Touch is a thorny subject these days; COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It is also an increasingly and necessarily complex one. Some of these complexities are long overdue in being recognised; the period of time taken in recognising them charged with silence, pain and generational hurt.
In all of the three, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, touch is harmful, potentially deadly, physically and/or emotionally. To counter COVID-19, touch is forbidden and about keeping us safe, distancing advised. During lockdown, we have become acutely aware of the space around our bodies and when that distance feels safe and when it feels threatened.
With Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, the trigger for the campaigns is touch that is unsafe, uninvited and forced, the space around our bodies invaded, intruded and violated, distancing ignored. In all three, touch, distancing and the boundaries around us, both as individuals and as communities, have become the subject of demonstrations and the justice system and one fraught with tension, anger and abuse.
I went to the hairdressers recently – a strange, surreal experience in these times of masks, visors, hand sanitisers, screens, plastic coverings, disclaimer forms and locked doors – ‘no walk-ins’. That aside, I found myself oddly moved by the experience of being touched by another human being after the lockdown months. It felt like safe, welcome touch and made me think. These words have been percolating since – the power of welcome, invited, safe and boundaried touch and how we mediate that in these times of COVID no touch.
I have been partly looking at touch in my PhD studies. Welcome, safe and boundaried touch that symbolises the connections made by people who meet in a restorative justice encounter in the aftermath of crime. In powerful facilitated face to face joint meetings between a person harmed (victim/survivor) and a person responsible (offender/perpetrator), an emotional turning point is often reached where connections and convergences are experienced by participants. These turning points can be symbolised through so-called, ‘solidarities’, which are sometimes expressed through touch; a handshake, a touch on the shoulder or a hug, for instance (Collins, 2004; Rossner, 2013). This is touch, I feel, at its most positive and human. Touch that says I recognise you, I see you, I hear your story in this moment, and maybe never again I reach out and touch you to signify that my story converges with yours at this point, and I connect with you. I may not agree with you, or even like you, but I understand or acknowledge you in this moment of shared solidarity and touch.
How does COVID-19 change these encounters and moments of invited, boundaried touch within interactions and, particularly, within restorative justice? Maybe irrevocably, but maybe also, we have to rethink how we express these moments of touch in other ways. There is a potency in receiving an object from someone, or from history, with a knowledge that they have touched that object before us. This knowledge can either make us recoil (if we know the object has been used to harm others, or in an offence, for instance) or it can draw us into its narrative. When I see an ancient artefact in a museum (or, in these times, in online collections), I am moved and drawn into the object by imagining who touched its surfaces during its lifetime; what was their story, how did they use the object, artefact, tool? In this way, maybe the thought, recognition, and power of touch is passed on through the object and into my imagination.
The main focus of my studies is the investigation of the role of a handmade object gifted between people involved in a restorative justice encounter. Could this help with the lack of touch in these times – the gifting of an object to be received or collected by the other during a facilitated socially distanced meeting? As a restorative practitioner, I have facilitated many restorative justice meetings where handmade (created as part of the preparatory process with participants) gifts have been exchanged. In the times of COVID-19, maybe the gift of a hand made object can be seen as a vessel to carry not only an apology and all the feelings surrounding that, but also (welcomed) touch to the other?
Whatever the answer to that question is, touch, however it is carried, is the crossing of that space between us, across the distance that separates our bodies, and at its best and most profound, touch is deeply respectful, chosen and reciprocated. To put it in other words, returning to my trip to the hairdressers, touch is summed up by, ‘no walk ins’, without an invitation, which places a whole new meaning on that simple, and now very contemporary, phrase.
Rossner, M. (2013). Just Emotions: Rituals of Restorative Justice. Oxford University Press.
Collins, R. (2004). Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press.
‘No Walk Ins’ image taken from https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/NO-WALK-INS-APPOINTMENT-ONLY-Shop-Sign-Window-Sticker-Hairdresser-Barbers-Salon-/264785460904