Since early times, masks have been used by human groups for various purposes. Indigenous groups have used masks in dramatic portrayals, often of a religious significance. Hollywood perpetuates a myth that masked priests portrayed gods to fool their audiences. Rather, indigenous audiences know that the masked performers merely represent supernatural beings; however, those beings are often thought to be present in a mystical way while they are being portrayed by their priests.
In the Middle Ages and into modern times, Christians have continued to produce Passion Plays, lives of the saints, and other dramatic presentations of religious significance. Rarely, though, do Christian performances rely on masks or assume a mystical presence of Christ and the saints. Instead, masks have been diverted among Europeans and North Americans to entertainment. Partygoers assume masks and costumes as part of their revelry. European traditions associate masks and costumes with Carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration also called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. Carnival is represented in such productions as An American in Paris and Phantom of the Opera. In North America, masks and costumes are associated more with Halloween, a time when children go door-to-door wearing masks and costumes and asking for treats, while adults frequent holiday parties in similar outfits of masks and costumes.
Aside from holiday parties, masks are largely associated with crimes and with crimefighters. In the movies (and sometimes in real life), robbers wear masks to disguise their identity while robbing banks, stores, stagecoaches, and homes. But many famous crimefighters, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, also wear masks to hide their identity. Their success capturing criminals and foiling crimes somehow depends upon remaining disguised, hiding their true identity behind their masks.
Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century scientists began to understand the role of one-celled creatures (bacteria, or germs) in causing illnesses, including infections, in humans, other animals, and plants. Washing hands and wearing gloves and masks became increasingly common in medical circles to reduce the chance of infection. Similar precautions have proved effective against viruses, which are even smaller than bacteria, but which often travel in drops of moisture produced by bodily fluids. Masks and gloves are familiar in hospitals and other medical facilities. Early in the twenty-first century, medical masks appeared more on city streets in east Asian cities as an attempt to curb various infectious diseases that had appeared in Asian populations.
This year masks have been recommended in the United States and most other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. More than any other preventative measure, masks have become an emotional symbol of the virus crisis, of attempts to combat the virus, and of government overreach into the lives of citizens. Several months ago, wearing masks in certain situations was one strategy to battle the disease—others were washing hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding or preventing large gatherings of people, remaining home as much as possible, and refraining from touching one’s face, especially eyes and nose and mouth, with one’s hands.
Washing hands frequently and not touching one’s face have always been recommended to reduce the spread of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Arguably, effective pursuit of these two practices could make other hygienic practices, including masks, redundant and unneeded. Instead, masks have become the focal point of discussions (often heated) about disease prevention. Closely related to the practice of wearing masks to prevent disease are questions about the government’s role in keeping citizens safe from harm—questions that have focused, in the past, on seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, sneeze guards over salad bars, and the like. Each episode reflects are larger social and political debate about freedom and safety, about individual choices and compassion for one’s neighbors.
At one extreme, some people are convinced that “masks save lives,” that refusing to wear masks demonstrates callous unconcern for other people, and that the government should require all citizens to wear masks and should punish all citizens who refuse to wear masks. At the other extreme, some people view mask requirements as the government’s greatest experiment in controlling the thinking of a population since we were all persuaded to change our clocks twice a year to “save daylight.” Many people fall into a middle category: they are willing to wear masks when required by an employer or a host (including restaurant managers, store owners, and congregations) but do not wear masks at home, in the car, or when walking outdoors.
Some stores post signs saying that they require masks but take no action to enforce that requirement. Others have their employees to ask people to leave if they are not wearing masks. Some restaurants require customers to wear masks while walking to their tables but allow them to remove their masks at their tables. Others have seating spaced widely enough that masks are not needed in the building. Some congregations ask all worshipers to wear masks, others make masks optional, and still others have some services when masks are requested of all and others when masks are optional. Businesses and churches seek ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people while offending or inconveniencing the smallest number of people possible.
As a few people are disturbed by seeing spiders or snakes or clowns, so a few people are disturbed by seeing masks—especially by seeing groups of people wearing masks. Little has been done to respond to these people’s concerns. A search on a popular search engine for “fear of masks” led to articles about helping children not fear wearing masks, but no acknowledgement that adults may also fear masks. Likewise, searching for articles (and they have been published) indicating that masks are not helpful and may even be harmful in overcoming the virus crisis leads only to articles attacking opponents of masks and offering arguments in defense of masks and of requirements to wear masks.
I’m in the middle position, willing to wear a mask if it makes someone else feel safe, happy to go without a mask if no one else expects me to wear one. I am concerned, though, that our trusted sources of information are leaning toward one extreme and away from the other. The more the opinion-shapers of our land promote the wearing of masks and disparage those who disagree, the more I wonder what other goals these opinion-makers are pursuing: perpetuating a climate of fear and worry, separating people from one another by encouraging us all to hide our faces from each other, giving us a petty reason to argue and disagree and fight while more important issues are swept under the rug. More than health and the control of disease may be at work when it comes to masks. If that is the case, the year 2020 may be an even larger watershed than we have already noticed. J.