Any hope that the pandemic’s mask wars might be over was trampled on this week after Deborah Meaden tweeted a photo of herself wearing one on 22 February. She wrote that she will wear her mask “every day” until she hears a science-based argument “on why wearing a mask is no longer needed to protect those more vulnerable than me”. Her tweet provoked thousands of comments – one person accused her of “pretending to be virtuous”; another suggested those who don’t wear masks are “selfish & greedy”. Even Talkradio waded in, asking listeners: “What is your message to Deborah?”
Let me be clear: I’m irritated by the way many avid pro-maskers have rendered masks as insignia – proof that you are a “moral and good” person. They would do better to highlight the strong evidence that has emerged over the past few months showing masks are effective in reducing transmission (and weighing it up against the impacts on, for example, child development).
But what I found concerning about this Twitterstorm was the way in which so many anti-maskers on the right disapproved of Meaden’s choice. I find it extraordinary that libertarians, such as Laurence Fox, believe that those who wear masks are submitting to an authoritarian state, given that the libertarian raison d’être is being able to do what you want with your own body.
I’m dismayed that masks have come to incur so much judgement – in a country where, for all our other divisions, what other people wear has always been none of our business. One of the things my friends and I marvel about, after being abroad, is the way we could walk down the street in most British cities with an upturned inflatable flamingo on our heads, and many would barely turn their heads.
Even Boris Johnson has defended the right to wear a burqa (albeit in a Telegraph column that included a more infamous wording). But it is a brave person who wears a burqa in Paris, where not only is it illegal but there is a strict “Parisian style”: minimalist and classic. There is no “London style”: the capital’s eccentricity, flamboyance and diversity are often remarked on by fashionistas visiting the UK. And I feel grateful for the opportunities for self-expression – even Dutch friends who grew up near the red light district in Amsterdam mention how women in Britain often show more of their body than those in the Netherlands (which I take as a compliment – perhaps British women feel free to dress in such a way because there is a lower propensity to “slut-shame” on the basis of clothing in the UK).
I know everything is ripe for a culture war these days. But for the right, the whole point of a culture war is to defend Britishness. And given the most British sensibility the left and right have come to an agreement on is the freedom to wear what you want, I wonder if it’s time to call a truce on this particular front.