Why We Should Question the Narrative on Masks
For all the science-signaling of its advocates, it's fairly obvious that mask mania is a psychological affair.
Our recent annual summer drive back to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio took us through Nashville. While I was waiting to check into our room at the hotel, I noticed a woman entering the hotel lobby. If I had to guess, I would say that we were roughly 15-20 feet away from one another. As I turned towards her, with my mask under my chin, she looked at me and made the following declaration to all who could hear: “In no way will I ever stand near someone who is not wearing a mask. When you are done with this guy, you can come get me outside.” And just last week, while at the grocery store, I walked by a young man in one of the aisles. When he saw that I was not wearing a mask (and he was), an interesting encounter ensued. As we passed by each other, he did a sideways type of bend that enabled him to “move out of the way.” Apparently, the Matrix-style move enabled him to avoid catching SARS-COV-2.
It seems safe to assume that these encounters are not personally unique. What such incidents reveal is the profound psychological character surrounding the nature of masks. At least in America, it is certainly the case that there is a rather broad spectrum on the enforcement of mask mandates. Some businesses and institutions can be less restrictive than others on this enforcement, depending upon the state in which you live. And even within a given state, there tends to be significant variations. In Houston, for example, living in Montgomery County versus Harris County can give two rather different stories surrounding the concern over SARS-COV-2.
Even keeping in mind all these national and local differences, the requirement to wear masks in America is still universally upheld. And one of the primary reasons why this is the case stems from the predominant narrative surrounding the effectiveness of masks themselves. This particular narrative is worth briefly exploring.
The trajectory for the prevailing narrative begins by undermining the veracity of whether masks are as effective as we might suppose. At best, much of the data concerning the effectiveness of masks for slowing the transmission of a respiratory virus like SARS-COV-2 has been rather limited. In fact, according to Marilyn Singleton, M.D., J.D., the recommendation to universalize mask-wearing “was published without a single scientific paper or other information provided to support that cloth masks actually provide any respiratory protection.” Since the truth claim about masks plays little substantive role in this regard, then the structure of the narrative as we experience it can now become a bit clearer.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is the psychological character of wearing a mask that is significant. In other words, the most compelling effect of wearing a mask is the psychological satisfaction and feeling of safety that it provides for the individual. Arthur Allen wrote precisely on this point when contrasting the narratives surrounding the 1968 Asian Flu and that of 2009 Swine Flu. For Allen:
How we categorize what happens around us can profoundly affect our perceptions of risk. In 1968, Americans had not been exposed to a steady stream of disturbing news about a bird flu virus in Asia. Pandemic was not a household word associated with terror and globalism, the way it is now. Although many noticed that 1968 was a bad flu year, most of us lacked a doom-laden category in which to place that information. We went about our business, free of excessive virus fright. We’ve all heard, now, about how fearsome pandemics can be, and thanks to the remarkable advances of molecular biology and computing, we have an easier time identifying them. But it turns out that putting a name to something is not only a way of taming it. It can also be a way of spreading needless fear.
With Allen’s reasoning in mind, it seems increasingly evident that the driving narrative behind mask mandates is one rooted in fear. And this helps to better explain why the psychological character of wearing a mask is so convincing and effective. We can feel comforted knowing that we are globally united to help “flatten the curve,” or simply to “mask up.”
In saying all of this, we must still call to mind an important caveat: wearing a mask, in principle, is not intrinsically evil. At a base level, one is not morally compromised by having to wear a mask. Thus, we should be cautious in making ourselves martyrs because we refuse to do something which, again, is not morally disordered. At the same time, it is no longer disputable that there is a push to condemn those who question wearing masks as being, at some level, morally compromised. Newsweek was even willing to cite a study claiming that those who do not wear masks tend to be narcissistic and inclined towards sociopathic behaviors.
The polarizing conditions in America have certainly escalated the context in which the stories about why we should wear our masks are to be told and understood. The question concerning masks seems to have little relation relation to truth anymore. The issue frequently seeks protection behind the tropes of “science” and “facts,” as Dr. Singleton alluded to in her report. The real concern is not simply that mask mandates are being called into question. What is unsettling is that masks have become just one more opportunity for identity politics to manipulate our attempt to understanding reality.
In Book II of the Republic, Plato contends that the most effective way to educate citizens is to “tell them tales” or “stories.” Unfortunately, the story about masks has educated us for too long. We must swim against this rather powerful current, and break the crippling weight of our present fear.
Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.