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Anti-maskers and the resentment game

Anti-maskers and the resentment game July 22, 2020

Last month, we discussed “The liturgy of ‘handicapped parking spaces,'” reminding ourselves to remind ourselves that we have choices to make, every day, all the time. Go to any public parking area and you’ll see those spaces set aside for the use of people who need them — people with disabilities that make it harder for them to make their way across the entire parking lot.

We decided to create such designated parking spaces for those who need them because, collectively, we do not wish to be jerks. We want to help those of us who need help or, at least, we want to be the kind of people who would do so. But because we also know ourselves to be capable of acting like jerks, we chose to make a law to bind ourselves to behaving the way we want to think that we can and should behave. Seeing those parking spaces, as we said last time, can thus be “a bright blue recurring reminder for all of us, every day, that we’re capable of choosing not to be assholes.”

People involved in this fantasy role-playing game don’t understand why the rest of us don’t think these ridiculous cards are really cool and smart and clever.

Today I want to turn our attention to another near-daily reminder of the importance of this daily choosing. I’m talking about the many, many viral videos on social media showing anti-maskers throwing ugly tantrums in stores and other public places because they’ve been asked to observe basic decency and hygiene in the midst of a deadly pandemic. (See for examples, most NSFW, here and here and here and here. Or just go to any social media site and wait for an hour or so for the next eruption.)

This behavior seems irrational and it’s therefore tempting to view these people as delusional. Their actions put them in confrontation with reality, the existence of which they reject and deny ferociously. So we might think perhaps that they behave this way because of some mental illness or affliction. Or perhaps because they’re just not very smart. Or because they have been massively misinformed and deceived by misinformation.

But it’s not any of those. These folks are not suffering from mental illness, they are not stupid, and they are not misinformed. They are simply following the path they have chosen by a repeated series of moral choices.

The first steps down that path begin with something like “handicapped” parking spaces. Every encounter we have with them, or with anything like them, is both a reminder of the choices we have made and an opportunity to reaffirm or to reverse those choices. We can choose to regard such things as reminders of our desire to be good, kind, just, and magnanimous people, as reminders of all the reasons we have to be grateful and of all the obligations that gratitude entails. Or we can choose differently.

The folks in all these videos shrieking their defiance of hygiene chose differently. Among other things, they chose resentment instead of gratitude.*

Such resentment is a choice. It is not an easy choice, both because it is unpleasant and because it is laughably absurd. But if one is stubbornly determined to make such a choice, and to repeat it, and to stick with it, one can train oneself to ignore the absurdity of it and to learn to enjoy and to savor the bitter acquired taste of resentment. Stick with that choice long enough and you can lose your taste for anything else.

I’m afraid that this is what our angry anti-mask neighbors did in their daily encounters with things like reserved parking spaces. They chose to resent those spaces as examples of someone else receiving “special treatment” — special treatment that was cruelly being denied to them. Again, this is not an easy choice. It requires you to pretend that you are jealous of others who are less fortunate than you. Some part of us will always recognize and object to the bass-ackwards absurdity of that. The old proverb says, “I was sad because I had no shoes, but then I met a man who had no feet.” Teaching yourself to, instead, envy and resent the man with no feet takes practice and training and perpetual reinforcement.

But it is, alas, possible. It’s possible to go through your life seeking every opportunity to train yourself in this way. Every time you see a reserved parking space — or a ramp, or a curb-cutout, or a bit of Braille, or an ASL interpreter — you can reinforce the sense of resentment by asking “Why should they get special treatment when I don’t?” To help muffle the obvious answers that will leap to mind, you can kindle the spark of this, exaggerating it to nearly convince yourself that people with disabilities are somehow getting all kinds of cool perks and freebies and other great stuff that’s being unfairly denied to you. The phrase “My taxes” will be useful here. You can roll that around on your tongue, savoring the unfairness of it all. “Why should Americans With Disabilities have their very own Act when nobody passes an act for people like me?

It’s the welfare-queen lie, except with disability instead of poverty. Those repeating this lie to themselves come to enjoy pretending to envy those lucky-ducky poors and disabled people and they come to enjoy pretending to resent SNAP or LIHEAP or the ADA.

But even after years of training and reinforcement, this lie is never wholly convincing. Part of those determinedly choosing this form of self-deception still knows it’s all a crock. As much as they enjoy their resentment game. they know better than to actually want to trade places with anyone who needs welfare assistance or ADA accommodations. Their favorite form of fun may be pretending to resent such people for somehow being “on Easy Street,” but they’re never so convinced of it that they would ever choose to relocate to this supposed “Easy Street” themselves.

If you’ve chosen to commit to a form of self-deception that can never quite be wholly convincing, it’s best to seek out the company of others who have made the same choice. This reinforces the fantasy and better enables you to savor the weird pleasure of resenting those whose lives are harder and more challenging than your own. The pretense becomes more plausible and more sustainable when you’re surrounded by others who are also pretending.

This is why I often compare this kind of self-deception to LARPing — live-action role-playing games in which the players leave behind the tabletop and the board, don costumes, and head out to parks to better bring the imaginative play to life. (The LARP versions of old-school fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons might not be something everyone is familiar with, but most people have heard of Civil War re-enactors, which is pretty much the same idea, except with fewer swords and elves.) There’s nothing wrong with actual LARPs, of course. They’re quite fun, even if they involve the occasional odd looks from strangers who stumble across the game unwittingly.

This last point is something the poor LARPers trapped in their resentment game don’t seem to realize. They forget that to those outside the game, much of what they’re saying and doing appears ridiculous.

Consider the sloppy fake “Face Mask Exemption Card” above. Within the LARP of the resentment game, these cards are regarded as a masterstroke of genius. LARPers Photoshop their own versions and post them on Facebook where they accrue dozens of “likes” from their fellow gamers. Some of them may even embellish a bit by saying they’ve successfully used such cards to go grocery shopping without the masks they’ve weirdly made into symbols of their feigned grievance. Others want to believe those stories because wanting to believe is what they do, what they’ve gotten good at. Wanting to believe that they’re more clever than everyone else and that they’ll one day turn the tables and checkmate all those others they resent is what makes the game fun for them. And so, wanting to believe that these clever, ingenious “exemption cards” and warped invocations of “ADA” and “HIPAA” will function just the way they all pretend they should, these poor souls head out to the grocery to engage their unsuspecting neighbors with their LARP-logic.

Alas for them, these neighbors — normal people who have not trained themselves to go into a frenzied rage at the sight of reserved parking for people with disabilities — are not in on the rules of the game. To them, it appears to be nothing more than what it actually is — a shabbily transparent bad-faith lie.

This bewilders the LARPers. Surprisingly, it surprises them. They had a script all planned for how this was going to work. They’d rehearsed that script in their heads. They were sure the script was brilliant and flawless and certain to play out just exactly the way they imagined, and all the other players in the resentment game had assured them that nothing could withstand this magical trump card of throwing the ADA back in their faces. But no one told the real world about this script or about the absurd premises that explained it. So what the LARPers were so sure was a brilliant maneuver never works out the way they had hoped and planned.

This is why the folks in all those viral videos lose it and have such total meltdowns. Everything is going off-script and they can’t understand what’s wrong.** The rest of the world is ruining the game for them.

That’s unbearable because they’ve devoted so much of themselves to it. The resentment game has become their entire basis of identity and their dominant source of meaning. When the game falls apart, they fall apart.

This shattering, I’m afraid, is probably inevitable. It may also be necessary if any of these folks are ever going to find anything else other than the resentment game to fill their lives, to provide a sense of self or of meaning.

The good news, such as it is, is that as we said above, these folks have put themselves on a one-way track toward such shattering meltdowns not because they are “crazy,” or ignorant, or stupid, or misinformed, but because of their own choices. The path to their liberation and their salvation works the same way. They can be freed from the self-destruction of the resentment game simply by choosing not to play.


* Resentment is a very strange thing. It seems to refer to the sense of grievance we feel when we are denied basic fairness, when someone else cheats, usurping what is our due and reaping the benefits that rightly belong to us. In this sense, resentment would seem to be a defensibly reasonable reaction. It’s only natural, and logical, that we should resent those who have taken what ought to have been ours. Of course we should feel some resentment toward those who luxuriate in excess while forcing us to make due with less than we need to get by.

But — and this is the very strange part — this form of justifiable resentment is a relatively rare thing. Those with genuine grievances do not, for the most part, seek or find their identity in being aggrieved. They may hunger and thirst for justice, but they are not obsessed with resentment. The oppressed, outcast, abused, and exploited would seem to have every right to live their lives shaped by a seething resentment, but the vast majority of them do not do so. That’s an astonishing and beautiful thing — so strange, in fact, that when one of our most eloquent public figures tried to articulate it in a speech, he wound up breaking into song.

The vast majority of actual resentment that actually exists is something else entirely. It’s that same emotion of aggrieved woundedness — an emotion painstakingly nurtured and fed, cherished and savored — but it is overwhelmingly found among those who have benefited from denying basic fairness to others. Most of the resentment in this world is “felt” by the haves, rather than by the have nots. This may seem decidedly un-natural and illogical, but it is nevertheless the case. Those who have no legitimate grievance, those who enjoy the benefits of what was rightly due to the deprived are more often the ones whose lives are shaped by seething resentment and by feeling perpetually aggrieved.

** I can relate to this. In my fundamentalist youth group, we studied evangelism techniques and “apologetics” texts that also provided slam-dunk, can’t-miss scripts that we were all assured were guaranteed to work every time, exactly as scripted. I earnestly studied those scripts and took them out into the real world. But while I tried my hardest to stick to those scripts, no one I ever met ever seemed to know their lines. None of those scripts or formulas or “proofs” survived the encounter with anyone who wasn’t already in on the game.

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