The face mask, that simple piece of cloth, has become fraught territory. Over the summer, Americans began reading the use or absence of a mask as a political statement, a commentary on individual freedom, an invitation to a fight. Our president and his cadre were agonizingly slow to wear them, often casting the mask as a sign of weakness. Their bare faces have come to symbolize the administration’s negligence and denial.
Part of the reason masks have become a litmus for the perceived overreach of government is their location on the body: The mask covers the face—the mouth in particular, that font of individual expression. To be masked is to be muzzled, the thinking goes. When you don a mask, there is that moment of almost primordial vulnerability as you calculate your capacity to breathe. For those intent on resisting all public health mandates, such vulnerability is a step too far, an almost Freudian trigger—Don’t tell me how to breathe or I will punch you in the face.
Such resistance is complicated by the fact that the mask is not so much to protect the wearer but to protect others from the wearer. To focus on egress (I am the danger) instead of on ingress (I am in danger) requires a radical shift in perspective, and it is this reversal—from self-preservation to tender of the commons—that seems to so deeply offend an ingrained conservative ideology. The mask exposes the often hidden choice between valuing collective well-being over personal interest.
If nothing else, the mask has also shown us that people are cleverly stubborn. Even as we conform, we find ways to cheat. It’s only human, after all.
In his essay “Life on Lockdown in China,” Peter Hessler describes living in Chengdu during the height of the coronavirus lockdown. All citizens were required to wear masks in public, no questions asked. Hessler documents the ways in which the citizens of Chengdu subtly undermine the mask mandate, even if only for a moment—to take a call, hock a loogie, smoke a cigarette. He labels some of the more common methods: “the flapjack,” “the low-rider,” “the holster.”
Americans, too, have discovered clever ways of renegotiating how to wear a mask. A silent “mask code” is being written in real time: How soon are you allowed to remove your mask after exiting a store? Can you pull a lowrider if you’re alone in an aisle? It’s safe to say that our maneuvers and their meanings will become more nuanced and sophisticated as the pandemic drags on.