What face masks mean and why they matter

A significant and loud segment of the population protests the very idea of wearing any kind of face covering around others during the pandemic. 

To them, masks are an invasive reminder that they are nowhere near as free and independent as they’d like to think they are, that their health and safety relies on the consideration of others and that everyone, including them, has a significant civic obligation to behave responsibly for the health and safety of others in turn.

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The masks are just for show and offer little protection, they argue, and they are mostly correct but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t wear them anyway.

Security theatre is a well-established concept in frequent use across society where measures for public safety are as much or more about making people feel secure as they are about actual safety.

Take airport security. 

As Julia Shaw points out in her book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, random tests have repeatedly demonstrated how unreliable and ineffective airport security is. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent undercover agents out 70 times to smuggle forbidden articles onto planes. They were successful 67 times.

Travellers tolerate the questions from people in uniforms, the search of their personal belongings, the seizure of items that aren’t dangerous but violate policy and the time spent in long, crowded lines because the process makes them feel safe, that something – even if it doesn’t work very well – is being done to prevent catastrophe and that something is better than nothing at all.

“When humans are afraid they do the weirdest things,” Shaw writes. “Although airport security is in some way the very essence of security theatre, the reassurance that something is being done to stop this perceived threat can be a good thing for some, but scares others even more.”

Substitute “airport security” for “face masks” in the above sentence and you’ve got an explanation for all of the outrage – those who wear masks are furious that others won’t and those who won’t wear masks and are furious that they are being asked/told/guilted into wearing one.

Security theatre can cause extensive harm, from complacency to new, unintended dangers. There have been numerous cases in the U.S. this spring of black men attacked and even killed because they were wearing a mask in public and some white person presumed they were up to no good.

And we’re no better in Canada or in Prince George. 
Two large Indigenous men walk into a small downtown store wearing masks. How many white shoppers would eye them warily? How many white store owners and employees standing at the till would slide their finger over to the alarm button beneath the counter, just in case?

COVID-19 isn’t the only harmful virus in the human population that everyone should be trying to eradicate.

Security theatre may be silly but it also does plenty of good. Metal detectors and face masks are security theatre set pieces with a purpose. Face masks are relatively cheap and wearing one for a short time while grocery shopping or getting a haircut is a worthwhile inconvenience, even if it’s impact is minimal.

The presence of airport metal detectors encourages travellers to make smart choices (leave the pocket knife at home, no jokes about bombs while waiting in line) and discourages not only would-be terrorists but also individuals who may feel the rules should apply to others but not to them when it comes to smuggling contraband. 

The presence of face masks also encourages people to make smart choices (social distancing, hand washing) and discourages door-handle lickers as well as others who feel that face masks are for the unwashed masses but not for them.

Wearing a face mask at the store is no more an infringement on our individual rights than waiting in the security line at the airport. Nobody is forcing anyone to fly on a plane but for those who want to fly, they must go through security. Nobody is forcing anyone to wear a face mask but for those who want personal access to certain goods and services, they must wear a face mask.

For those still opposed to face masks, turn the equation around. 

Instead of focusing on your own self-interests, consider how you might be helping others, even if it’s little more than an act of theatre so people around you will feel a bit safer. 

It’s not all about you when waiting in the airport security line.

Wearing a face mask isn’t about you, either.

So stop your noisy whining and feeling sorry for yourself. 

Your pathetic selfishness looks far more ridiculous than a piece of cloth covering your mouth and nose.

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