Why do masks trigger such angst? In the recent presidential debate, the incumbent mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask. So why do some on the right of American politics disdain the mask so severely?
Health wasn’t always about viruses and bacteria. In the 18th and early 19th century, the experts were more interested in environment and individual dispositions, and they’ve recently begun looking in that direction again. But in between then and now came germ theory.
Germ theory understands all problems – or at least the most important ones – as coming from the outside, not the inside. In this sense, it’s a lot like conservative nationalism. If you’re having problems, you need a bigger wall. Once you build it, your problems magically go away.
The two discourse – of walls, natural defences, invading aliens and killer cells – have historically run in such close parallel that the one frequently inspired the other, as Emily Martin’s research testifies.
When they exerted themselves in unison on a concrete target, they produced frightful consequences. One example is the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border, where throughout most of the 20th century Mexican day-labourers were routinely sprayed with DDT upon entering the US each morning. The Mexican side of the border was imagined to be inherently dirty and infectious, while the US side was imagined to be healthy, clean and – yes – white.
All of this means that our cultural imagination of health, germs and infection is profoundly loaded. This is not to say that pathogens are a social construction in the sense of not being physically real! It is simply to acknowledge that socially-circulating ideas inspire scientists, that scientific evidence inspires society, and that today’s facts were built on what previous generations thought important enough to research. (They’re still facts!)
So why do conservatives get so upset about masks? The mask forces you to admit that you might be the problem, that things are not necessarily always well and good inside you, your body, or your home, and that not all your problems are caused by some frightening invader. Actually, those others might benefit from a wall that faces you.
This is an affront to the simple “conservative” meta-narrative that they are the problem; we are not.
Small-L liberals scoff at Utah anti-mask protesters on the nightly news, but they overlook the fact that the mask is in a sense a liberal object. It doesn’t safeguard the “you” who identifies as a citizen of some nationally bounded collective. It’s not for the “you” who can be protected by, for example, blocking incoming flights from China, as the Australian government did far before it even recommended individuals wear masks, even when we knew the virus was already here.
The mask puts the wall around you. And sometimes, even in a liberal world, you just have to put it on. As liberalism’s foundation-layer John Stuart Mill said, your individual liberty is only absolute until it starts impinging on the liberty of others. And that’s exactly what you do when you sneeze on someone at the store.