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The Politics of Mask-Wearing

May 20th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

As many parts of our country move away from lock-downs and Americans begin to go about our business, the question of whether to mask or not has moved nearer to the center of our national consciousness. While it might seem like donning a face covering is a relatively harmless trade-off for the chance to finally get our hair cut, they have instead become the latest points of conflict in our never-ending culture war.

Many conservatives who had deep reservations about the way stay-in-place orders have damaged our economies have now developed an aversion to the means we might need to implement to keep that economy open safely. Prominent pro-lifers have joined in as well. And opposition to masks is only the start of the great conservative war against the tyranny of ‘public health’: there are Texans on Facebook who are carrying on our great republic’s legacy of liberty by organizing against contact-tracing, because if shutting down the economy is bad, trying to open it without causing needless deaths is apparently worse.

The reasons for such opposition to masks are many, though some are more persuasive than others. In some quarters, there has been a general discounting of Covid-19’s seriousness, which gets combined with a healthy degree of skepticism toward whatever the leadership has decided to tell us now. We were oversold on its deadliness, the story goes, and so primed for servitude; the W.H.O. and other elites who guided our response effectively deceived us, so now we’re supposed to take their word for it and mask up? In their most callous form, such objections have minimized the disease’s severity on grounds that a significant percentage of deaths seem to have come from nursing homes.

There is still much we don’t know about Covid-19. But it seems plausible to me that its dangers have gone from over-rated to under-rated. We know very little about the long-term effects of Covid-19 even on those who were fully asymptomatic. But we are seeing an increase in one fairly serious respiratory-related illness among children that seems to be linked to Covid-19. And whatever else we say about the fatality rate, Covid-19 is nothing like the flu.

I understand objecting to indefinite shutdowns. But there is no reason to discount the disease’s dangers, especially for vulnerable populations: it is possible to believe Covid-19 is much more deadly than the flu, while also thinking that the ongoing shutting down of our economy is unsustainable. (It’s also reasonable to believe that the shut-down was justified, as I do.)

But we might want to minimize the risks of spreading the infection, so that we don’t infect a lot of people unwittingly and have a new wave of deaths. One reasonable way to do so seems to be wearing a mask. But here conservatives register objections of two interrelated varieties.

First, there is the symbolic objection. Helen Andrews—a writer whose work I generally think some of the best going—has made both arguments as forcefully as I have seen. Masks are the new ‘duck and cover’ drills during the Cold War, she proposes, a practically useless symbol of our fear. Or they are like dog-tags that were handed out to children: a seemingly helpful item that is in fact a “a totem of death around everyone’s neck, a constant reminder to be afraid.”

Reaching to the Cold War for parallels has been popular everywhere during this pandemic, but as I pointed out in my original essay (on fear, I’d note) at Christianity Today, nuclear destruction is not disease. The threat of nuclear war is in a sense external to the society that lives beneath it: our agency in starting or preventing such a war is indirect, as it is mediated through our leadership. In a pandemic, though, we ourselves are the agents of death: if we can pass on a deadly virus while being asymptomatic, then going about our ordinary life means we risk being materially complicit in the death of our neighbors. That basic fact does not mean we should adopt a zero-risk threshold for going out—but it does change the basic conditions of how we assess negligence and responsibility.

That alters the symbolic nature of masks. Their presence means that, in one sense, we are alive to the risk we might be imposing on those nearby—and are doing what little we can to minimize those risks, even while we hazard public spaces to provide for ourselves and those we love.

Such a stance is more than embodied virtue-signaling: it embodies real virtues of care, solidarity, and even courage. Walking about with a memento mori around our neck is as much an act of defiance against our fears of death as is going without. Like the ashes on Ash Wednesday, wearing a reminder of our mortality on our face heightens our awareness of the shadow that is always over us—even if that shadow is especially dark when illness is abroad. Many of our society’s most damning pathologies stem from death’s denial: wearing a mask gives death the respect it is due, but without our being paralyzed in fear of it.

Of course, if masks are simply ineffective then the symbolic question is irrelevant. And that is really what Andrews’ analogy to dog-tags depends upon: masks don’t do anything besides darken everyone’s moods, and just as summer is starting.

Broadly, I suspect the ‘effectiveness’ of masks is especially difficult for conservatives to grasp precisely because the argument cuts against the grain of many of the habits of our thought. (I don’t mean Andrews here, whom I admire, but the broader Conservative Media Complex.) The most prevalent argument against masks I’ve heard, for instance, is egoistic: the mask will not prevent me from getting sick.

Andrews herself says the evidence for their effectiveness is thin, but cites only a single study which shows only that masks don’t necessarily reduce a person’s chance of being infected. Framing the ‘effectiveness’ of masks that way, though, assesses their value through the lens of how they might benefit the user.

Were that all we could say about masks, not wearing one would be a reasonable stance to have. Yet no conservative should be content with such an approach, especially those who take an interest (as Andrews does) in the ‘common good.’ For one, such an egoistic account of a health decision overlooks the fact that we are merely one actor within an ecosystem, and that our choices matter for others.

The relevant evidence is not whether masks will prevent the wearer from getting the virus; the relevant evidence is whether masks will prevent the wearer from giving the virus. And on that question, the evidence is stronger than Andrews (and many other mask skeptics) want to grant: not only do masks seem to reduce infections of others, but when others are infected they have more mild cases of the illness. None of that can be captured, though, in a narrowly egoistic framework for moral and political reasoning.

Nor can the effectiveness of a society’s use of masks be effectively assessed within a narrow framework. If conservatives do manage to escape the individualistic frames that so often capture us, we rarely get farther than the narrow, bilateral focus that so much of ethical reasoning focuses on: how will this choice affect the person right next to me? Will it contribute to their good, or not?

Those are important questions: but masking probably requires collective action to be fully effective at helping mitigate a pandemic. Since masks are mainly effective at keeping the virus in, a society needs sufficiently high adoption—probably 80%—for them to be ‘effective.’

In that case, the individual choice to wear a mask is only marginally important in the grand scheme of our country’s war on Covid-19. But marginal choices make a considerable difference when they are aggregated. That is a form of reasoning, I realize, which will trigger many conservatives’ aversion to taking seriously that Other Great Peril humanity faces, namely, climate change.

So pick an issue that conservatives are more sympathetic to: population decline and falling birth-rates. The individual decisions couples make to have more children don’t do much on their own to move the dial for a country. But they’re still worth doing, even for the sake of contributing to some elusive ‘common good.’

None of this entails that mask-wearers should give up our own sobriety in encouraging others to do likewise—which, I must confess, seems likely to happen. Within a democratic republic, it is extremely difficult to generate collective action without direct coercion or without overwrought rhetoric that animates the passions. The pro-mask crowd has no basis for shaming people: people might have very sensible reasons to not wear masks, after all, which we should honor.

Mask-wearing should predominately be for when we are indoors (unless you live in England, that is, where the sun does not emerge from behind the clouds between the months of August and June). Enacting a sensible mask-wearing attitude will, if nothing else, eliminate footholds for the reactionary spirit that would oppose them altogether.

We have heard much in recent days about ‘common good’ conservatism. As something of an O’Donovanian in my political theology, I am sympathetic to both the worries about liberalism that such views advance and the interest in ordering society toward objects of love that can be enjoyed in common. I would add, I’d note, O’Donovan’s important caveat that the ‘common good’ emerges from society’s efforts to pursue the various objects of love that unite us—rather than being imposed on by a public authority, as a “giant millennium dome.”

It is odd to me that those common good conservatives, though, seem to be so wary of masks (and here I have in mind Andrews and the Editor of First Things.) Much of that wariness, it seems, stems from a stance that greets the projects of elites (including, apparently, our public response to Covid-19) with a default skepticism. Yet in this case, it seems to have pushed conservatives in a direction of looking away from the common goods of health that we should all be free to enjoy and toward the private good of enjoying our solitary pursuits of pleasures and joys unhindered by the inconvenience of a mask.

Still, I am more sympathetic with the libertarian thrust of the critics of masks than it might appear. “Public health” has been and will be the source of many pernicious impositions on both our freedoms and the ‘common goods’ to which our society should be ordered. Despotism will come in degrees, rather than all at once: and when it arrives, I suspect it will be through channels like the ones I’ve articulated.

Yet such worries do not delegitimize the claims our neighbor’s health makes upon us. There is a time for resisting the encroachment of tyranny—like while living beneath one. The order to wear masks in response to a pandemic hardly seems like the origins of a despotism: or, if it is, we should laugh at ourselves for what small men we have become that the Lord would set out to try our mettle this way. But a conservatism that objects to the measures that destroyed our economy and then objects to the measures that might allow us to have one again without the risks of spreading Covid-19 cuts itself off from the very canons of reason that are the pre-conditions of freedom. The surest defense against a tyranny is not symbolic resistance against fear or the elites, but a citizenry that is capable of sifting information and weighing claims out of an interest to find the truth.

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