Last week, Gov. Abbott announced Texas would completely reopen, lifting mask mandates and all limits on building capacity, the first large state in America to do so.
As one would expect, while some Texans celebrated the decision, throwing their masks and cowboy hats in the air, others lamented this “reckless” decision, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom put it. Not to be outdone by Newsom, Unifier-in-Chief Joe Biden called the decision “Neanderthal thinking.”
After a year of COVID-19 mandates, many and leftists alike have simply concluded this was the “new normal” and nothing would change. Yet it did. Still, even if the mandate is lifted, many stores and organizations will likely require masks. Some may even follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to double-mask.
The immediate reaction to Abbot’s announcement reveals something deeper about the mask phenomenon, however: over the months of wearing them, they have become powerful symbols. While some might argue about their effectiveness — an argument that has long since become political — most prefer to talk about what they mean more than what they do.
And what do they mean, exactly? For many pro-maskers, masks are a symbol of charity, health, and solidarity with those who have suffered from the virus. They remind healthy people that others at risk, they are responsible for them, and conformity is essential right now.
Those who don’t wear a mask are deemed selfish, ignorant, and dangerous. This likely means, unfortunately, that even with the mandate lifted, mask-shaming won’t necessarily come to an end.
Therefore, it’s not enough to review the declining number of hospitalizations or the negligible differences masks seem to make to explain how this could justify lifting the mandate. It’s time to refute the symbol. Pro-maskers need to see that, for the other side, this symbol of charity and solidarity has become the exact opposite.
To start, the most glaring problem behind masks is the hypocrisy of accusing those who dislike them as “selfish.” It doesn’t seem to occur to some of the mask supporters that forcing others to do something against their will is also selfish — like a bully telling his victim to stop hitting himself as he whacks him with the defendant’s own hand.
The usual defense against this charge is that requesting a person to wear a mask to save lives is no different from requesting a driver not to run over pedestrians or officer workers not to throw people out of buildings. But this is a false analogy. Going to a public place and breathing without a mask is clearly not the same as running over a person crossing the road.
Even for those who support masking, wearing a mask does not pose nearly as great a threat. Indeed, if it did pose the same threat level, everyone would be dead ten times over before the lockdowns even started.
This is probably why people have to use terms like “courteous” and “selfish,” as opposed to “homicidal” and “suicidal,” when discussing masks. The idea behind such language is to sound less extreme, but also to downplay what’s happening: people are giving up their freedom to breathe freely for the ostensible purpose of making their neighbor feel more secure.
This is no “minor inconvenience,” as some like to explain away, because such logic leads to an inevitable slippery slope: all freedoms can be excused as a “minor inconvenience” when done for the sake of preserving life in some way. The endpoint is the loss of all freedom, which, with COVID-19, has meant placing a whole population in lockdown. If people never leave their houses (or, better yet, their own bedrooms), lives will be saved and everyone will be safer.
It’s fair to assume, however, that many pro-maskers do not support lockdowns, seeing the damage they do, yet still think masks signal charity and support and should thus be worn. But is it right to mandate this and make it a law? It’s one thing to set a speed limit or outlaw trespassing to preserve life and property; it’s another thing to mandate masks to make people a little nicer and neighborly.
The first problem with mandating kindness, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, is that enforcing such a rule creates more problems than it solves. It generates acrimony between neighbors, places a greater burden on law enforcement, and stigmatizes people who simply don’t believe in the mandate. Few people would argue that people are happier and feel safer now. Rather, it’s the opposite: people are less social, more paranoid, and generally despondent.
The second problem with mandating kindness, particularly with using the mask as a symbol, is that symbols aren’t reality. A mask may symbolize that someone cares about their neighbors and takes the virus seriously, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to actual care nor does it address the effects of the virus.
Unfortunately, confusing the symbol with reality is a common problem with any social awareness campaign, and COVID-19 is no exception. When people wear their pink bracelet, dump ice water on their head, or wear a mask, many of them feel like they have done their part, and this leads them to forego giving money or time to victims in need.
With all this in mind, I humbly ask my fellow Texans who are anxious about this Wednesday to live and let live. We’ve had a year of mask mandates, lockdowns, social distancing, and all the rest. These restrictions were never meant to be permanent but were ways of responding to the virus.
It’s time to give people back their freedom and let them decide to cover their faces or not. It will be a beautiful thing to behold and a fitting beginning to the spring season.