I wear a mask in public; some people don’t. I believe that there are three reasons to wear a mask: 1) to protect others from the spreading of the COVID-19 virus, 2) to protect myself from the virus, and, I hate to admit it, 3) to be seen in this act of caring for a world inhabited by other people. I believe that those who object to wearing a mask do so for a variety of reasons, the most resistant of which is that mask-wearing is an instance of government compliance borne on the back of a conspiracy to control the citizenry. The most substantial treatment of the principles behind mask-wearing has been uncovered by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who outlines the debate around mask-wearing here. However, Sandel indicates that it is the breakdown in social solidarity that is the reason for not wearing a mask. There is something right about Sandel’s argument. However, for Sandel, not wearing a mask is an example of the eroded trust in each other; in other words, it is a mere example in a different argument Sandel wants to make – an overreach of the idea of meritocracy.
However, there is an argument for not wearing a mask which I consider substantial – that wearing a mask undercuts the principle of recognition in the public world. Conversely, wearing a mask increases the anonymity that is required for the operation of a mass economy, i.e. for more insidious reasons other than public safety.
If we classify ourselves as either small “l” liberals or small “c” conservatives, we will likely be confused by the melting together of a range of different, historically-entrenched positions that have been considered the domain of the other group. If one is liberal, one will confuse wearing a mask as the typical motto of the primacy of public safety with the economic foundation of society that is a conservative axiom. If one is conservative, the economic operation of mass society is the only reason to wear a mask; i.e. public safety needs maintaining for the continued operation of the economy which is the actual guarantor of public well-being. If we hold on to the need to classify ourselves this way, then we may have difficulty having a clear idea what the issues are.
Instead, we can understand the reason for not wearing a mask more clearly if we root it in our human condition. Wearing a mask adopts anonymity. We purchase things anonymously, and at a distance. Both physical distancing within stores and online shopping hold anonymity and distance to be cornerstone features of the activity, buttressing the mass social mode of “need provision”. The only reason online shopping companies need to know our name is to process the credit card payment; after all, the algorithmic ability to discover our preferences is already contained in our social media programming. Wearing a mask, then, effectively supports that particular way of need provision – it happens anonymously. This works to the benefit of mass society, who no longer need to build relationships in order to fulfill the requirements of needs. Instead, they let the algorithms provide that information, and don’t worry about the connection they could have with you in the process of the transactions. You, as a person, are not important to sustaining the transaction; but you as a consumer are vitally important. In fact, you as a person may be an actual obstacle to the selling of their goods and services, because the longer you remain recognizable, the less efficient the machinery of mass society can be. Wearing a mask, then, enables mass society to run amok; not wearing a mask slows it down and forces mass corporations to treat you as a person.
Correct me if my reasoning is unsound.
You see, the consumer in mass society is very much like the Jew in Nazi Germany; they are a problem of the first order, and need to be processed as efficiently as possible. Jews were first put into ghettos before they were shipped to concentration camps. Telephone customer service and person-guided checkout lines were an initial experiment that gave way to the much more efficient online FAQ and self-checkouts, with anonymous consumers being funneled through. There is a persistent feeling that self-isolating at home is like being herded into a ghetto. Both had to be prepared for domination before efficient domination could occur.
Wearing a mask, from this perspective, is one measure in the domination of individuals by a mass society run amok. However, this an inversion of the typical liberal vs conservative argument. The conservative, who prioritizes a functioning economy, does not see the widespread political domination inherent in the mass social model of economic realities, and instead objects to mask-wearing on the grounds of individual liberty. And this to little effect, because the individual will be overrun if mass society has its way.
On the other hand, the liberal, out of fear for survival, wears a mask out of a feeling of solidarity (Sandel’s argument) – willingly de-prioritizing individual liberty while remaining ignorant of the reality that mass society has it reach in the opposite direction as well – i.e. not as having a power exerted on the individual, but instead, on the government as well. A liberal might be worried about the health and good opinion of her fellow citizen (see the three reasons I opened this article with), but will have failed to realize that they have fallen for a diversion. The stated reasons for wearing masks are rooted in our personhood, the liberal believes, but the hidden, underlying reality is mass society’s continued transferring of wealth from persons to corporations. The imperialist, profit-mongering fingers of mass social structures reach not only into the private person’s pocket, but into the public coffers as well, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney clearly illustrates. And the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to entrench that process deeper and more efficiently than ever before.
For a liberal then, wearing a mask is a matter of solidarity which is no small feat. If mask-wearing was only an issue of public health, liberal arguments for wearing a mask would win the day. However, it is only a sign and symbol of something much more widespread and far more insidious. The empire of mass society is at our doorstep, selling us the idea of anonymity and physical distance, at the click of an app away. And the solidarity of people may in fact be an answer – but it is a solidarity not for sale on the mass market. If the mass market sells anonymity (symbolized by wearing masks), what could be the entity that encourages its opposite, i.e. recognition?
But then, this isn’t really about whether or not to wear a mask. Mass society has overreached its social origins and threatens to creep into every corner of our private and public lives, challenging our autonomy and our identities. Wearing a mask, as I equivocate then, is not only about public safety; it is about increasing economic inequality and whether or not resistance to that reality is futile. Whereas living in mass society requires anonymity, resistance is in recognition. The answer may lie in the turning towards social structures and entities that encourage recognition.