In the first part of this series, I elucidated how both the Holy Bible and key philosophers privilege sight at the expense of touch. This follow-up will examine the shortcomings of this visual bias and no-touch culture.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to view two inspiring images. The first picture was posted by Lady G – and showed a couple holding hands as the sun set with a caption that read “love is the only way home”. Our conversation brought an entire stream of thoughts to mind, beginning with the Freudian argument that romantic relationships are often a retreat to our childhood. There is tremendous wisdom to the fact that we come into this world connected to another human being. Our initial bond is physical and based on direct contact. We begin as helpless infants depending upon our mothers for survival. The first sense that embryos develop in the womb is touch; which becomes associated with the affection of caregivers long into adulthood with loving relationships.
Cutting the umbilical cord is not simply an event that occurs in the delivery room – it is a process that structures our society. As we mature, the demands of civilization stifle our primordial desire for connection. To properly ‘develop’, our preference for touch must vanish. In the United States, the standard unit of development is the individual, not the group. American culture is based on the singular pronouns I, me, and my instead of the plural pronouns we, our, and us. Each person is viewed as being apart from the collective as opposed to being a part of the collective. We foolishly celebrate our alienation from the intimacy of others. A consequence is the normalization of a no-touch culture that demonizes dependency and even harmless forms of contact.
Schools and the Criminalization of Touch
Schools are a microcosm of society – and classrooms are enforcing prohibitions on touch. In their effort to eliminate disobedience and bullying, school districts have implemented ‘zero tolerance’ policies that punish minor actions with harsh consequences. Under these circumstances, absurdity escalates to the point where students receive detention for sharing lunch with their friends. Unsurprisingly, touch has been criminalized in all forms. At some schools, the touch component in the game of ‘tag’ is banned because officials believe it leads to fights or arguments. Equally disturbing is the fact that strict rules against giving hugs are enforced in select schools. Such a policy is ridiculous because research shows that when adolescents touch more, rates of violence decrease – and vice versa (Field, 1999). This condemnation of touch is a cultural mandate of isolation. Many classrooms are hostile no-contact zones that breed a helpless state of paralysis.
Police officers now roam the hallways of many schools. Even though students are not able to touch each other, law enforcement agents can stop, search, and frisk pupils at will. In our attempt to ensure ‘safety’, all we have done is replace affectionate touch with violent touch.
Touch as a Threat to Public Health
When touch is not being framed as a threat to public safety, it is often viewed as a danger to public health. With a slight rhetorical shift, the fear of violence becomes a fear of sickness. Every person is criminalized as a carrier of deadly bacteria. Consequently, intimate contact with the flesh of other people requires extreme precaution or avoidance altogether. Our no-touch culture is legitimized with a note from the doctor. Protecting ourselves from germs is not the problem – it is our failure to be mindful of a balance. The constant avoidance of disease mandates isolation, which in turn creates mental illness. The joys of touch have been blunted by a complete obsession with risk reduction. Handshakes are now followed by prompt visits to the restroom to wash away minor exposures to contaminants. In public spaces, hand-sanitizer dispensers are regular fixtures for everyone who does not already carry a bottle on their key chain.
Sadly, the spread of germs is blamed on individuals – as opposed to condemning the fact that millions of people are without health insurance. The United States is the only industrial nation without universal healthcare. Since we are politically out of touch, we become more afraid to touch.
The Privatization of Love and the Socialization of Violence
The second image was taken and posted by Dr. K E Garland. Similarly, this picture showed a couple being intimate in a public space. This made me think of our no-touch culture and the adverse impact it has on romantic relationships. Consistent with the logic of capitalism, cultural norms dictate that affection is privatized to the bedroom. Meanwhile, violent spectacles (i.e. the news, sports, etc) are ubiquitous and available on demand for the viewing pleasure of all.
Pornography embodies the intersection of violence and pleasure – with entire genres dedicated to eroticizing the degradation of sexual partners. This material is readily available on the Internet. In fact, more people (typically men) visit porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. A consequence is that men who regularly view this content have a harder time engaging in real, intimate relationships (Dines, 2010). Once again, the preference for sight over touch reveals itself. The hardcore sexual images often desensitize men to a point where abuse is the only pleasure they feel.
We are now at a point where open displays of affection are small acts of rebellion against a violent status quo. I dream of a day where holding hands is not ‘inspiring’ at all because it is so commonplace. We need to centralize touch as the bedrock of our society – and we can make a small contribution to this effort by simply touching others more often.
Dines, Gail (2010) Pornland: How the porn industry hijacks our sexuality
Field, Tiffany (1999) American adolescents touch each other less and are more aggressive toward their peers as compared with French adolescents. Adolescence, 753-8