Refusing to Wear a Mask Is an Empty Act of Defiance
The woman in the video would like you to know that she is compassionate. She would like you to know that she understands “the virus is real.” She would also like you to know, however, that she has tried wearing a face mask while out in public during the coronavirus pandemic, and that she will not be wearing one again. “I’m at the end of it,” she says tearfully, recording herself in her car after 45 minutes spent wearing a mask. “I’m just simply at the end of it.”
found a karen on facebook live pic.twitter.com/VBdOLJdWwu
— shr*mp b*nch (@shrimpbinch) May 20, 2020
Viewed more than 6 million times since it was posted last week, the woman’s dramatic rejection of mask wearing is part of a burgeoning micro-genre: videos of the maskless that double as portraits of stubbornness, of selfishness, of rugged individualism run amok. There’s the Costco shopper who refused to wear a mask in the warehouse, because, as he informed a crew member, “I woke up in a free country.” There’s the woman who cut a hole in the center of her mask because the fabric, she explained, made it “hard to breathe.” There’s the woman who informed a clerk at a California supermarket that, although the store’s policy required her to wear a mask, she would not be doing so, because of a “medical condition.” (Do not wonder what condition this might be: “I’m not required by HIPAA rules and regulations to disclose that,” she said.)
Americans, as a public, generally agree about the civic virtue of wearing masks: When surveyed, pluralities have called the practice respectful to others and important for public health. The viral videos, however, suggest otherwise. They imply division. They suggest that America’s culture war will be fought even in the presence of consensus—that the war’s soldiers, indignant and defiant, will take even the most straightforward of medical advice and make a great show of refusing to comply with it. Masks serve to protect not their wearers but the people their wearers come in contact with; to put them on is to engage in a basic but highly visible act of altruism. That fact alone has led to accusations that mask-wearing is a form of virtue-signaling: a smug display of moral values. The refusal to wear masks, though, recorded and turned into shareable media, is evidence of the opposite: vice signaling.
Yesterday, during a press conference conducted on the White House lawn, Donald Trump filmed his own version of a mask-rejection video. As the cameras rolled, the president spoke, as he always does, without a mask, modeling defiance against the advice of his own public-health experts. (Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, had this to say, earlier this month, about the sight of people gathered together without masks: “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather … they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives.”) During the Q&A session, a reporter—wearing a boldly patterned face mask—tried to ask the president a question. Trump replied by asking him to remove his mask. (“I cannot hear you,” the president explained, though he had answered a previous question from the same journalist with no evident problem.) The reporter declined; he said instead that he would speak more loudly. “Oh, okay, you want to be politically correct,” Trump replied.
This is typical of the president—and yet, in its context, strikingly callous. Masks are not empty symbols. Masks are tools of public health. The nation is nearing a grim and gutting milestone: Almost 100,000 Americans have now been killed by a virus that is transmitted, in part, through human breath. But not only does the president still refuse to model the very simple behavior that could help curb transmission of the illness; he also mocks those who do as arbiters of political correctness. He implies that mask-wearing is best understood as an act of personal brand management—a show like any other. One more virtue signal. One more act of smug condescension. The logic of political correctness, as he sees it, leaves no room for good faith, no space for altruism. It’s PR, all the way down. Asked why he refused to wear a mask during a visit to a Ford plant earlier this month, the president explained: “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
Rhetoric like this—the discourse that relies on trolling and triggering—is commonplace in American politics. Trump has made it more acute. His behavior suggests that, while others engage in virtue signaling, he will engage in the opposite. The historian David Perry, discussing vice signaling in 2018, framed the concept as an argument that “only losers care about stuff.” Vice signaling turns everything—even, and especially, matters of life and death—into an empty contest. Its rhetoric is intended, The Independent put it recently, “to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others, which is proud of it at the same time.” But it also works as its own gesture of individualism: “The essential message of a vice signal,” the essayist K. Thor Jensen wrote in 2018, “is that it’s never you that needs to change—the world needs to change around you.”
You can see strains of that message in other videos that have gone viral in recent months: footage of people laughingly coughing—yes, coughing—on store clerks who asked them to wear masks. Footage of people licking goods in stores. Footage, too, of people crammed together in a pool on Memorial Day, maskless, careless, refusing to comply with statewide social-distancing guidelines. Even Sean Hannity was horrified by the Memorial Day displays. During yesterday evening’s show, the Fox News host, typically a devoted ally of President Trump, beseeched his viewers to wear masks: “Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa.”
But it is useful to remember that those displays of disregard are not representative of the country as a whole. Polling suggests that Americans are much more united than they are divided about the responsible and respectful way to engage in public during a global pandemic. A HuffPost/YouGov survey published last week found Americans saying, 69 percent to 19 percent, that wearing a face mask when in public and near other people is a sign of respectfulness. (The same survey found that only 8 percent of respondents saw wearing a mask as a sign of weakness; 83 percent rejected that interpretation.) According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 64 percent of Americans said that everyone should be wearing a mask in public. The president, despite his amplified platform, is an outlier. The proudly maskless are outliers. Many of the videos that feature those people share one more element in common: fellow shoppers, wearing masks, getting on as best they can.