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. 

You “researched” it.

Have you seen this meme?  Or posted it?

In addition to the hateful, sneering tone that makes it clear to me that I would never want to be in the same room as the writer, it captures two points of view I’ve been seeing a lot of, both of which are problematic.

First of all it presents a caricature of the opposition to the dominant covid narrative, rather than even remotely capturing the diverse reality of people who don’t want to vaccinate, don’t want to force everyone else to vaccinate, or believe there are better ways to handle the pandemic generally than we’ve seen in some or many respects. Obviously, characterizing all opposition to the dominant narrative as ideas that are, at least to most, utterly outlandish, held only by those who believe everything they see, read or hear, totally prejudices the audience towards both the ideas and more importantly, the people who hold them.  It should be obvious that this kind of polarization does not provide a healthy climate for debate of important issues but rather will shut down those in the minority, regardless of their credentials or ideas.  Furthermore, our country is more polarized now than ever before, at a time when we are faced with multiple, existential crises.  Lambasting what we imagine to be the “other side” may feel good in the moment as we solidify our in-group status with our friends, but in the long run it solidifies an “us” versus “them” mentality.   Polarization not only makes it much harder to productively address problems but also contributes to the scapegoating that aids exploitation.

While I shouldn’t have to say this, the caricature of “covid denying anti-vaxxers” being stupid, lazy, and uneducated is utterly false, as well as mean.  Case in point is this recent study from Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Pittsburgh that found that the largest demographic who doesn’t want to vaccinate is people with Ph.Ds. 

This paper from MIT researchers on “antimasker” influencers in social media (before most were all censored off) is also an important read to gain perspective on diverse viewpoints about covid. 

The researchers acknowledged the data-literacy, integrity, and expertise of the group they studied, while simultaneously failing to explain how the influencers could correctly use valid data to conclude the opposite of the “public health experts.” Here is the researchers tacit acknowledgement that the mainstream narrative is no more correct than the alternative, at best, but rather different conclusions stem from different underlying motives or ideologies:

“As science and technology studies scholars have shown, data is not a neutral substrate that can be used for good or for ill. Indeed, anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries, who espouse naive realism about the “objective” truth of public health data. Quantitative data is culturally and historically situated; the manner in which it is collected, analyzed, and interpreted reflects a deeper narrative that is bolstered by the collective effervescence found within social media communities. Put differently, there is no such thing as dispassionate or objective data analysis.”

The meme also pushes a second, more subtle and even more destructive, point of view.  By mocking the idea that ordinary people can research topics of importance in a meaningful way and shaming anyone who tries to as an arrogant idiot, the meme strongly discourages people from thinking for themselves.  Even though people may, perhaps even often, make mistakes when they try to educate themselves or think critically, engaging with material is critical to receive the feedback that leads to being better informed.  There are few things I can think of that are worse for understanding anything than an apriori assumption that better comprehension is impossible.

The meme also frames unquestioning obedience to authority as a virtue, as that is, after all, the only other way to gain information – believe someone who tells you so.  In disempowering people from educating themselves, the meme advances the idea that most of us should leave important decisions that impact our lives up to the experts.  This view, technocracy, has been gaining considerable ground since the pandemic started, although it is not new.

The researchers from the paper I posted above that studied the “anti-mask” social media influencers concluded that “anti-maskers” have a fundamentally different view of democracy – one in which power belongs to the people, not rarefied experts. Did you realize that democracy as opposed to technocracy is a “heterodox,” as they called it, view?

I used to take it as a matter of course that most people would agree with the statement, “Science can give us facts about reality, but it can’t tell us what we should do,” but now I’m not so sure.  I am sure, though, that blurring the lines between science and policy and between technocracy and democracy is fundamentally an anti-human, anti-life enterprise, as doing so elevates control over freedom, reductionism over holism, and materialism over spirituality.