Behind the Mask


Perhaps it was inevitable that the unfolding fiasco that has been the world’s response to the SARS-CoV2 epidemic — excuse me, pandemic — has devolved into a Great Divide over a subject few of us gave much thought to six months ago: face masks. Given that this story has elements of both a tragedy and a comedy, the symbolic role of the mask seems particularly appropriate.

This mask-wearing phenomenon is a fascinating study in human psychology and I’m no longer sure that’s not by design. But that’s another train of thought for another time. Today I’m just thinking about the myriad of motivations that have led some people to elevate their masks to the status of “don’t leave home without it” (apologies to AmEx) and others to adopt the refusal to wear a mask as their hill to die on.

My biggest problem with telling people they can wear masks is it gives you this false sense of security. And it might even encourage you to think that now you’re protected and you’re protecting people around you. 

Lisa Brosseau, ScD, nationally recognized expert on infectious diseases “Cloth masks are useless against COVID-19

As more and more evidence emerges — studies come out, physicians speak up — that cloth masks do little to no good in protecting either the wearer or those around him/her from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, one has to wonder: why are so many people still wearing them?

Of course, you could ask the same about many other choices in life. Why do people get tattoos or wear nose rings or go out in pubic in ripped up jeans for which they paid exorbitant prices? That’s different, many will be quick to proclaim, but I postulate that in some instances, for some people, it’s really not.

Couple Wearing Face Mask Drinking Milkshake · Free Stock Photo

My opinion is that, as with most things in life, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to why people are wearing the mask. I try to keep that in mind when I subconsciously react to the sight of all those masks out in public.

The most common reply you get if you ask them is “I don’t do it for myself; I do it because I care about others.” But even the “I care about others” group can be divided into at least three categories.

  • First, you have the ones who actually DO care about others and have been brainwashed into thinking it’s protecting those others by the constant barrage of propaganda. Many in that group have elderly and/or immune compromised relatives they live with or care for and those are the specific “others” they’re trying to protect. I can respect that even though I doubt its efficacy.
  • Then there are the ones who don’t really care that much about others’ health, but they DO care about what others think of them. They’ve been shamed into wearing the mask by all the “Karens” (NOT Karins – LOL) who judge them and make them feel guilty if they don’t. They may know or suspect the masks are useless but they’re not strong enough to buck the crowd. They’re willing to give up their identities, comfort, and liberty to avoid making others – most of whom they don’t even know – “feel uncomfortable.” I don’t respect that but I do feel sorry for them.
  • Finally there are the ones who put the emphasis on the first word: I care about others.” As in I do and you don’t. These are the virtue signalers. They don’t really care about others; they care about being better than others. The mask has become their status symbol that announces to the world “I am a GOOD and CARING person.” I view them with the same contempt with which they view the unmasked.

But not everybody is wearing it because of “others.” I still hear/see a surprising number of comments to the effect of “if you think a mask is uncomfortable, just wait — you’re going to love the ventilator” or “I’ll keep wearing my mask; I’m not ready to die yet,” implying that they believe the mask is protecting THEM from the disease.

Those who wear a cloth mask to protect themselves from the virus are a little like the person who buys and carries a little can of pepper spray instead of a gun, and convinces him/herself it will provide magical protection against a determined attacker.

Some of these are the “vulnerable” (I’m beginning to hate that term, too) — the ones with underlying conditions who are just genuinely afraid and need to think they can do something to protect themselves, so they convince themselves that wearing a mask will do it.

They’re wrong, it’s the placebo effect and that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. It’s a psychological mechanism that enables them to at least go out in public and have a modicum of normal life instead of cowering in their homes forever, so it’s actually serving a useful purpose for them — just not the purpose they think it is.

Page 9 | royalty free white blanket photos free download | Piqsels

When people are afraid, they revert to their childhood selves and they need their security blankies to make them feel safe. The mask has become that for a lot of folks. We who aren’t afraid tend to look at it as a measure of a person’s willingness to comply with arbitrary orders — their “sheepleness,” if you will. It is that, but it can also be a measure of their fear. Of course, the two are intimately related.

Volunteer Creates Face Masks for Shelter Residents - The Salvation ...

Then there’s another category and I see this mainly among young people but also some of the “elderly” (yep, I hate that word, too). They’ve decided to just have fun with it. They’re wearing the “fashion” masks with the animal faces or the rhinestone studs or — most ironic of all — the MAGA and “Vote Trump” logos. They’re making a statement with it. Some of them fit into one of the above categories and the “fashion” element is secondary, but I think for some it’s the primary reason they’re wearing them.

Of course, in some jurisdictions it isn’t really a matter of choice – at least if you want to go a public venues and you don’t want to be the object of calls to 9-1-1 and end up paying hefty fines. While some law enforcement agencies (kudos to them) have flat-out refused to enforce the orders of local dictators city, county, or state officials making masks mandatory, in other places the police are carrying out the mission of citing or even arresting these dangerous naked-faced criminals with a passion.

I think there are a growing number of people who just carry a “throw-down” mask with them in case they need to go into a business that won’t let them in without it. They’re willing to comply for that short period to get what they want. They’re pragmatists. They’re the ones who are unmasked as they walk up to the door, whip it out and slap it on when they see the sign, and rip it off immediately as they come back out (and often pull it down on their chins while they’re inside if they think they can get away with it).

African Masks | The sign at the market read: This Is Africa,… | Flickr

Finally, we must not forget that throughout history, masks have been used in both religious rituals and political rallies. For a certain proportion of the population today, it seems their political affiliation has turned into a religion for them, and their masks serve – at least partially – as a statement of where they stand and with whom they’re aligned.

While not yet as loaded as a “Make America Great Again” hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.

Face masks make a political statement in era of coronavirus

So that’s my analysis of the mask-wearers and I’m sure there are other one-off cases who have motivations more complex or outside the scope of my categories. In my next post, I’ll share my thoughts about the different motivations of those who choose not to wear the mask.

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s