• Paul D. Wilke

My Weird Hang-up with Masks

Something about wearing a mask bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me. I understand the purpose when it's not possible to properly distance. Masks help, no doubt. And to be clear, I don't believe in some far-fetched conspiracy to steal my liberty, so please don't toss me into that loony bin. The mask mandates that are colonizing our public spaces, first indoor, and now more controversially, outdoor, are attempts by officials to protect the public from infection. That's it. True, the competence of those efforts has varied widely, but I get what they are trying to do.

And yet, I still bristle when I have to wear a mask; some vague, ill-defined unease sets in. I get grumpy and irritable, and can't wait to get back to a mask-free zone. This goes beyond mere discomfort - which is real enough - and hints at something tied to human psychology. This unease also goes beyond anger directed at anonymous officials telling me what to do. After all, I obey speed limits, wear seat-belts, and obey traffic signals with never a second thought. If I think about it, I spend quite a bit of time following rules I don't question. You do too, by the way. So it's not just rebellion against authority.

Recently, the U.S. has become a leader in the budding genre of mask meltdown videos (another dubious #1 for America). But this isn't just an American phenomenon. I've seen a few people here in Paris flip out in the grocery store and on the metro when confronted for not covering up. Even Germany, which was my model of a large society successfully dealing with COVID, now appears to have a very militant minority fed up with all the COVID restrictions, chief among them mask mandates.

"Masks make us slaves"

- German anti-mask protester

So, it's not just me, but others as well. For many, I think that "ill-defined unease" gets rationalized into irrational responses. Conspiracies, pseudo-science, and other dubious explanations are believed to justify the hostility to mask-wearing. That's not me. As I mentioned, I understand the need to wear masks in certain situations and don't give credit to crazy conspiracy theories.

So why the angst? Why does a good, civically-minded, rule-following square like me get so bothered by wearing a mask? A few months ago, my first thought was that I was reacting to what I felt was a disproportionate response to the pandemic. But my views on that have shifted as the body count has risen. Still, though, the unease.

First, though, let's zoom out for a minute and take stock: Consider how unprecedented the current moment really is. This year is the first time that large parts of our planet have been forced by law to wear masks in public. For many of us, going out now means donning a mask, and the situations requiring one are increasing rapidly. More often than not, when we enter the public space, we enter it with a mask. I don't see that trend reversing anytime soon.

So if this isn't an experiment in human psychology, then nothing is, especially when you consider the evolutionary importance the face plays in our social interactions. Humans are born communicators, and speech is only part of that. We've evolved as a species to be able to read subtle cues in other faces. Our faces tell a story. The inferences we make when we look at another face are numerous and often unconscious. Still, they are critical to our ability to navigate our social environments.

Think about it: Gender, age, race & ethnicity, emotional state, health, personality, sexual orientation, all are written to some degree onto our faces. Our faces express emotions like happiness, love, hate, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and nervousness, just to name a few. These emotions get projected into the world by the face long before they are articulated verbally. Faces are an orchestra of expression where the sum is greater than the parts. Our eyes are crucial, but they're only two instruments in this orchestra.

Even before we open our mouths, we convey information in a process where we send coded messages via our faces. The people we socially engage with then decode and interpret those messages. It's a kind of language in its own right, and one infinitely richer than we give it credit for.

Cultural intelligence is the art of being fluent in this language of coded facial expressions. For example, as an American, English is my native language, plus I'm literate at reading the faces of other Americans. Part of the stress of culture shock is the disorienting realization you can't communicate, not only in the spoken language but also in the non-verbal one of facial expressions.

When I lived in Ukraine, for example, a local told me that Americans smile too much. Grinning like a damned fool, I asked why. She said that we Americans try too hard to convey friendliness and openness with our incessant smiling - it's in our nature. Ukrainians interpret those constant smiles as either phony ("no one is that happy all the time, how inauthentic!"), or naive. In other words, what we Americans are trying to convey with our incessant smiling backfires, causing suspicion instead.

Therefore, the face (and not just our mouths) speaks a sophisticated language that enriches our social experience in ways we take for granted, at least until it is gone. When those cues are absent or hidden behind a mask, an essential tool for decoding our social environment vanishes. We go into social situations with some of our most finely-tuned social sensors out of commission. Distrust and wariness grow when we cannot accurately read others. Think of it as flying by sight only and without the standard suite of instruments we rely on to make flying safe and comfortable.

Is this the source of my unease? Am I a little uncomfortable "flying blind?"

Maybe, but that's not all. Masks not only dampen non-verbal communication, but they also anonymize and de-individualize. Our real-world identities (not the bullshit online versions, those are different masks, and ones we choose to wear) are erased, not all the way, but to the point of blurriness. We all have identities, ways we see ourselves vis-a-vis the rest of society. Our faces help us non-verbally project those identities out into the world without resorting to the crude signaling of speech.

I can project confidence by the expression on my face. But if I talk about how confident I am, it may backfire. The same with fear, or pure joy. I don't have to say a word. My face does it for me. Therefore, I lament the loss of this language to the imperative of the mask. The world is already alienated enough as it is. Do we need more reasons not to engage in person with each other? 

Finally, the mask is a muzzle. If, as I argue above, the mask silences the face's language, don't forget that it also stifles our actual voices. Conversations in a mask become utilitarian drills. I haven't seen many folks just sitting around and engaging in long, meandering conversations (the best kinds) while wearing a mask. No, speech becomes transactional, at least it does for me. I only want to say what I have to say and then be done with it. I get the impression others do too. Get in, get out, task accomplished, and now move on. What's the point, I ask myself, of engaging in these impoverished conversations with other muzzled faces I can't read?

So, where does this leave me?

Perhaps my unease is the fear of getting my identity erased bit by bit. Maybe I'll vanish (even more) invisibly into the crowd. Maybe that's what other people are also feeling on some unconscious level. Maybe this is the curse of living in an individualistic society like ours. Our well-being is tied to our identities to an uncomfortable degree. Those identities, in turn, need to be expressed and validated in our social worlds.

When that doesn't happen, or can't happen, there are psychological consequences. Maybe that's why the more collectivist societies of the Far East have unquestioningly embraced masks. The mask-wearing hang-ups of hyper-individualistic societies like ours don't exist there. It's merely a matter of doing what authority says is beneficial to the public (collective) good.

No questions asked.

And yet, my weird mask hang-up also confronts my duty as a citizen. One of the pillars of liberal democracy is granting individuals the widest latitude of freedom possible. As long as no one else is harmed, people are free to pursue whatever ends they desire, at least in theory. A pandemic threatens this sturdy liberal pillar.

At some point, the freedom to do whatever we want must give way to ensure others' safety. Liberty doesn't work if it means the liberty to harm others. John Stuart Mill wrote long ago, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

As usual, I tend to agree with J.S. Mill's timeless wisdom.

Therefore, our personal freedoms have limits when they risk harming others. Isn't that the case here? In the depths of a pandemic, going around without a mask puts people at risk, some more than others. Indeed, that is one of my greatest fears. I don't worry about getting sick and dying of COVID. I'm not in the right demographic for that, but I worry about contracting the virus and then unwittingly infecting someone else. Thus, my concern for the welfare of others trumps the "bit of unease" I feel when having to don a mask. To be brutally honest, though, it's a close call.

Given the imperative to protect others from inadvertent harm, I'll learn to live with the mask, at least when the situation warrants. But make no mistake, the longer this drags on, the more cracks are going to start appearing in our social fabric. The more totalitarian the mask regime becomes, and the more it begins diverging from the science, the greater the chance I'm going to eventually peel off and rebel. Societies are held together in part by mutual trust. Mutual trust is maintained through open communication. I believe masks erode that. And while masks-wearing may save us from the virus, it'll also push us away from each other in the process.

Is the cost worth it?

We'll see.


Paris, France

August 2020

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