Mask Memes

Memes about masks on social media are like a lever that increases the toxic divisiveness so prevalent in the US today.  Some common themes that criticize so called “anti-maskers” do nothing but make people angrier at each other and solidify feelings of in-group membership, dampening the critical thinking and compassion and tolerance for others our society so desperately needs. 

One idea iconized in memes is the idea that people don’t want to wear masks out of an immature, politicized notion of freedom and liberty.  A second idea is that people object to masks merely because they are inconvenient, in the same way that wearing shoes and a shirt into a restaurant at the beach could be inconvenient.  A final predominant theme is that people don’t want to wear masks because they are selfish and don’t even care about something as important as other people’s lives.  Many memes manage to convey all three of these ideas in a few sentences.  These memes paint a deeply negative picture of a person who can’t be bothered to do a simple thing to save lives, no doubt due to being duped by fools on TV.

Now, I’m willing to concede that there are all kinds of people out there, including selfish, stupid people who can’t be bothered to do even the simplest things for even the most important reasons.  However, I have not met any of them and I have met many thoughtful, caring people whom I may have once ignorantly labeled.  I have learned to be suspect of jumping to the conclusion that people fit into any such tiny boxes.  In general, for all issues, people may SOUND outrageously ignorant or narrow-minded because they haven’t thought everything through, or because they lack the emotional or intellectual ability in the moment to articulate well.  When people are frustrated, they may react angrily or rely on the repetition of mindless slogans, but it is a mistake to assume that the position itself is captured by what you may see in the moment (especially when this moment is captured on video and repeated in every corporate media outlet as though it is representative.)

The crux of the issue is that people who think masks are a mere inconvenience or not even that believe that they are saving lives.  If they didn’t believe that, they would be more conscious of the evolutionary and cultural significance of breath and speech to life and freedom. For example, think about how these masks strike you.

Not only are the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s tale as imagined for Hulu gagged (with masks not as restrictive as the ones we are asked to wear for Covid – her nose is showing!) their mouths are literally wired shut so they cannot speak.

As this piece on the episode that reveals this new control tactic states:

“[In D.C.], fertile women have their voices literally ripped from them as a sign of servitude to the totalitarian regime… The handmaids take “a vow of silence that’s enforced by a physical ring on the mouth,” [series creator] Miller says. The image of women in red handmaid’s uniforms unable to speak serves as a harsh reminder of the extent to which whatever is left of …  rights can still be stripped. “Like so many things, the intention is first it’s voluntary, then it’s encouraged, then it becomes required,” Miller says. “

It takes serious double think to deny the deeply disturbing nature of these ideas and imagery.  Even though the handmaids in the story have their mouths physically wired shut, the creator points out that it started as a voluntary vow of silence.  I’m sure they thought they had a good reason – as “vessels of fertility” in a dystopian infertile world, such a vow could be viewed as a public health measure, as indeed the entire concept of the handmaids is.  And even though other handmaids, like the main character of the series, can speak through their masks, the point of the mask is to symbolize subjugation and silence.  While obviously people can and do speak through Covid masks, they do make it harder to speak due to breath restriction (try giving a lecture) and to hear others.   The most important point, though, is that if the symbolism shown in the story was not real for our culture and widely felt, it would not work for “entertainment.”

Similarly, for muslim women who sincerely feel that covering their faces is appropriate for modesty or another reason, veiling may be an inconvenience.  The rest of us, however, imagining our selves in her place, see a covered woman as a sign of oppression. 

Because I do not believe that masks save others’ lives (we’ll get to that soon), I feel about mask mandates the same way I would feel if our government demanded I wear hijab.  If you didn’t believe masks worked, that’s how you would feel too.

Here’s another important image – this one from the MET Gala this past week:

Notice how she is wearing a dress about equal rights, maskless, while a row of servants behind her in plain black wear masks.  The woman is a representative from New York, a state with some of the most restrictive Covid measures, including a vaccine passport in NYC.  This scene of decision makers breathing freely while those with less power are masked was repeated throughout the gala, and in fact throughout the pandemic

Not everyone has read reams of opinions and research articles on masks, as I have, to come to the conclusion that masks don’t work.  But people who can’t point to studies feel these images I’ve posted above viscerally.  They feel the hypocrisy and control, which is very real, even if they cannot or do not articulate it.  Their feelings are not a result of stupidity – they are from being in touch with their bodies, their intuition, their inner voice -something I believe our culture needs a lot more of and should not be mocked. 

I don’t want to convince you that masks don’t work to control the spread of Covid, as no matter what facts I post, counter facts can be found.  I want to make the point very clearly that if you believe masks work and that they should be mandated, the onus is on you to read as much as you can, not on me to prove anything to you.  It is you that wants to force others to comply to your beliefs.  I am not interested in forcing anyone to comply to my beliefs.  Another meme:

This meme conveys the false idea that people opposing mask mandates have an interest in keeping other people from wearing masks.   That idea nicely obscures the imbalance in the two “sides” positions – that we are both pushing our views on others. 

However, if you would like to see for yourself why I don’t believe masks are important for public health, please know that masks have never been shown to contain viruses (except for medical-grade PPE like fitted respirators), including the flu, they don’t do anything in surgery, and cannot stop aerosol transmission.  Yes, given these facts, one can indeed wonder why medical professionals who don’t vaccinate for the flu are forced to wear masks and why surgeons still wear masks in surgery.  Please see here, here, here and here for good overviews of mask research.  But don’t believe the websites I’ve posted!  Click the links and read the sources they point to.  And, while I’d truly love to hear thought out or well founded disagreement in the comments, before you bring up the new Bangladesh study, read this and this.

Also, a brief note that the science regarding masks benefit to limit spread can by no means decide the entire issue of whether mask mandates are warrented.  All policies should be weighed for benefits versus costs.  The harms I’ve discussed here regarding masks (the diminishment of personhood and the psychological and real subjugation) are the tip of the iceberg of the harms of mask wearing, especially for children.  If interested, see overviews here and here.

Again, I have no desire to convince you to stop wearing a mask.  But, will you join me in making an effort to think before posting memes of the “other side” that present a caricature of the issues?  Memes that only function to sow greater division, make fun of people, and make it harder for people to dissent for fear of being seen like THOSE people? I used to post memes like that myself, but really try to catch myself now.