The pandemic has largely been an unmitigated disaster, except for the successful application of mRNA vaccines. But from the perspective of psychology and political theory, it has been a fascinating test case to examine how strong solidarity is, especially in extremis.
Once scientists determined masks were an effective way of preventing the spread of COVID, public health authorities asked Americans to take a minimally taxing action—wearing a mask in public—proven to protect themselves and others. If you described COVID to someone living in early 2019, they probably would have imagined that, amid a global plague, out of the simple desire for self-preservation, nearly everyone would comply with mask mandates. Setting aside caveats about some African-Americans’ vaccine hesitancy, a reticence all too understandable given America’s history of medical racism, they likewise would probably have imagined that people would jump at the opportunity to receive a free, publicly funded, scientifically tested vaccine. After all, COVID is a disease which is unpleasant in the best-case scenario, can burden sufferers with long-lasting aftereffects, and which has already killed over 4 million people worldwide. Yet our hypothetical pre-COVID observer would be extremely wrong. What accounts for many Americans’ baffling recalcitrance?
We live in a highly divided society. That division gives rise to free-floating anxiety. The United States’ many lines of cleavage were obvious before the pandemic. Crises—especially those involving disease—often heighten people’s negative emotions and cripple our ability to think calmly and rationally. Fears are magnified; distrust becomes the order of the day, especially in the absence of assured, confident leadership. People fall back on old habits and clamor for scapegoats. In a society with high pre-pandemic levels of mistrust and suspicion and a distrust generator of deadly efficiency in the form of Fox News and wildly unregulated social media, it’s unsurprising that the maelstrom of negative emotions unleashed by COVID found an object—although it is worth noting that, despite their vociferousness, anti-maskers are a small minority, with 91-93% of Americans reporting having worn a face mask during the height of the pandemic. But why do anti-maskers evince such unhinged antipathy towards mask-wearing specifically?
The complaint that masks are uncomfortable and inhibit breathing contains a grain of truth: I doubt anyone enjoys wearing a mask. Likewise, masks unpleasantly medicalize life: they are a reminder of mortality and disease, hearkening back to plague doctors of the Middle Ages, with their uncanny birdlike masks, and the eerie dissolution of identity that comes with a masquerade. But the discomfort that arises from small reminders of death, momentary challenges to one’s identity, and minor difficulties breathing hardly seems sufficient to explain the rancor with which many Republicans oppose mask mandates. Doctors and scientists commonly remark that COVID isn’t a political issue, and I understand what they mean: COVID is a fact, the best ways to prevent its spread are scientifically founded, and there’s nothing to debate. But, as a public health issue, it is political. Perhaps the political and philosophical implications of mask-wearing help explain the vehemence of right-wing opposition.
An antinomian strand—a devil-may-care, authorities-be-damned attitude—runs throughout American history. Its strength has varied over time, as has the degree to which authorities deserve trust or obedience. And perhaps it isn’t unique to Americans: as the biblical story of the golden calf suggests, a certain pleasure lurks eternally in perversity. Humans delight in defying authority, even if we know that it’s against our best interests. Such defiance is a way of asserting our dignity and autonomy. But in this case, skepticism of authority has led us to a deadly place.
Protecting and nurturing others—being cautious and selfless, taking the Other’s welfare into mind, acting with sensitivity, acknowledging our interdependence—is traditionally coded as feminine. Being brash and selfish, fearless and reckless, embracing a competitive view of the world, is traditionally considered the province of men. Fears of weakness and femininity seem to be at the center of mask anxiety.
I encountered a Tinder profile whose (male) owner proudly proclaimed: “Unvaccinated and maskless…Car enthusiast…Hiking, biking, kayaking, etc.” I don’t think this particular man’s juxtaposition of traditionally masculine activities and interests with his “unvaccinated and maskless” status is coincidental. Nor is it a coincidence that mobs at anti-mask protests have been largely composed of unruly men. Masklessness is an emblem of virility, a symbol that you don’t need to worry about protecting yourself or others. Anti-mask and COVID conspiracy memes consistently downplay the severity of COVID, as if getting sick is somehow a proof of some deeper moral debility, a challenge to one’s manliness and a personal failure. This is insane. The recklessness and aggression which masculinity provokes under normal circumstances is dangerous enough. There’s a reason that women live longer than men, on average. But amid a global pandemic, masculinity has proven to be deadly: literally toxic.
By the standards of our society’s current flawed gender binaries, masks are feminine and—despite their tendency to separate and estrange us by obscuring people’s faces—collectivist. Ironically, by depriving us of the ability to breathe normally and disconnecting us from our surroundings, they make us more aware of our constant exchange with the environment. Our choice to wear masks to distance ourselves from others is a decision motivated by regard for others and concern for their wellbeing. It springs from a sense of closeness and fellow feeling. It is a paradoxical affirmation of our interconnectedness with other people and creatures, the way that even our smallest, most invisible actions inexorably connect us. Superficially, masks accentuate our isolation. They demarcate boundaries and convert formerly undivided public space into innumerable private bubbles. In this respect, they mirror the privatization of everyday life under neoliberalism: the personal bubbles mask create are reminiscent of the private worlds which smartphones and earphones enable even when people share public space.
But on a deeper level, masks are symbols of solidarity, a recognition that we each influence one another and are burdened by this responsibility. The paradox of the mask reminds us that borders are porous: the boundaries that ostensibly separate us can also connect us. It suggests that solidarity may be present where we least expect it. Even the experience of loneliness and alienation in big cities offers a negative solidarity—the shared sentiment of sadness or unhappiness—which gives people common cause. This point of commonality requires only a spark of interpersonal connection to ignite into friendship, something more profound and emotionally sustaining than a generalized sense of discontent.
The awe-inspiring, terrifying truth behind the mask—that we depend on one another, like it or not—gives the lie to neoliberal, conservative, masculinist, and fascist myths about rugged individualism. Masks obscure our individuality, reducing us to our identity as citizens, fellow occupants of public space. By separating us, they bind us tighter, underscoring the invisible nexuses that link us. The ubiquity of masks in East Asia even pre-COVID was mostly a function of East Asians’ previous experience with SARS and other respiratory illnesses. But culture likely plays at least some role: as various psychological studies have shown, Asian societies tend on average to be less selfishly individualistic than Western Europe and the US. Mask wearing is more popular in societies with a greater sense of personal responsibility for the collective. Perhaps this dynamic will also work in reverse and our pandemic-era experience of wearing masks will catalyze a greater concern for the common good among denizens of the West.
As we’ve learned over the past year and a half, mask-wearing boasts numerous benefits, some unexpected. Common colds have practically disappeared. For introverted people, masks afford comfort: one might derive a certain pleasure in hiding one’s face in public, a secret sense of safety in walking around without being an open book. Most obviously, masks protect against the spread of COVID. If another of the unanticipated benefits of mask-wearing is a resurgence in solidaristic thinking, the reinforcement of our membership in a collective, then, maybe, we can rescue something politically meaningful from the ashes.