As we begin what could become a long period of self-isolation, we encounter a dilemma. On the one hand, epidemiological research and recent global events show us the dangers of not responding swiftly to Covid-19. With community spread now within our shores, it is critical that we follow government orders to self-isolate and do our collective part to “flatten the curve”. 

On the other hand, long-standing sociological research warns us to the dangers of social isolation. During periods of rapid community transition and when individuals are severed from social ties, society experiences spikes in suicide and suicide ideation. Aotearoa New Zealand is no stranger to this social ill, with suicide rates increasing significantly in 2018 among teenagers, Pacific peoples, and Māori, in particular males. 

Māori culture, however, stresses the importance of whānau and community connections, even enhancing those connections through kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) interactions. Obviously, this will be compromised, if not impossible for the foreseeable future, and not just for Māori, but for all of us. How then, can we stymie the harmful effects of isolation during a period of rapid transition when isolation is a must?

On the face it of we (the authors) are like chalk and cheese. Ciara, a femme (trans) woman is never seen without wearing full makeup. In contrast David is one of those annoying CrossFit’ers who cannot stop talking about his obsession. Self-isolation has created a dilemma. Why bother with makeup, pretty dresses and heels, or deadlifts, muscle-ups and power cleans if you’re cut off from society? 

We assert identity through different mechanisms. Should Ciara slump around the house, absent of makeup, in her dressing gown and nighty and relinquish her pleasures because she has nowhere to go? Should David terminate discussion of a workout regime that has fostered so many connections? 

With all those selfies they post on social media platforms that they’re never away from, it’s easy to sneer at young people for their seeming obsessions and see this as a mark of civilisation in decline. We smugly dismiss them as narcissists. But if ever there was a misunderstood term, it’s narcissism. 

Freud describes two forms of narcissism, one an essential aspect of what it means to be human, vital to self-esteem and self-worth. The other is exemplified by figures like Trump, who are self-entitled and indifferent to the feelings and well-being of others. They have an obsessive, even paranoid interest in what others think of them. 

To love ourselves is to be confident in ourselves and feel worthy of love which is not the same thing as being entitled to it. Nor does it mean that we’re incapable of loving others and have a selfless interest in their wellbeing. If there’s one thing we learn from crises such this, it’s that people step up and support those in need and who are vulnerable. Of course people can be reckless, failing to maintain social distance and rushing to the supermarket to hoard goods. But few of us have ever been in situations like this and need time to adjust. 

If young people do appear more preoccupied with their online identities than older generations, that has something to do with the fact their identities are nascent and provisional. Young people throughout history have experimented with style, discovering what works for them and in doing so forge an identity, a face fit for the world. 

Online selfies are a new means through which this can be done, to test the reactions of others whose opinions we care about. We need to be part of a community, to develop social anchorages and ways of belonging. ‘Likes’ are important affirmations but always provisional. We make ourselves available to the gaze of others. 

Every post is a shared experience, both individual and communal, an affirmation of self and of society. It’s especially important as we go into lockdown that this public image is maintained. Social media platforms help us to remain in touch with others and also to be in touch with our selves. Our identities are forged in the company of others. Rather than pass judgment on other people’s seeming self-obsessions, it’s more productive to our collective well-being that we continue nurturing healthy relationships, whether by posting selfies, discussing coping strategies, or reaching out digitally to someone who could be showing signs of vulnerability. 

Returning to Māori innovation, in the age of the network society, Māori scholars have developed the concept of e-whanaungatanga, or the “online spaces of respectful, safe engagement which foster empowering online relationships.” For Māori, e-whanaungatanga also entails fortifying Indigenous identity, reviving Indigenous languages, enhancing Indigenous solidarity, and partaking in other digital activities that ultimately support tino rangatiritanga. 

As non-Māori, we would not want to co-opt this idea, adding to the ways New Zealand society has already appropriated Māori culture. Still, there’s much we can learn from our Indigenous hosts as we encroach upon a period when our broader social interactions are restricted to digital networks.

As a society, we mustn’t lose who we are and run the risk of seeing increased rates of depression, let alone suicide. Both at home with your whānau and across your digital networks, continue showing who you are, but perhaps more importantly, re-establish connections with past contacts, reinforce connections with current friends, and reach out to those who might feel particularly isolated. 

To love and be loved, what Māori call aroha, cuts across society, in many different, colourful, and life-affirming ways. As best we can while in isolation, use your digital networks to live and show aroha.

Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda is a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at the University of Auckland.

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