Masks as Veils

Masks as Veils February 17, 2022

During the worst of the epidemic, I wore my mask, trusting the public health officials, obeying the lawful authorities, and, above all, not wanting to infect anybody.

Now the mask mandates are finally being dropped, even in blue states that once imposed them the most relentlessly.  Some public health officials, though, say this is premature, since COVID still rages, even though the numbers are down.

Some experts, though, are recommending that we wear masks even after COVID goes away.  Two doctors at the prestigious Mt. Sinai School of Medicine wrote this in an op-ed for the New York Daily News:

“We should never fully return to our maskless society where only health care providers donned a mask, because judicious use of masks will continue to save lives.”

More over, some individuals like wearing masks, for reasons that have nothing to do with health precautions:

Francesca, a 46-year-old, fully vaccinated professor in New York, will not abandon her “invisibility cloak” just yet. “It has been such a relief to feel anonymous,” she explains. “It’s like having a force field around me that says, ‘don’t see me.’”

Becca, a 25-year-old bookstore employee near Chicago, reports that she and her co-workers “prefer not having customers see our faces,” because “[w]ith a mask, I don’t have to smile at them or worry about keeping a neutral face.”

Bob, a 75-year-old retiree in New Jersey, says wearing a mask “frees” him from having to “appear happy.”

Aimee, a 44-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, likes the “emotional freedom” that comes from wearing a mask: “It’s almost like taking away the male gaze.”

These are all quotations from a fascinating and provocative discussion on our national experiment in masking by the statistician Jeffrey H. Anderson, The Masking of America, published in the Claremont Review of Books.  He surveys the mask orders during the pandemic, the contradictory science behind them, the controversies that have arisen, and how they became politicized.

What most intrigues me, though, is his analysis of what masks mean.

Westerners, at their best, recognize that each individual human being is unique and has inherent value. Perhaps in part as an expression of this belief, we have always ensured the visibility of the face—the part of the body that principally gives expression to one’s thoughts and feelings. Other civilizations place less value on individual liberty and are also less committed to republicanism. Thus political philosopher Pierre Manent, addressing debates in France over the use of veils in Muslim communities, writes: “It is by the face that each of us reveals himself or herself at once as a human being and as this particular human being…. To present visibly one’s refusal to be seen is an ongoing aggression against human coexistence. Europeans have never concealed the face, except the executioner’s.”

Indeed, societies that do not value individualism as Westerners tend to often employ face coverings.  Many Asians have been wearing surgical masks long before COVID, as one could see with tourists in American airports.  That, no doubt, is motivated by health concerns, beginning with the horrendous pollution in many Asian cities and extending to the fear of catching disease.  But their societies tend to be far more collectivist than Americans are, so they don’t mind wearing masks as much.  The best and most widespread example of Anderson’s point is the veiling of women in much of  the Muslim world.  By not allowing a woman to show her faces in public, they are “taking away the male gaze,” to be sure, but they are also effacing her individuality.  And note the etymology of “efface.”

Anderson goes on to assess the social and psychological costs of masking:

When we look at our fellow human beings’ faces, we tend to process the whole face at once. Almost needless to say, a mask covering the lower two-thirds of the face greatly disrupts such processing—which is harmful to children, especially to babies. One wonders how much damage we have done to those born in 2020 by blocking our faces from them during their crucial first year of life. Stanford medical professor Jay Bhattacharya states that “the evidence is overwhelming that masking can harm children’s developmental progress.”

All of this helps to answer the blithe question so frequently posed by mask enthusiasts: what’s the big deal? It is a very big deal. Masks hide from view the familiar faces, infectious smiles, and warm glances that bring light and color to everyday life. To dismiss this loss so cavalierly is to devalue human warmth and sociability in a remarkably callous way.

He concludes, “Seeing and showing the face is a fundamental aspect of human existence. A society that forgets this straightforward truth will likely also fail to realize that faceless people may make for compliant subjects but not generally for good citizens.”

I have heard that hostage-negotiators say that when terrorists put a hood over their captive’s faces, the hostage’s lives are in imminent danger.  This is because it is easier to kill a person when you can’t see his face.

Certainly the “faceless masses”–and anyone we render “faceless” with our stereotypes, generalizations, and assigning them to groups we are bigoted against–are easier to mistreat.

John O’Sullivan discusses Anderson’s article and his own experience with mask culture.  In doing so, he suggests the reason for the otherwise puzzling fact that the biggest proponents of masks are from members of the Left, formerly thought of as bold and rebellious, whereas the biggest resistance to masks comes from members of the Right, formerly thought of as authority-respecting advocates of Law and Order:

My own conclusion is tentative but gloomy: Mask wearing for reasons unconnected with protection against Covid is something of a paradox: the mark of an identity that seeks to conceal its individual self within a comforting collective anonymity. It shows hostility, even aggression, towards those who insist on revealing the face on the grounds that they are selfish, indifferent to others’ welfare, and proud. And it is self-righteously happy to impose its tastes on everyone else. In short, masks are emblematic, literally so, of the politicization of everything, including identity itself, that is the Left’s main instinctual drive today.

Image by Sciencia58, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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