July 13, 2020
“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
I am writing this piece to explain why I think many citizens who love others and care about our country have a problem with being told they must wear a mask for the sake of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
If you are a person who has been frustrated with others who don’t wear masks everywhere, this piece may help you to appreciate the non-mask-wearer’s decision. If so, perhaps you will feel more patient toward those who don’t share your view. I expect that this piece will challenge some of your ways of thinking, but no disrespect is intended. Rather than take offense, I ask you to consider honestly whether the concerns articulated herein are at least understandable.
If you are a non-mask-wearer, maybe I can serve as a voice for you by articulating some deep seated concerns you feel in the absence of enough public voices representing your convictions.
A Complicated Issue
I want to be clear that I understand why responsible, concerned people choose to wear masks, and I respect their decisions to do so. Though I am against the expectation for everyone to wear masks in general, I myself have been in situations with people of higher risk in which I have gladly worn a mask. I do not presume to know everyone’s personal motivators, nor do I lightly brush aside the hope to limit the spread of the virus to the vulnerable. But the point of this piece is that there are a number of other factors at play. These factors, when considered all together, may lead someone away from believing that people should feel compelled or worse, be forced, to wear a mask in public.
The simple logic “If you love people, you will wear a mask” does not properly appreciate all the legitimate problems that people may have with being pressured to wear masks. Selfishness is not necessarily the issue, and I believe it is unfair to jump to that conclusion.
As a Christian, I greatly feel the weight of Jesus’ words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39) and, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” (Matt 7:12). I am highly motivated by these commands and the heart behind them. I am a husband, father, pastor, son, and neighbor, yet I have many problems with the insistence that everyone wear masks. I contend that my concerns have just as much to do with loving others and desiring the common good as those who think masks should be worn. Much of it comes back to how I would want to be loved and respected and the freedoms that I believe my fellow man should be permitted.
Do Good Fences Always Make Good Neighbors?
In one of his most famous poems, Robert Frost wrestles with the felt need for walls between people. He says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know. What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense.” His point is that people should take in all the effects, especially relationally, of a decision to operate with built-up barriers. He wrestles with the supposed benefits of a wall while suggesting that there are a host of things that may be walled in or out that people should stop to consider. Frost doesn’t rule out that walls are ever needed, but he does question whether they are too frequently assumed to be needed.
One of the big rationales behind the insistence on masks in our society is that we should just wear them to give peace of mind to those who feel threatened: Why offend the concerned? However, Frost’s question about the offense of a fence actually functions in the opposite direction. Look at it carefully. He is questioning the wisdom in the offense that comes from insisting on a wall. What are we saying to each other? What mistrust are we projecting? How are we damaging relationships? Does the situation or person or group of people give sufficient justification for the wall, or does the wall build up unhelpful tension?
There are fears that weigh into both sides of the issue. On the one hand, people fear the spread of the virus. On the other hand, people fear the spread of an overstepping government. Anxiety abounds on both ends of the spectrum. Loving consideration for our fellow man requires that we recognize the concerns on all sides, that we evaluate their legitimacy, that we process the reasonableness of preventative measures, and that we recognize the damage of forcing the concerns of only one side of a complicated issue upon everyone.
Of course, walls unfortunately are a needed part of life. When all things are considered and a situation truly demands it, they are not necessarily wrong. However, the demand for the wall also may not be viable. I believe this is the case with regard to masks and coronavirus. Many of my fellow citizens do too, and I don’t think it is because they are unloving or unthinking.
Now it is one thing to feel social pressure to wear a mask, and I am partly writing to address such pressure. But it is another thing to be forced by the government to do so. So the mask issue is especially problematic when governing authorities mandate that people wear masks in public.
Because such a mandate is currently the reality in many places, including the county in which I live, here is a list of eleven problems that I see with a government mandate to wear a mask in public. In many ways, this list also addresses the general pressure to wear a mask regardless of mandates. I believe all of these reasons are powerful in isolation, but collectively they weigh overwhelmingly on the side of not pressuring, and especially not forcing, masks upon everyone:
Eleven Problems with Mask Mandates
1. Mask mandates violate a deeply personal issue of freedom–the right to show your face in society. This issue cuts at the heart of the moral priority behind the founding of the United States and the writing of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. How would our founders have responded to a decree from Parliament that every colonist must wear masks? I have the feeling that a lot of masks would have wound up in the Boston Harbor. Choosing freely to wear a mask through one’s own situational discernment is fine, but being forced to wear a mask feels belittling to many people. This concern is not insignificant. It is a profound matter of personal rights concerning people’s most intimate space, their faces. Love for people should serve as a major deterrent from taking away this intimate personal right. I believe that respect for this issue alone should be enough to prevent any governing authority from declaring a mask mandate in broad sweeping terms. When leaders, from governors to pastors, make light of people’s unwillingness to wear mask with simple accusations of carelessness or lovelessness, they overlook a precious personal right and show disregard for the freedom of others.
2. Mask mandates make light of the power of masks to protect those who are concerned about infection even as they make much of the power of masks to protect from infection. I personally cannot escape the impression that mask mandates are a self-contradiction. They both assume the effectiveness of masks while ignoring the effectiveness of masks. It comes across like convenient controlling reasoning to say, “Masks aren’t for protecting yourself but only for protecting others.” Of course they are for protecting yourself! If masks are indeed effective, then concerned people should be able wear good, nose-and-mouth-sealing masks, keep their hands clean, and interact in society with relative peace of mind irrespective of others’ choices. However, if it is insisted that others have to wear masks also to protect those who are wearing masks, then the effectiveness of masks is being questioned even as it is being promoted. Clearly the wearing of masks is an effective form of personal protection from the virus. Hospital workers and store clerks who stayed widely healthy in New York City during the height of the outbreak demonstrate this reality. If so, then it is simply unreasonable to insist that those who are not high-risk wear them too. One person’s exercise of freedom is not in fact bringing grave danger to others because anyone can choose to be a “defensive driver” and be significantly protected.
3. Mask mandates assume that there are not loving effects that come from seeing each other’s faces that outweigh the effects of wearing masks. If people are able to be responsible while interacting with open face, they can express things like friendliness, appreciation, and care for others in ways that hiding your face cannot do. We all know that just the act of smiling can bring positive encouragement and healing to another’s day. Yet how many hundreds of millions of such moments have not happened over recent months due to people living behind masks? How many people battling fatigue, anxiety, discouragement, depression, and cynicism about society could have benefitted from another’s warm smile more than the questionable precaution of a mask? If we would have said at the beginning of 2020 that we were going to subtract hundreds of millions of warm smiles and appreciative facial expressions from culture, would you have been concerned about the negative effects? I would have. And I am.
4. Mask mandates go hand-in-hand with hyping fears that many Americans do not believe to be rational in light of the statistical risks. Because of all the hype, it is easy to lose sight of the incredibly tiny risk to the vast majority of society of any long-term harm from coronavirus. (I have written separately on this specific issue: Risk, Life, and Death: Living Free in a Culture of Fear.) “Alarming” news stories abound of young people and athletes testing positive, but there is no reasonable statistical justification to shut down their lives over such cases. On the topic of loving people, I personally think that it is more loving to demonstrate to others, from my children to my neighbors, that they don’t have to be ruled by fear of coronavirus. (I don’t mean folks who are at a legitimately high risk who I encourage to take extra precautions.) The vast majority of our society is in no proven, practical, long-term danger from this virus, yet they are being made to fear by all the hype. While coronavirus is a real issue that should factor into our current cultural moment, it is hard to deny that the media handling of it smacks of propaganda, manipulation, and politics. For millions of Americans, masks are a symbol of cultural manipulation. In the face of all of the fear mongering, people who don’t wear masks and demonstrate that they are functioning happily and responsibly can serve as inspiration, comfort, and evidence to those who might not otherwise consider freedom over fear. Regardless, it is no little thing to tell people that they must bow to an issue that they believe is being used for many politically malicious purposes.
5. Mask mandates establish further barriers between people, entrenching our isolation from each other and further depersonalizing people’s interactions. Social media venom and road rage are examples of what can happen when people become depersonalized and walled off from each other. But being face-to-face with others is an extremely powerful remedy for animosity and hatred. Just seeing another’s face in person helps them to be real to you and promotes connectedness and empathy. We all know that the best way to handle interpersonal conflict is to sit down and talk face-to-face. This points to the power of open interaction. Along these lines, I would ask you to consider: Which is a worse virus in our country? Coronavirus or animosity? I suggest that it is animosity by far, and the dehumanizing effect of depersonalized interactions is a tremendous catalyst for this terrible disease. While some people truly need to wear masks because of their risk, it simply underlines the importance of allowing the rest of society to show their faces. We need as many facial interactions as we can properly foster more now than ever.
6. Mask mandates take much needed situational discernment out of the picture by putting a blanket rule over discerning adults. Even if a mandate comes packaged with a handful of exemptions, a list of rules can never replace the power of discretion on the part of responsible adults. Mandates advance the mindset that government is our big brother who tells us how to live our lives because we are too helpless to take care of ourselves. If people are informed of their risks and expected to act in accordance with their judgment, much situational discernment will follow. Along the lines of Frost’s concern over offense, if the government doesn’t tell people that they are untrustworthy by making mandates, perhaps people will feel greater empowerment and motivation to be responsible citizens in various situations.
7. Mask mandates unnecessarily force millions of people into a stifling, irritating, frustrating situation that is conducive to anger, bitterness, and exasperation. Masks force people to breathe hot humid air day after day. They give rashes. They fog up glasses. They put pressure on the nose and ears and cause headaches. And on top of all these annoyances, they make communication extremely difficult. If there are millions of people dealing with these things, what is the impact on attitudes among our culture? Someone might say, “People just need to be mature, patient, and tough in dealing with these problems.” Well, I think most people are trying to be mature about it, but how many people will still have moments of cracking? In light of all the stress our culture is already experiencing, why should we pile more stress upon them? Why should we put millions of daily temptations to aggravation into our society? Is that really what America needs right now?
8. Mask mandates put us in a more crippling situation that cannot necessarily be expected to improve for a long time. The virus has a long way to go before it has worked its way through our population, and it is likely going to do so no matter what we do. Ultimately, do we really think that we have the power to prevent coronavirus from spreading through our culture? Is the inevitable overarching spread really anyone’s fault? Are our young people really “misbehaving”? Or is this thing just too pervasive to ultimately stop? While individuals may be able to take quality personal precautions, it seems unreasonable to think that we are somehow going to keep this virus from widespread infection across the population. If that is the case, then punishing everyone along the way for the sake of an impossible hope only makes matters worse. In general, our culture is acting like we have more control than we actually have. There seems to be an irrational utopian hope running as rampant as the virus that denies the tough realities of life in this world for a dream of total safety. When we raise the expectation of life to never getting sick, to guaranteed security, or even to perfect protection from death, we have put ourselves in an impossible box for human flourishing. The result is far more harm across society than good.
9. Mask mandates put law enforcement in an extremely difficult position. Our police men and women are already dealing with an unprecedented situation amid all the sweeping accusations of racism and violence. They are dealing with protests and a lingering threat of riots. And they are fighting the daily overwhelming challenges of drugs, crime, traffic, and domestic violence. Is it wise at this time to put them in the place of having to confront people over masks? Further, is the law even enforceable on a practical level? A mask mandate puts police departments in an extremely hard situation–some would even say impossible situation. They are in the predicament of either trying to follow orders and thereby feeling like they are violating people’s rights while distracted from much greater problems or ignoring orders and having to undermine the authority structure of law and order that is already under tremendous attack.
10. Mask mandates put millions of peaceful, responsible, law-abiding citizens in the difficult place of contemplating civil disobedience due to their conviction about the inappropriate, invasiveness of the rule. I am not necessarily writing this piece to advocate for such disobedience, but I certainly understand it. Such an invasive mandate creates a real struggle over this question for many–including myself who fundamentally embraces the teachings of Romans 13 about submitting to governing authorities and who deeply desires to be a responsible citizen. Yet I find myself on the cusp of believing that freedom in this case is a more important issue worth standing for. Most thoughtful people would agree that there are legitimate times to stand against government. The admirable passive resistance of the civil rights movement is one such example. I find myself going back and forth on what to do. Of course, many good people will choose to disobey, and at times probably most people will because of how difficult the rule is to follow. The result is that otherwise law-abiding citizens are put in the position of breaking the law. Whether one ultimately believes such disobedience is justified, the terrible situation is fostered by an irresponsible infringement upon people’s personal freedom on the part of governing authorities.
11. Mask mandates are ominous. Right now, the narrative concerns coronavirus, but what is next? This precedent is terribly troubling. If an entire population can be told to hide their faces over this current fear, what future, “urgent” fears might be propped up and used as rationales to take away freedom? Our culture has an incredible ability to flip morality and reason upside-down and insist on that which it perceives is the urgent or loving thing to do. There are strong forces working to transform our culture and force people into many troubling directions. Those forces are observing how to control society through this current issue. I personally feel that this concern is deadly serious and have been amazed and troubled by those who I have engaged on the subject who have made light of it. Today you may agree with a mask mandate, but tomorrow’s mandate may be a different story.
I hope and pray that I have not come across in the wrong tone. While it is impossible to avoid seriously challenging opposing perspectives which may offend on the level of debate, I do not want to offend on the level of interpersonal respect.
If you started reading this piece in disagreement with my perspective, I hope you can you at least see that the concerns I raise are sincere. I am not just trying to rationalize selfish, unloving behavior. I am genuinely trying to weigh all the implications of the mask consideration.
Perhaps, I have said some things that you have not considered before now? If so, I would love to have you swayed more toward the side of individual freedom on this subject. But if not, I still love and respect you as a person.
If you are a person who heartily agrees with my reasons and are thankful that I have written them, then I encourage you to express them to others in a reasonable, respectful manner. Pass this piece on. Make sure your leaders know where you stand. At the same time, exercise mature discernment in social settings. Be considerate and responsible, but don’t allow the cultural narrative to make you feel like a bad person for being against the pressure to wear masks.
If wearing a mask in public violates your conscience because you are so troubled by the loss of freedom that it represents, then I personally understand if you choose to disobey this mandate peaceably. I am convinced that sweeping mask mandates are a serious overstep of government authority. Currently, I am leaning on the side of trying to obey the mandate in spite of my feelings about it, but I am not far from leaning the other way. Even as I pray for God to take this virus from us, I pray that our leaders will come to their senses and reverse course where sweeping mandates exists. If not, I believe they are responsible for pushing people toward civil disobedience.
Even in such a circumstance, calm, non-violent, respectful behavior is of paramount importance. People who refuse to wear masks should make clear that they want to be law-abiding citizens and are eager to obey their authorities so long as their authorities do not put them in a position of having to choose between obedience to the law or their own conscience.
May God be merciful both to take away this virus and set people free!