When President Biden spoke to the country in mid-May, after the CDC had lifted its mask recommendation, he acknowledged that some Americans may “feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask,” and that we should “treat them with kindness and respect. We've had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much politicization” around masking, he said.
From the way Biden spoke, you would almost think that America, for the last year, had been plagued by rabid hordes of anti-maskers, chasing down people wearing masks and screaming in their faces to take them off, rather than it being entirely the other way around.
The “anti-mask” stance was always a moderate one. If anti-maskers had wished to stake out a position symmetrical to that of their opponents, they would have advocated for masks to be banned, and for their wearers to face stiff fines and penalties. Instead, they merely argued for personal choice, and for that they were portrayed as extremists.
The conflict, bitterness, and anger were fomented entirely by the pro-mask side. Now, after a year of telling other people how to live, they are suddenly terrified that others will start doing the same to them, and so they immediately fall back on the libertarian argument – a privilege they have thoroughly lost.
Should we respect their personal liberty going forward? Or should we follow their example and ban masks as a threat to the common good?
Prior to 2020, it is worth noting, most legislation around public face covering involved anti-mask laws. These laws were intended primarily to target groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and while anti-mask laws are controversial from a First Amendment standpoint, multiple courts have upheld them as constitutional.
Regardless of their free speech implications, anti-mask laws do have a strong rationale. Face covering is linked strongly to deindividuation, which is a major reason why groups like the Klan and Antifa wear masks in the first place.
When people feel that they are invisible, they are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, as the research of Philip Zimbardo and Ed Deiner has shown. Similarly, when we cannot see the faces of others, we do not perceive them as fully actualized human beings, which is one reason why we often drive more rudely than we walk.
It is perhaps no coincidence that confrontations on airplanes have increased dramatically in the past year. Altercations over mask mandates have been blamed for this, but the masks themselves undoubtedly also played a role. A masked society is a rude society.
The human face is the center of personhood and individual expression. It is an object of beauty, the subject of many great works of art through history, and the acknowledgement of the face is essential to our sense of shared humanity. In the words of Emmanuel Levinas, the face is “a source from which all meaning appears,” which forces the observer to comprehend the otherness of the subject. Even newborn babies can recognize faces.
As Stephen Marche wrote (in 2015, back when such opinions could be expressed), “the face has been at the root of justice and ethics for 2,000 years,” from ancient Roman courts to our own Constitution, all of which have required “that the victim and the accused look each other in the face.”
Masks are not just another assault on personal liberty. They are uniquely demeaning and dehumanizing, to a far greater degree than most other nanny state overreaches. Face covering, as a legal or social norm, stands in fundamental opposition to basic Western principles of individual self-determination and accountability.
For some, it has also become a disturbing neurosis. A recent New York Times article quoted a man who – despite being vaccinated – plans to go shopping with double masks “for at least the next five years.” Others see the mask as a safeguard against social awkwardness, a crutch that allows them to avoid the full burdens of interpersonal communication. No one can call this psychologically healthy behavior.
Face masks, all told, represent a serious threat to our collective well-being as a society, and now that any American who wants the Covid-19 vaccine can get it, there is no longer any rationale for their widespread use. If we are to override personal choice in the name of public health, as we have been doing since March 2020, then there is a very good case to ban them.
For my part, I would prefer to live in the world of individual liberty that the mask-obsessed have denied us. Short of banning face masks, though, we should do all we can to ensure that they are not further ingrained as a social custom, that those who choose to neurotically wear them past the point of all common sense become the rare exception rather than the new normal.