Chapter 3

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Whose Evidence? What Rationality? The Face Mask Controversy

Arguments about the pros and cons and possible effectiveness of face masks during the Covid-19 crisis have occupied considerable space in specialist, medical venues such as peer-reviewed journals and science blogs, as well as public forums such as mainstream media and social media – the latter attracting contributions from medical specialists and lay members of the public alike. The debate has often been heated, and there have been reports of individuals resisting the stipulation to wear face masks in shops and on airplanes, at times leading to acts of physical violence. Drawing on the narrative paradigm, this chapter examines some of the arguments for and against face masks as articulated by a diverse range of individuals and constituencies within and beyond the Anglophone and European world, the justifications given in each case, and their underlying values and logics.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the stipulation to wear face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic is an institutional narrative that has been characterized by conspicuous structural and material incoherence from the very start. The medical community and WHO both gave conflicting messages about the benefits and safety of using face masks throughout. In turn, as Austin Wright argues in the October 2020 issue of UChicago News, the uncertainty created by expert mixed messaging allowed politicians such as Donald Trump and their advocates “to create competing politicized narratives that weaken[ed] public compliance” (A. Wright 2020). These competing narratives often appealed to nationalistic, misogynist and homophobic tropes that tend to resonate among sizeable sections of the population during periods of extreme insecurity, including wars and pandemics, when people feel the need to reaffirm threatened social identities. Disagreements among members of the medical community and weak or conflicting recommendations on the part of organizations such as WHO and CDC thus created a space for the UK’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and other high profile personalities to amplify values such as masculinity and personal liberty at the expense of public safety and social responsibility. We explore the extent to which the narrative paradigm can explain this trajectory, and further enrich it with the concepts of narrative accrual and identification where relevant to offer a more cogent account of some of the extreme responses to face masking that we have witnessed in the context of Covid-19.

3.2. Transcendental Values, Narrative Accrual and Narrative Identification

While some of those who have argued against the use of face masks have expressed their concerns in measured language and explained them with reference to scientific evidence, or lack of it, others have acted in ways that are strongly confrontational, and often violent towards others. From the unmasked protestors in Trafalgar Square who carried signs with slogans such as “masks are muzzles’” and “Covid is a hoax” (Philipose 2020, in The Indian Express), to those who stood outside the Sephora Beverley Hills Beauty Store chanting “No More Masks” and holding pieces of paper with messages such as “Sephora Supports Communism” or shouting “Sephora is agent of Chinese government” (Wittner 2021), behaviour that would normally be seen as bizarre and restricted to a small fringe seems to have become the order of the day during the Covid-19 crisis. The logic of good reasons and the concept of transcendental values allow us to understand some but not all such responses to face-masking, for as McClure (2009:205) explains, the problem with the concept of fidelity is that “belief in a story is accounted for by the fact that it’s already believed without ever having to explain why it’s believed in the first instance”. In what follows, we draw on Bruner (1991) and McClure (2009) where necessary to address this weakness in Fisher’s model and make sense of some of the beliefs and behaviour that appear resistant to explanation in terms of the narrative paradigm alone.

Fisher (1987:114) acknowledges that human beings are not identical and do not share the same values, that “[w]hether through perversity, divine inspiration, or genetic programming”, people make different choices and these choices “will not be bound by ideal or ‘perfect’ value systems – except of their own making”. The idea that values are of people’s own making leaves the issue of how we come to embrace certain values rather than others rather vague. And while the narrative paradigm suggests that different values that inform the choices we make are a product of the narratives we come to believe in, Fisher does not directly explain why we come to believe in specific narratives rather than others, beyond stating that “the production and practice of good reasons”, which is informed by the narratives we subscribe to, “is ruled by matters of history, biography, culture, and character” (1985b:75).

The concept of narrative accrual (Bruner 1991) can shed some light on the process by which certain values come to be ratified through the accrual of a network of related narratives to which we are repeatedly exposed over time. As we have seen in the previous section, the media – including social media – constitute an important site through which particular types of narrative accrue and come to impact the values of those exposed to them over time. Other such sites include the family, circle of friends, the educational system, professional groups, the film and videogaming industry, and religious institutions, among others. Narrative accrual validates certain values and invalidates others over an individual’s lifetime, with networks of related narratives ultimately combining to form a tradition or (sub)culture whose members share a similar outlook on life. The (transcendental) values we acquire through this process become so ingrained that questioning them threatens our very sense of identity and ability to make sense of the world.

Alongside narrative accrual, there is also our basic human need to feel part of a community with a shared outlook on life. McClure (2009:204) thus suggests that “many widely accepted narratives that defy both probability and fidelity” can only be understood by appeal to the concept of identification. Fisher does draw on this concept in developing his model, but as Stroud (2016) explains, he “casts identification as an outcome when a reader encounters a narrative that is judged to be high in narrative probability and narrative fidelity”. Stroud sees this as a strength of the narrative paradigm, but McClure (2009:198) convincingly argues that it restricts “processes of identification to the normative criteria of the rational-world”, “unnecessarily limits our understanding of the rhetoricality of narrative” (ibid.:191), and hence underestimates “the irrational resources of identification, those ‘puzzlements and ambiguities,’ those ‘enthymemic elements,’ and those ‘partially ‘unconscious’ factors’ that are at work in the everyday narratives by which we live” (ibid.:199). We follow McClure in treating identification not as an outcome of a successful test of probability and narrative fidelity, but rather as part of the definition of good reasons, acknowledging, with him (ibid.:202), that “[w]hat changes by reconceptualizing identification in the narrative paradigm, is what counts as ‘good reasons.’ And what counts as good reasons is identification”.

3.2.1. The Logic of Good Reasons, Narrative Accrual and Identification: Public Safety and Structural Racism

A strong cultural association between thugs, gangsters and face coverings has been gradually ratified in Anglophone and European societies through the accrual of a whole range of narratives to which we are repeatedly exposed through various sites and media. This cultural association has been evident in the context of the current pandemic, for instance when concerns are raised with respect to whether the use of face masks for medical purposes might pose a threat to public safety. A New York based lawyer, Kevin O’Brian, posed the question in a blog post titled ‘Are Coronavirus Policies Aiding Criminal Activity?’ (O’Brien 2020). His answer points to the structural and material incoherence that exists between anti-masking laws still in force in several American states and pro-mask regulations in the context of Covid-19. While acknowledging that anti-masking laws have exacerbated social injustices, as in cases where they have been used “to arrest masked Antifa members for the act of wearing a mask, even where they have not committed any violent acts”, O’Brian also claims that these laws “aid law enforcement in numerous ways”. He backs this claim by referring to criminological studies demonstrating that anonymity is “commonly linked to deviant behavior” and goes on to argue:

But the result of these Coronavirus compliant policy changes appears to be immediate, and dramatic – with the vast majority of people wearing masks, it is extremely difficult for law enforcement to identify who is inciting the violence, particularly when they are not members of the local community. I might be able to recognize my neighbor in a mask and a hood, but could I identify a stranger? Without this method of tying a specific individual to a specific act, elected officials and others seem to be more prone to speculate as to who is behind the violence and people seem more likely to commit crime.

Whatever you think of current recommendations and mandates regarding masks to combat Coronavirus, it seems these decisions are making it easier for some individuals to anonymously break the law – increasing the risk for communities that public health policies are designed to protect.

Newspaper headlines linking face masks to criminal activities also contribute to the steady accrual and hence resonance of this narrative. An article in The Telegraph published on 21 March 2021 and entitled ‘Gang members wearing coronavirus medical masks to disguise themselves’ (Lowe 2020) reinforces the narrative of medical masks being used by people with criminal intentions to evade police detection. The article quotes a charity officer who works with high risk offenders across the southeast of England arguing that face masks might be used to support anti-social behaviour: “There could be some level of disorder in terms of anti-social behaviour. Just today in Wood Green, a young offender came up to me wearing a protective mask and offered me some marijuana”.

This link between criminal activity and masking is particularly associated with citizens who are (perceived to be) of non-Western origin – those who are classed in nationalistic narratives as ‘non-indigenous’. In April 2020, the Franklin County Public Health Board in Ohio released a document addressed to “communities of colour” about wearing face masks that they were later forced to withdraw (Franklin County Public Health 2020). The document advised black Americans to avoid using face coverings made of “fabrics that elicit deeply held stereotypes”: “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavoury behaviour, although not intended”. The Franklin County Public Health later tweeted an apology and admitted the guidance “came across as offensive and blaming the victims” (Figure 3.2). Still, well intentioned or otherwise, such statements can impact the values of all who come across them, but particularly those to whom they are addressed and who are singled out in this narrative as a source of concern for the community and hence as positioned outside it. Importantly, they restrict the ability of such addressees to identify with the larger community and see its welfare as coherent with their own, and to view the advice given by its institutions as “represent[ing] accurate assertions about social reality and thereby constitut[ing] good reasons for belief or action” (Fisher 1987:105).

Black citizens, in turn, have reportedly been hesitant to wear a mask in public because of the racist fears it evokes. A black physician in Boston raises the issue of how the act of making face masks mandatory in public might affect people of colour in a blog post titled ‘Wearing a face mask helps protect me against Covid-19, but not against racism’ (Felix 2020):

As a physician, I favor things that will help reduce the transmission of coronavirus infections. But as a Black man, I wondered how this order will affect people who look like me. I wondered if this order went into effect with any understanding of the fear and anxiety it could inflict on people of color.

That might sound irrational to some. But it resonates with many Black people, who are far too familiar with having to interact with law enforcement for appearing ‘suspicious’ and in many instances having to fear for their life during these interactions.

Felix details how, being not only black but also 6 feet two inches tall, his “decision-making” process had to be quite complex: “[it] went as far as limiting how often I went out after dark, knowing that some people will see a masked Black man as a threat”. Such cultural stereotypes and the racist anxieties they evoke are deeply embedded in a larger narrative of white supremacy that has accrued over many centuries, a narrative that assigns inferior status to numerous communities who are repeatedly cast as a source of threat to the nation proper. Zine (2020) thus argues that “the concept of white privilege can be related to how COVID-19 mask-wearing is seen differently when worn on racialized bodies”. While masked black faces are associated with criminality, masked Asian faces are seen as an emblem of the crisis itself: “Instead of representing a good citizen helping to stop the spread of a possible contagion, a protective mask transforms Asian bodies into the source of contagion”. Zine further points to the structural incoherence of the French mandate to wear masks which has not been accompanied by a lifting of the ban on women wearing a niqab, citing the French researcher Fatima Khemilat’s comment on the irony of this situation:

If you are Muslim and you hide your face for religious reasons, you are liable to a fine and a citizenship course where you will be taught what it is to be a good citizen …. But if you are a non-Muslim citizen in the pandemic, you are encouraged and forced as a ‘good citizen’ to adopt ‘barrier gestures’ to protect the national community.

A similar irony – or structural incoherence in Fisher’s terms – has pervaded the discourse of European leaders. In 2018, well before the outbreak of the pandemic, Boris Johnson stated that as a Member of Parliament he felt “fully entitled” to see the faces of his constituents, describing women who wore the niqab as looking like letterboxes and bank robbers. And yet, as noted in an article titled ‘Veiled racism: How the law change on Covid-19 face coverings makes Muslim women feel’, published in The Independent on 26 June (Begum 2020),

From 15 June 2020, Boris Johnson – the same politician who caused a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment with his column in 2018 – has made it mandatory that all people in England wear face coverings on public transport. As well as encouraging them in other places it is hard to social distance like shops or supermarkets. The government even issued guidelines on how to make your own face covering at home.

These and similar inconsistencies in policies and statements by political leaders serve to amplify racist fears and anxieties among those who are exposed to them and undercut the possibility of identification with the larger community among those cast as threatening to the nation’s way of life and security. Black, Asian and Muslim members of these societies who do not comply with mandatory measures such as wearing face masks in public areas, or who do so under duress and without believing that applying these measures is genuinely in their interest, are not ‘irrational’. Their behaviour is informed by considerations that are narratively – if not scientifically – rational and that reflect their own lived experience, both prior to and during the pandemic. Ultimately, as Marcus (2020) argues, “combatting racism is inextricable from public health”, as indeed are so many social issues such as poverty, unemployment, trust in political and social institutions, and much else.

3.2.2 Good Reasons, Precarious Manhood and Homophobia

Identification, as McClure (2009:202) argues, constitutes good reasons for action and belief in and of itself. While the examples of racism against black people, Asians and Muslims discussed above suggest that those at the receiving end of racism will find it difficult to identify with the larger community and trust its institutions, narratives of masculinity and homophobia pressure those socialized into them to act in ways that are consistent with the values they promote and that have been reinforced during the crisis by high profile personalities, as we detail below. In other words, they pressure them to behave in ways that are ratified by the group with which they identify.

Masculinity and homophobia have impacted responses to face masking during the Covid-19 crisis in various ways. Narratives that cast heterosexual men as strong, hardened, no-nonsense members of the ‘real’ community and gay men as effeminate, feeble and repulsive have been accruing in all societies around the world for centuries. Many men, in all cultures, are socialized to varying degrees into thinking that manhood is a highly desirable character trait and tend to associate it with physical strength and fearlessness. This “performative masculinity”, as Abad-Santos (2020) calls it, rests on “a narrow vision of manhood that ignores other tropes like self-sacrifice and being a protector”, but it has proved very powerful during the pandemic. As The New York Times acknowledges, “the best public health practices have collided with several of the social demands men in many cultures are pressured to follow to assert their masculinity: displaying strength instead of weakness, showing a willingness to take risks, hiding their fear, appearing to be in control”. And indeed, numerous polls have shown that many more men than women refuse to wear face masks, most notably in the US, urging commentators like Abad-Santos (2020) to ask in disbelief:

Fellas, is it gay to not die of a virus that turns your lungs into soggy shells of their former selves, drowning you from the inside out? Is wearing a mask to avoid death part of the feminization of America? Is it too emasculating to wear a mask to protect the others around you? Does staying alive make you feel weak?

Persistent socialization into the dominant narrative of masculinity means not only that manhood is understood as ‘innate’, something a ‘real’ man is born with, but also that it is “simultaneously precarious and in need of defending”, leading those who value masculinity to “overperform” their manhood and “police its lack in others” (McBee 2019). Refusing to wear face masks and ridiculing others who do provided an opportunity for many to demonstrate their manhood during the crisis, encouraged by high profile male personalities engaged in their own overperformance of manhood. In October 2020, for instance, The New York Times reported that Joe Biden posted a picture of himself on Twitter wearing a mask, in response to which “Tomi Lahren, a conservative commentator and Fox Nation host” declared that Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask”. Some evangelists in the US called men who chose to wear face masks “‘losers’, ‘pansies’ and ‘no balls’” (Harsin 2020:1065). The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is reported in the leading broadsheet Folha de São Pulo to have “baited presidential staff who were using protective masks, claiming such equipment was ‘coisa de viado’ (a homophobic slur that roughly translates as ‘for fairies’)” (Philips 2020). The same broadsheet reported that despite the alarming spread of the virus in Brazil at the time, “Bolsonaro insisted on greeting visitors with a handshake and shunned masks”. This brand of “toxic white masculinity”, as Harsin describes it, was “showcased in some popular COVID-19 responses (Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban, most spectacularly)”, and can be “described as ‘toxic’ or ‘fragile’” because it is “threatened by anything associated with perceived femininity; it is further associated with physical strength, sexual conquest, a lack of any emotions signifying vulnerability (except for aggressive ones), domination, control and violence” (Harsin 2020:1063).

In an article in Scientific American, Willingham (2020) called masks “condoms of the face”, comparing men’s resistance to wearing masks to their refusal to use condoms during the HIV pandemic. Willingham explains this resistance in terms of a “white masculine ideology” associated with adventure, risk and violence, whose “high priest” is Donald Trump. By refusing to wear masks, men who have been socialized to think of themselves in these terms “expect that their masculine ideology group will accept them, respect them and not reject them”. The editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, R.R. Reno, defended the rejection of face masks in terms that confirm Willingham’s analysis: in one out of a series of tweets (that were later erased) he insisted that “[t]he mask culture is fear driven. Masks+cowardice. It’s a regime dominated by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice” (quoted in Kristian 2020). In a subsequent tweet, Reno challenged his audience to declare themselves fearless or cowardly: “There are those who are terrified, and those who are not. Where do you stand?”. Like the Young Earth Creationists McClure uses to exemplify how narrative identification works, many men continue to invest in white masculine ideology because “rejecting it has the implication of undermining the larger narrative(s) of which it is a part and rejecting the larger community to which they belong” (McClure 2009:207).

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, argues in an article in The Atlantic that public health authorities should acknowledge and address such values rather than condemning them. “Acknowledging what people dislike about a public-health strategy enables a connection with them rather than alienating them further”, she suggests (Marcus 2020). Like Willingham (2020), she compares men’s refusal to wear face masks with their reluctance to wear condoms during the HIV pandemic. Just as companies began to make condoms that not only protect people but also address their need for pleasure and intimacy, she argues, governments should now “support businesses in developing masks that are not only effective, but …. that make them feel stylish, cool, and—yes—even manly” (Marcus 2020). This is sound advice, as far as it goes, and following it could make wearing masks more palatable for some of those who regard them as ‘unmanly’, though it arguably also runs the risk of giving more credence and legitimacy to toxic masculinity. More importantly, unlike condoms, masks are worn in public and hence exacerbate the need for ‘precarious manhood’ to be asserted. The implications of wearing them or otherwise are further complicated by their association with specific political positions, leading a public-health professor at Morgan State University in the US to comment that “We’re seeing politics and science literally clashing”. The BBC news report that quotes him agrees (McKelvey 2020):

The wearing of masks has become a catalyst for political conflict, an arena where scientific evidence is often viewed through a partisan lens. Most Democrats support the wearing of masks, according to a poll conducted by researchers at the Pew Research Center.

Most Republicans do not.

Writing some two months later (in August of the same year), Abad-Santos (2020) reports that sports companies like Nike and Under Armor are already “making masks that superheroes might don”, including some that are curved like shark fins and one, by GQ, that makes its wearer look like he’s “in Mortal Kombat”. Abad-Santos points to a further complication that undermines the value of attempts to appeal to masculine imagery in order to encourage more men to wear masks: “For men concerned with masculinity, the appeal here is that these masks not only look cool but allow you to do masculine things like run faster, lift heavier, and be stronger”. This means that manufacturers use porous material “which is designed to be breathable and in fact breaks up larger particles, allowing them to hang around in the air longer” and making wearing these masks possibly worse than not wearing them at all (according to Abad-Santos). Any advice on how to address resistance to face masks must therefore consider a wide range of factors that have arguably made the Covid-19 crisis more challenging to public health policy makers than most pandemics humanity has faced in the past.