Masks Have Become the Emblem of Humanity’s Freefall Into Fanaticism
In a world where symbol has replaced substance, the mask has become the prime token of our rabid fundamentalism.
A few months ago I arrived at the gym, which had only reopened a few weeks earlier. I was unaware that a new mask mandate had gone into effect, and was forced to wear whatever face-covering I could muster up in order to do my workout. I found an old bandanna in the car, which the employees deemed acceptable as a protective face covering.
The effectiveness of my bandanna in preventing transmissions of oral particles was equal to wrapping my face in a layer of toilet paper. That did not matter to the gym employees, nor really even to public health and safety officials. All that really mattered is that I was wearing a face covering. The ability of my specific mask to prevent disease was far less important than having merely checked the ‘wearing a mask’ box.
Every day I open my news app to see which celebrity has most recently used their star power to deliver a sanctimonious rant about the evils of “anti-maskers”. The past week I have entered the facepalm zone while taking in the spectacle of two heavy metal singers spewing righteous indignation at people who do not believe that face coverings are the ultimate expression of safety and compassion. However I doubt very much that safety and compassion are their primary concern. What they are really going for is alignment.
The mask has become the symbol for, “I believe in science more than you do.” Or alternately, “I care more about people than you do.” Nevermind that a fair amount of science exists to illustrate that most masks have very little effect in preventing airborne particulate from entering or exiting your respiratory system. If you do not present the symbol of pious devotion to science and safety, regardless of effectiveness, you are full of sin.
Even the term “anti-masker” has a fundamentalist quality about it. When that term is invoked it is not just about masks. It is a label. It is used to easily categorize and dehumanize others. Either you giddily wear and promote masks or you are a gun-loving, abortion-hating Trumpster — even if you are not.
I am so far to the left that mainstream liberals often mistake me for their arch-nemeses, so this is nothing new. My devotion to personal agency, self-ownership and bodily autonomy did not magically dissipate when the Covid panic took over the world. There are things that I still, and always will, prioritize above safety and survival. Yet the moment I speak a single word of mask skepticism, the fanatics quickly lump me into a pile of conservative scofflaws, who are just as fanatical in their own right.
The mask has become the central symbol of the fanaticism which grows from our false dichotomies of all things. You are no longer allowed to be a unique individual. You are either a God-fearing conservative, or a science-loving liberal. There is no longer any room to be something other than one of the two groups that humanity has divided itself into, and whatever position you take on the sacredness of wearing a mask is the dividing line.
Of course we have no idea what the long term effects of wearing a mask will be. We have no idea how a sudden disruption in normal immune system functioning will effect us individually, or in an evolutionary sense. Sharing germs has been an important part of our biology, and a rapid decrease in that activity is bound to have consequences. Nor do we know the social-psychological effects. Facial recognition and expressions play a massive role in human social behaviors. Disrupting that could also have disastrous consequences. In a world where we have already slipped so comfortably into dehumanizing others, covering our faces may be contributing to our habit of seeing other people as less-than-human.
It is clear that this is no longer about masks. It is no longer about Covid. It is no longer about safety or survival. The mask is an emblem. It is a symbol that tells others which side of the false divide you are on. It is so potent a symbol that even the bad boys of heavy metal are insisting on obedience and conformity in regard to it. We have collectively lost our fucking minds, and instead of marching together towards a world of peace, equality and prosperity, we are fighting over face coverings like some bizarre end-of-days cult.
I hate it here.