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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 40

Word: Hygiene Theater

On the stagecraft of sanitization.
Words by Precious Adesina. Photograph by Tom Hartford.

On the stagecraft of sanitization.
Words by Precious Adesina. Photograph by Tom Hartford.

Etymology: In 2010, journalist James Fallows coined the term “security theater” in an article for The Atlantic, referring to measures put in place after the 9/11 attacks to give the general public a heightened sense of security. According to Derek Thompson, a colleague of Fallows, the coronavirus outbreak has generated similar performative behavior surrounding cleanliness. Writing in The Atlantic in July 2020, he borrowed Fallows’ phrase and dubbed it “hygiene theater.

Meaning: There are many things in life that have little or no purpose other than giving us reassurance: the sound of a car door slamming closed, the whir of a cash machine, the shutter noise of a smartphone camera. The same techniques are also used to offer a sense of security during the darkest of times.

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