Dealing with anxiety can be a challenge for anyone—especially during a worldwide crisis.

Asymptomatic transmission, widespread unemployment, social isolation and school closings are just a few of the issues brought up by the people I interviewed this spring for my book, Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. Those fears are understandable during an overwhelming healthcare emergency and economic shutdown.

But here’s something that caught me by surprise: the depth and breadth of anger over face masks from people I usually agree with most.

The science behind wearing a mask is pretty simple. Among scientists and doctors there’s near-universal agreement that wearing masks reduces the chance of Covid-19 transmission and helps keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients. From operating rooms to factories that produce sterile equipment, wherever there has been a risk of spreading germs people have worn masks to reduce that risk. Always.

Yet the simple act of putting on a mask is now a charged political issue. A piece of cloth spread across one’s mouth and nose, for some, is a symbol of liberty under siege. For others it’s an expression of compliance. Sadly, opposition and defiance cloud understanding, both of science and each other.

That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties. I think the fights happening in coffee shops and check-out counters over people wearing, or not wearing, masks are expressions of a deeper-seated anger that has been raging inside of people for years.

Ironically, face masks have become a flashpoint to express this anger, even as they physically cover our expressions.

I think the fights happening in coffee shops and check-out counters over people wearing, or not wearing, masks are expressions of a deeper-seated anger that has been raging inside of people for years.

But that’s just it. Many people already felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media. They’ve been figuratively masked: made to feel anonymous and unheard. It’s easy to see why putting a literal mask over their face could stand for something that challenges their very identity.

In my book I note that when beliefs, especially beliefs about oneself and one’s place in the world, meet uncertainty, anxiety is the result. That’s exactly what’s happening in the debate over masks. Beliefs about control, identity and inclusion are all being challenged.

As in any argument, more people are yelling than are listening, and the real source of anger lurks behind the topic being fought over. People don’t feel enabled to speak freely, and people think they know better than everybody else. We doubt each other and experts. People fear they aren’t being consulted, or even considered. Masks aren’t the real issue.

In the meantime, Covid-19 cases surge. 

My personal politics align with those who place individual liberty above most all else—likely the group putting up the most resistance to wearing masks. But I believe mask wearing should not be lumped in with examples of government overreach like arbitrary business shutdowns and restrictions on the right to assemble.

Requests to wear masks are not an attempt to mute you.

Simply put, the insistence to not wear a mask on the basis of opposition to limits on personal liberty does not hold up. To wear a mask when asked is an important step to avoid harming others and thereby guaranteeing liberty for all.

Individual liberty requires two things. Adhering to the harm principle and respecting private property. The property issue is easy. If someone asks you to wear a mask on their property—in their home, in their store or in their office—you must don the mask or leave.

The harm principle, espoused by philosopher John Stuart Mill, states that we are free to do most anything we want as long as we don’t take away another’s rights or harm them physically. Medical research informs us that we can have the virus and spread it without exhibiting any symptoms, and that masks effectively reduce the spread of the virus from a person who has it to a person who doesn’t.

Simply put, the insistence to not wear a mask on the basis of opposition to limits on personal liberty does not hold up. To wear a mask when asked is an important step to avoid harming others and thereby guaranteeing liberty for all.

As individuals, we should be left to make our own informed decisions about how we face this virus. But as a community, we also need to work together to mitigate the risk as effectively and quickly as possible. We need to inhibit the spread of Covid-19 so we can reopen businesses and schools and come together without government interference. We must do all of this without unduly limiting voices that should be heard and without reducing the expression of individual liberty. 

For me, the decision to wear a mask in public doesn’t induce anxiety. A mask doesn’t silence a person, it supports the principles of liberty upon which we build our culture.

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, and two poorly behaved dogs.

One thought on “George Hofmann: Making sense of the fight over face masks”

  1. Excellent, honest and respectful essay on the tensions between our obligations to each other and our legitimate apprehension about limits on our liberty.

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