The boundaries of touch* have long been patrolled by the moral watchdogs of society.
In the United States, as Anglo-American ideals of physical reserve were pressed to the margins by a new population of free blacks after the Civil War, all things African, particularly those involving movements of the body and expressions of joy, were subjected to a rule of white terror that persisted into the 1950s.
The waves of immigrants between 1880 and 1920 had a similar effect,with Italians, Jews, Eastern European Catholics entering America and bringing with them patterns of kissing, hugging pinching that also threatened the firm handshake reserve of the old stock, and doomed the era of the bow and the curtsy.
Child rearing experts advised against the physical touching of children by parents, suggesting that such excesses of tenderness might lead to the effeminization of society, the demise of 'manliness' in particular. Immigrants and others were drilled in rules of etiquette intended to keep public signs of physical affection to a minimum.
Of course the migrations continued, and the fortresses of repression continued to weaken. Signs of physical affection, particularly those that remained unsanctioned, began to pop up in the demimondaine of everyday life.
Now, according to the New York Times (28 May 2009), there is an epidemic of hugging running through American high schools. And with it, a taxonomy of different hugs, each with its own particular moves and composition. Some is girl on girl. Some is boy on boy. Some is girl on boy, some move from a couple to a few, all in one collective embrace. The crossing of ancient tribal taboos, of course, also runs through a growing encyclopedia of contemporary hugging.
Responding to this, some educational arbiters of propriety are working to establish bans on this outbreak of hugging, which, they are convinced, will only lead to the hard stuff. They want to ban hugs on school grounds. (Some, according to unconfirmed rumors, wish to install a new curriculum in the civics of bodily armoring, an attempt to staunch the affectionate energies that have led to this groundswell of uninhibited embrace among adolescents.)
They want to ban hugs even though--to recall a Leonard Cohen lyric--"love's the only engine of survival."
Banning hugs is like banning Brazil.
Banning hugs is like banning much of Continental Europe, although some would argue that a ban has long been in place throughout much of the British Isles.
Banning hugs is like banning Ireland. Or Xhosa. Or Galitziana.
Banning hugs is like banning warmth, like banning extended family and kinship. Like banning kindred spirit. Like banning Mother Earth, and the waters from which we come.
Banning hugs is like banning shared happiness, or grief.
It is banning the smells that draw us closer.
Banning hugs is banning love, just when we need it most.
* The phrase, "Boundaries of Touch" is lifted from Jean O'Malley Halley's splendid book of the same name, published by the University of Illinois (2007, 2009).