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How mask-wearing became a new culture war

The libertarian right’s disregard for social responsibility and scientific expertise has been exposed by their opposition to a basic safety measure.

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Like many other animals, humans are social signallers. We advertise our dispositions, whether through hairstyle, clothes, swastika tattoos or “Bollocks to Brexit” badges. Face masks have become the latest means of doing so. In the US, a refusal to mask up has become as much a sign of allegiance to Trumpian libertarianism as “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) caps and National Rifle Association bumper stickers. 

In the UK, the mandating of masks in shops, due to be introduced on 24 July, has drawn an anguished response from many who previously opposed lockdown and supported Brexit. The Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called the new rule a “monstrous imposition”, saying that it would deter him from going shopping. The Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens labels masks “face muzzles” and the wearing of them “more superstition than science” – rather like the nosegays used during the plague. Toby Young, now the self-styled “General Secretary of the Free Speech Union”, ridiculed masks as “face nappies” – an invitation to scatological ripostes from his detractors. Tory activists have tweeted images of their snipped-up party membership cards in protest at the government’s decision.

Some regard this opposition to a straightforward public-health precaution during the pandemic as sheer selfishness, calling for the mask refusniks to stop behaving like tantruming toddlers. But it is worth looking at the opposition to mask-wearing more closely – not because it has the slightest merit, but precisely because it doesn’t.

In recent years, social scientists and psychologists have become keen to seek correlations between political affiliations and personality traits or behavioural choices. It has been claimed that liberals tend to be more open-minded, and indeed more intelligent, than conservatives, who meanwhile are said to be more prone to disgust, less ready to compromise, and more eager to punish departure from social norms. 

“Conservatives are from Mars, liberals are from Venus”, headlines have proclaimed, implying that widening political polarisation is an inevitable consequence of innate differences. But at least some of these conclusions are open to question. For one thing, the traits investigated – openness or conformity, say – are not independent of political views but part of their very definition. Besides, correlations are in themselves silent about causation; there’s no reason to think that being open makes you a liberal. And like many studies in psychology, the strength of the effects reported, or the size of the samples studied, may be too small to make the claims robust or repeatable.

All the same, the notion that our politics say something about our personality fits with our intuition. It echoes those observations that one’s position on Brexit is an excellent predictor of one’s views on the death penalty, or that our society is now divided into “somewheres” and “anywheres”. 

Ideally, studies like this would take a politically agnostic question and look for how people’s answers match their political inclinations. Seen this way, the wearing of masks in an attempt to lessen the spread of Covid-19 becomes just such a large-scale experiment in behavioural psychology.

Whereas opposition to lockdown could be framed in rational terms – because of the damage it does to the economy, say, or indeed because some scientists were themselves sceptical of the value – there is no longer a credible case against masks. It’s true that there has been much scientific debate about how much difference they make, some of it rather imprudent: the suggestion by the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries on 12 March that masks might actually increase the risk of infection due to “behavioural issues” (such as the virus becoming trapped in face coverings) was not supported by clear evidence. The chief medical officer Chris Whitty said on 4 March that “we do not advise” mask-wearing for those who do not have (or rather, in effect, do not think they have) the virus, only to backtrack on 11 May when the government recommended masks in enclosed public spaces such as shops. “Wearing a face covering is an added precaution, that may have some benefit in reducing the likelihood that a person with the infection passes it on,” Whitty then said. 

Even now there is genuine doubt about how effective masks are – their mitigating effect could be rather small. But it seems clear that virus-laden droplets can be expelled from infected people not just by coughs and sneezes but simply by talking. And whereas lockdown undeniably incurred huge costs and risks, for masks these are virtually non-existent. 

See also: Ailbhe Rea on why the UK government U-turned over masks 

The balance of scientific opinion, now including that of the government’s scientific advisers as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO), is that masks probably make a difference. The WHO says that “to prevent Covid-19 transmission effectively in areas of community transmission, governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings [including shops, public transport and indoor work places] as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress [virus] transmission.” Even if this turns out to achieve little, nothing is lost by trying. Germany, Italy and Spain have already reached that conclusion, as has Scotland. France will mandate masks in enclosed spaces at the start of August, but already a majority of the public wears them voluntarily.

This is why opposition to masks is so revealing: because it is based on pure gut instinct in the face of expert advice. “Life is for living,” says Hitchens, who contrasts “relaxed” anti-maskers with the “fetishists” who insist on them. Even if he did end up infecting someone because he wasn’t masked, the columnist says, there’s a high probability they will survive.

Even this is mild compared with the anti-mask rhetoric in the US, where some have presented masks as a serious impediment to breathing or an affront to our God-given respiratory system. Of course, much of this resistance has been fuelled by that of the person from whom these mostly Republican-leaning protesters take their lead. 

To some degree Donald Trump painted himself into a corner: the longer he resisted mask-wearing, the more it would appear to be an act of capitulation – he suggested on one visit that he had worn a mask temporarily but, “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” His resistance has turned the mask into a badge of political affiliation: to wear one would be “politically correct”, he implied on one occasion. 

As with Young and Hitchens, there also seems to be a sense of indignity and offended vanity at play, and a feeling that masks are an emasculating sign of neuroticism or cravenness. For Trump, masks are also a public reminder of the crisis that he has so catastrophically mishandled, and of the lethal lie in his initial coronavirus denialism: he once explained his reluctance to mask up by saying “I want to normalise.” 

Refusing to wear a mask doesn’t seem to suggest a greater tolerance of risk, but rather a propensity for risk denial. Anti-maskers tend to focus on the low risk of death from Covid-19 rather than the awful mortality figures when those small percentages get translated to the population scale. And while they will be happy for their choice to be considered brave, the primary argument for mask-wearing is of course to reduce the chance of the wearer infecting others. While the macho imperative might be important to gun-toting Americans, however, it seems likely that many mask-shy Britons are more worried about seeming to overreact or looking silly. “Brits would rather be sick than embarrassed,” a 31-year-old man in Newcastle told the New York Times.

But the main objection of the vocal anti-maskers is against being told what to do. “I recommend people do what they want...” Trump has said. “If people want to wear masks, I think that’s great. I won’t be." He added: "I let people make up their own decision.” Hitchens has called for train compartments reserved for those “relaxed” individuals who have decided masks are not for them. It is, of course, the same impulse that made him and many fellow anti-maskers rail against lockdown measures. It is the impulse mobilised by the Leave campaign in its insistence that murky bureaucrats in Brussels were somehow constricting our freedom, and by the climate-change deniers who insist on their right to let the planet burn.

There is something infantile about such libertarianism, of course, but it does have a political aspect, too. To wear a mask means to accept obligations to others – which in the US in particular smacks of socialism. After all, mask-wearing to reduce transmission of infectious disease has always been more socially normalised in east Asian cultures with a more communitarian outlook, especially China. One of the unspoken implications of anti-maskism is the xenophobic view that this is just a peculiar quirk of those cultures, denying them the wisdom of recognising that masks actually might help to reduce the spread of colds and flu in crowded spaces. (There is plenty of evidence that they do.)

The mask wars, then, are another battlefield for the broader cultural war. They remind us how much the political boundaries have shifted, for there is little in the anti-maskist disregard for social responsibility, scientific expertise, or indeed any governing authority that accords with traditional conservatism. As far as public health is concerned, the anti-maskers should be ignored. But they do also need to be unmasked. Unless we can understand and address the appeal of the antisocial demand that “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, it is likely to continue to cleave a chasm through every social crisis we face.

See also: Jonn Elledge asks why British politicians aren't wearing masks

Philip Ball’s most recent book is “How To Build A Human” (William Collins)