The pandemic has deprived us of the physical spaces and activities upon which many of our interactions with other people were centered. While Zoom meetings have offered a visual and auditory substitute for personal interaction, they lack the full set of stimuli and cues that you would normally have when speaking with someone in real life. Though Zoom has presented the same set of challenges to all our relationships, it affects the strong and weak ones asymmetrically—revealing which one of them fails to escape the need to share space, time, and action, a consequence that has reverberated from our personal lives to institutions of grand scale.
One weak relationship that comes to mind is that between lecturer and student. At the beginning of the semester, several of my professors asked if we could keep our cameras on so they wouldn’t be speaking into a faceless void. This is a strange request if you think about it because a lecture has always been precisely that. At its core, the lecture is a highly transactional relationship—the student expects little more than for the professor to show up at a designated time twice a week to relay information for the class to absorb. Therefore, when social distancing offers us the opportunity to be in a lecture without showing our faces, we choose convenience over human interaction. This is what I call a “weak” relationship: a relationship that can be of value, but also one whose reliance on some material objective—in this case, the transfer of knowledge—limits its intimacy.
I bring up this somewhat obvious and uncontroversial example of a “weak” relationship because it helps us confront a harsher reality: The relationships that we have lost as a result of this pandemic were similarly “weak” even before the pandemic started. Many of these relationships were based on the in-person activities that we are no longer allowed to partake in and it has since become clear that thumbnails on a screen are not enough to sustain a friendship. Outside of the professional contact we still need to maintain, Zoom can only replace the people who, when forced to, could enjoy just our online presence or trust their understanding of you enough to find new things to bond over that could serve as a continued conduit for their relationship. Friendships of circumstance and acquaintanceship are examples of these “weaker” relationships. While transiently pleasant, the pandemic has only accelerated the inevitable farewells. In fundamentally rethinking these relationships, we can begin to restore the humanity in our lives and surround ourselves with people who value us far more holistically.
Let’s expand this idea—because the pandemic has deprived us of much more than just social space and the notion of the “weak” relationship helps explain how the pandemic accelerated our release and rethinking of problematic institutions in our lives. On campus, there has been a cascade of allegations against everything ranging from Greek life to student organizations and the administration. Off campus, we’ve experienced a national reckoning on race and our government’s response to this pandemic. While complex and varied, all of these issues share a common denominator: a perceived sense of inhumanity on the part of the institutions that dictate our lives. The compromise between compassion and humanity and the promise of material gain has diminished as the latter has broken down.
This raises an important question. If these institutions have always been so problematic, why is it that now, during a pandemic, all our problems have converged upon us at once? It’s because similar to how the deprivation of our physically-shared space has exposed our “weak” interpersonal relationships, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the “weak” relationship that problematic institutions, both within and outside of our campus, exploit. Perhaps before, we were willing to compromise our humanity for whatever material gains these institutions had promised, including having the right to determine who gets into the party or dreams of climbing the corporate and social ladder. As the world has collapsed, the failure of these institutions to deliver on these promises has made us question this compromise. That’s not to say that motivations like wealth and power have reduced in their efficacy. On the contrary, the pandemic has exacerbated our existing inequalities. What has been diluted is the continued promise of those aspirations to those who don’t have them.
Moving forward, we won’t completely eliminate these transactional relationships. Life as we know it is reliant on them. However, to those who will write the next set of rules when this crisis recedes, I urge you to be compassionate and to care instead of command.
The author of this piece generally mutes himself and turns off his video due to the unpredictable nature of his cat Munchkin. Please send all questions and grievances to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nowhere, Somewhere, Everywhere runs every three weeks on Thursdays and Fridays.
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