online and in a de-territorialized manner. With its observations on the developments in France and Hong Kong in the course of the Corona virus outbreak, this short essay suggests that, after the pandemic, we will be forced to live in an age of ‘Brave New Normal’, which is characterized by keeping social distance in the private sphere of interpersonal intimacy and public sphere of social gatherings in protests. While Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World portrayed a post-human world where human beings are cloned and kept in complete happiness through endless seductions and pleasures, our world after Corona might turn out as a world of ambiguity. This concerns both interpersonal intimacy and the fear of deprivation of the human rights to protest.  Human beings are facing an irreversible frontier transiting towards ‘Brave New Normal’, cautiously negotiating between the common good of public health and private needs of interpersonal intimacy, and courageously struggling against despair and surveillance imposed by the state authority.     

 About the Author


Wai Yip Ho is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Islamic studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He was an External Senior Fellow at FRIAS in 2017, during which time he worked on his project “Re-emergence of Middle Eastern Traders in China: Islam, Inter-Asian Connections and the New Silk Road Network “.



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