Lawyer Magazine_Winter 2020


Did the initial mixed messages about wearing a mask when COVID-19 started to spread have long-term effects on how people view mask wearing? I am not sure. The initial CDC guidance that did not require masking probably did make the later shift to universal mask wearing jarring for some people. At the same time, making mistakes is part of science. As we learn more about the virus, things change. Instead of admitting this – and the possibility that things might change yet again in the future – too many opinion leaders focused narrowly on the new, mask wearing normal. This failure to admit error likely made things worse, as has the tendency to view mask wearing as a panacea for the virus. It might be. Or maybe not. The reason to mask is that it is the best we can do. Overselling masking is counterproductive. People are expressing themselves through their face coverings – one extreme example is the couple who were filmed shopping at Wal- Mart wearing face coverings with swastikas prominently displayed on them. What does that mean for society that masks are becoming a form of expression, rather than just a tool to help keep people healthy? Masks have always been both tools and symbols – just as a muscle car is both a way of showing off and a means of transportation. The same goes for not masking, when a mask is expected. For mask wearers, the mask is a symbol of social solidarity, as well as support for the idea that COVID-19 is a serious problem. Refusal to mask can, likewise, suggest a questioning of the seriousness of COVID-19, and the role of the government in responding to it. At this point, well-meaning people step in to remind us that the mask is only a “tool.” This is slightly off point. To the extent mask wearing stops COVID transmission, the key is wearing masks in situations in which transmission is likely. It doesn’t matter whether a mask refuser does a Tik Tok prancing in their front yard without a mask so long as that person wears a mask when shopping at Target. Likewise, someone who wears a mask for safety purposes does not automatically become a dupe of the nanny state. It’s not denying the symbolism of the mask, it’s about separating symbolism and function.

Finally, as someone who has studied Holocaust denial for years, I would say the following: The U.S. is a free country. One can wear what they want on a mask. However, as someone who has attended a lot of events commemorating the Holocaust, I cannot recall anyone opposing Nazism by adopting Nazi symbols. What part do you think social media has played in the country’s mask divide? While social media likely speeds the pace of the mask debate, I would place focus more on the facial recognition technology, data mining, and the use of algorithms to monitor (and nudge) our behavior. People don’t like being tracked, prodded and nudged. While masks are not tools of social control, the rise of surveillance capitalism gives the libertarian concerns about masking a whiff of credibility. What’s the most interesting observation you’ve made since the mask debate started this year? That we have been through this before. I was shocked to see how similar the mask debates of today are to the debates of 1918-19. To me, this shows that the mask debate is not simply a feature of red vs. blue politics, but a human response to a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Page 24 St. Thomas Lawyer

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