At times it seems as if the pandemic has split society into two camps (though not equal in size): On the one side, those in favor of the draconian measures taken due to Covid19 and on the other those who argue that the scale of these unprecedented measures cannot be justified, as they ignore basic liberties.
The dispute between these two camps is often accompanied by very strong emotions. Of the many issues involved lies the mandatory demand of all to wear masks in closed areas.
Leaving aside the question of the effectiveness of masks in reducing transmissions, it may be worthwhile to dive a little deeper into what may be the possible reasons for resisting this measure by those who are unwillingly forced to wear masks.
This, not for the purpose of convincing that masking should not be obligatory, but rather for better understanding of the nature of the controversy and the reason why it often becomes such an emotional and heated topic.
In short, we may summarize the positions of the two sides as follows:
Proponents of mask enforcement sees it as a small sacrifice. A minor inconvenience at worst. As such, it is incomprehensible for them why some people refuse to follow such an insignificant restriction which saves lives.
On the other side, which I will seek to focus on, there are those who strongly oppose this enforcement and may even experience it as a means of oppression and humiliation.
So, what is it about the mask that brings about such reactions?
A “mask” is a cover. It covers parts of a person’s identity, personality, ability to express themselves, to be truly present. Due to its nature, enforcement of masks is being experienced by many as oppression and limitation on identity.
In the absence of face expressions, one of the fundamental ways of communication between one person to another is being eliminated. For many, forcing masks on them results with severe harm to one of the things which are most important and valuable to them: interpersonal communication.
Our ability to “read faces”, to understand the person in front of us: his motives, intentions and emotions is severely impaired when the person in front of us wears a mask. In addition, our ability to “orientate” ourselves, to make informed decisions and to use our intuitions is reduced dramatically. In other words, our intuitive GPS loses reception. We feel like we navigate through social connections and circumstances without a compass. Without a map.
The mask covers the face of course, but mostly the mouth and nose. These are two organs used for breathing – the source of life. For many, the very fact that an external force imposes a cover on these organs is experienced as a barrier on our breathing. Not necessarily in its physical meaning (although some may experience it as such as well), but especially in its psychological sense. In this respect, the enforcement of masks interferes with our most basic need: simply to breathe freely.
Moreover, the enforcement of masks on children touches a particularly sensitive nerve. The very intervention of a foreign and alienating external factor that forces our child to cover his face for many hours every day, is experienced by some in a very emotional way. As if it were an intrusion into our sanctuary: our responsibility and duty to protect our child from any oppression or abuse of their basic needs, freedoms, and wellbeing.
As it can doubly be argued that for children, facial expressions are sometimes the most effective way of communication. By using their own face expressions and by viewing others, children can understand and share their feelings, desires, joys, pains, and distress. In the absence of this means of communication, many children are feeling lost.
At present, when it seems like the negative effects of the pandemic are starting to reduce, it might be useful to address again the question of the proper balance between the benefits of mask mandates and its negative implications (in general and on children in specific).
While we do so, we may bear in mind that whatever our position on the matter is, this should not be simply taken by anyone as “what is the big deal?! It is just a mask …”.
Dotan Rousso has a Ph.D. in Law. He currently teaches philosophy at SAIT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.