Kareem Shaheen: It's not the masks that bother me — it's my fellow mask-wearers
Shame is the least effective way to convince people to come around on masks.
Let's start here: I fully believe in masks.
I was wearing them in indoor spaces long before Montreal made it mandatory. I have packs of disposable masks, and trendy cloth versions handmade by local designers. They are stylish, even badass if paired with the right outfit.
Yet I couldn't repress a visceral wave of disgust recently when I witnessed a European Facebook friend — in a country where masks are not mandatory — making a habit of taking selfies with her mask at supermarkets. Her pictures also included the faces of other unmasked patrons in the background, along with text shaming them for not covering up.
It gnawed at me. After a few of these posts, I hit the unfriend button.
It's not the masks that bother me. It's my fellow mask-wearers.
The mask shaming mirrors the way social media has warped our culture. The Twitter and 'gram "in crowd" flaunt its mask use to demonstrate an ostensibly superior grasp of morals and science — and to bully those who don't follow its cues. Those who perceive themselves to be on the outside of this circle can't help but cringe at the manipulation and grandstanding behind these seemingly well-intentioned gestures.
Mask resistance, then, becomes a virtue signal of its own.
And, of course, Twitter itself has been a cesspool of counter-productive shame. Back in July, the hashtag #NoMasks trended, which gave the illusion of a groundswell of opposition against mandatory masking laws. But an analysis by First Draft, a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom, examined 8,000 Twitter accounts that used the hashtag. It found that the majority of people who tweeted #NoMasks were actually pro-mask. Their condemnation of the supposed anti-mask contingent actually boosted #NoMasks, bringing more people in contact with related conspiracy theories and arguments against wearing masks.
The moralizing is all the more galling because our own governments were forced to do an embarrassing about-face on their efficacy.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, health agencies in Canada and the United States recommended against wearing masks because there was insufficient evidence that they could prevent the spread of the virus, remember? They said that masks would provide a sense of false security, and suggested that we were all too dumb to know how to wear them properly.
This despite widespread use of masks in Asia, and while there was a growing consensus in hard-hit parts of Europe that they were effective and necessary.
With so much confused messaging, it's no mystery that so many people are now skeptical about wearing masks. Sure, some of the most ardent mask-haters are also Q-Anon-spouting, anti-vaxxer crystal-healing masks-are-fascism conspiracy theorist kooks. But not all them fit that description.
And the problem with all of this is that if you're actually trying to convince people to wear masks — as opposed to merely demonstrating your own superior morality via the veil — shame is one of the least effective methods of persuasion.
Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School wrote in the Atlantic in June that shaming people into adopting public-health measures doesn’t work, and often elicits the opposite effect to the one desired.
She noted the way the U.S. government tried to combat the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; shaming messages failed to change people’s behaviour — a failure that cost many lives. By comparison, adopting a more sex-positive approach that centred pleasure and intimacy encouraged more people to wear condoms and practice safe sex.
I've been constantly frustrated by the discourse around this pandemic.
Following COVID-19 in the news has grown so exhausting that I unsubscribed from several mostly left-leaning media outlets that I had admired for years — including publications that I had written for.
It was one thing after the next; the impossibility of finding a vaccine — even before we fully understood how the virus worked. Then came the killer insects, the Black Plague-infested squirrels, or imminent volcanic eruptions. It all began to feel like a cataclysmic pile-on; but it was more than just the terrible news itself. There was an edge of puritanical self-regard to all of it — as if we had all been living the life decadent for too long and were finally facing the well-earned consequences of our folly.
As someone who grew up in the Middle East, the dynamic disturbed me because it reminded me of all the supposedly well-meaning religious folks who would offer delicately-worded concern about my absence from prayers at the mosque. Or they told women I knew about the pleasures of Paradise should they wear a veil.
Imposing social mores through shame makes me nervous. These tactics are usually more destructive than the behaviours they try to abolish. In the Middle East, the well-intentioned busybodies had a stronger arm, too: there were security apparatuses vested by the state to enforce decency — the recently abolished Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia, for example, and al-Hesba, the ISIS police force.
It is mystifying that we have allowed wearing a mask to become so polarized.
Compared to months of lockdown and a historic economic collapse, mask wearing is a cheap and minimally intrusive impingement on personal freedoms.
It's one of the simplest ways to speed our way back to a state of normality.
Perhaps that empowering and compassionate message is what we need when everything is out of our control, rather than another mean trending hashtag like #WearAFuckingMask.
Editor’s note: The online version has been updated to conform with the final edited version as approved by the author
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