Reasoning With Anti-Maskers?

There are a number of articles floating around with advice for reasoning with anti-maskers. I question whether that’s possible. If you want to try to reason with these people, go for it, and good luck. I would rather herd cats.

This is from Frank Bruni’s email newsletter, which I don’t think is online —

Our struggle with this pandemic has convinced me that somewhere along the way, we went from celebrating individual liberty to fetishizing it, so that for too many Americans, all sense of civic obligation and communal good went out the window. … Somewhere along the way, we also developed an immature definition of freedom, conflating it with selfishness, convenience and personal comfort. That’s writ large in the freak-out over masks.

Well, yeah. I’ve been complaining for a while that the Right has rendered the word freedom essentially meaningless. For example, see “Freedom’s Just Another Word” from 2005 and “So Much for Freedom” from 2011. And here’s “Freedom and Feudalism” from 2011: “Today’s conservative is someone who confuses freedom with feudalism. Or, put another way, he is someone who wears a “liberty or death” T-shirt while marching in support of oligarchy.”

Thus it is that the same people who grow hysterical and start screaming when asked to wear a mask in a retail store during a pandemic think federal secret police beating a citizen for asking a question is perfectly okay:

And then there’s this genius: GOP Lawmaker: Mask-Mandates Are No Different Than Jews Being Killed In Holocaust. You can reason with someone that demented? Seriously?

“Freedom” in the sense righties use it means they get to do whatever they want without interference, but those they don’t like can be brutalized by the state. Civil rights and equal protection under the law can go hang. And this is not a new development. This is how they have thought for a long time. Decades. Centuries, arguably.

And just so we’re clear, see “The Pandemic, the Constitution, and Civil Liberties” and this document from the American Bar Association, “Two centuries of law guide legal approach to modern pandemic.” From the latter:

Under the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court decisions over nearly 200 years, state governments have the primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions. The 10th Amendment, which gives states all powers not specifically given to the federal government, allows them the authority to take public health emergency actions, such as setting quarantines and business restrictions.

And see also:

To verify if requirements to wear masks violate the Constitution, 10News discussed the topic with law professor Stewart Harris and Republican state senator Richard Briggs.  Harris teaches constitutional law at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law in Knoxville.  Sen. Briggs (R-Knoxville) is a longtime heart and lung surgeon with expertise in the medical field in addition to his knowledge as a lawmaker.

Harris said the answer is clear-cut when questioned whether a requirement to wear masks is a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights.

“No,” answered Harris.  “It’s just not.  The Supreme Court of the United States, 115 years ago in a case called Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, very clearly stated that the government has something called ‘police power’ which allows it to protect the health and welfare of its people.”

In the 1905 Jacobson case, the Supreme Court ruled Massachusetts was within its rights to require all citizens to get a vaccination for smallpox.

“The United States Supreme Court has said it is reasonable to strap people down and inject them with vaccines in a time of a public health crisis. If that is true, and it is, then it is certainly reasonable and it’s certainly constitutional to mandate that people wear masks in public places,” said Harris.

Not to mention it will be constitutional to mandate the eventual covid-19 vaccine, unless the current SCOTUS overturns Jacobson, which wouldn’t surprise me.

But back to reasoning with righties. In How to Actually Talk to Anti-Maskers at the New York Times, Charlie Warzel quotes people who think the problem is that the messaging about masks has been muddled. But I think this gets closer to the truth:

Other experts suggest that government failures run much deeper than communication problems. “It’s not a lack of trust. It’s a legitimacy crisis,” Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician who teaches classes on structural inequality and health at Stanford,told me. “There’s been an active movement from the far right to render major scientific institutions and practices illegitimate. I’m worried less about messaging and more about a failed government response.”

Dr. Boyd cited the Trump administration’s attempts to cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its ouster of the National Security Council’s top pandemic response official, Mr. Trump’s downplaying of Covid-19 and his downright lies about it (most recently on display during a Sunday Fox News interview in which the president said that the United States had “one of the lowest mortality rates in the world” from the virus) and the White House’s muzzling of the C.D.C.

“We have the resources and the scientists and we didn’t support them — we undermined them,” Dr. Boyd said. “And so the cycle perpetuates itself. They’ve been gutted, so their response looks insufficient and ineffective. For those already prone to thinking public health was illegitimate, it’s confirmation bias.”

Other people in the article talk about building trust, which is fine, but we don’t have time.  We needed compliance weeks ago, not some time next year. What would have been great is if all levels of government had come out with a unified message at least four months ago making it clear that state and local mask mandates are necessary, good for everybody, and not violations of constitutional rights. There would still be some resistance but not, I think, quite so much. Instead, some of the most prominent resisters have been mayors, governors, and one particular President who has let it be known that mask wearing is uncool. (For more on the trust building argument, see Julia Marcus, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”)

And may I add that this fight over wearing masks appears to be a problem unique to the United States. See The mask debate is still raging in the US, but much of the world has moved on by Emma Reynolds at CNN.

I propose that there are deeper reasons that right-leaning Americans are predisposed to the Trumpian attitude that masks and other pandemic restrictions are a violation of their rights and an outrageous imposition on their personal liberty. And those reasons have been building up for decades and are not going to go away by showing anti-maskers a little empathy.

Chief among those is the extreme polarization that has hardened into tribalism. If mask-wearing is associated with Democrats and libruhls, then loyal Trump supporters are not going to do it, no matter what. And I know that Trump came out yesterday and asked people to wear masks, but I doubt that will make much of a dent. Feelings on the issue are hardened into stone at this point.

Another issue is that conservatives generally seem less capable of grasping how things inter-relate. Mask wearing is not about keeping the mask-wearer safe, but about keeping everybody safe. If you’re the only one wearing a mask in a crowd of people, the mask probably won’t do you much good. If everyone is wearing a mask, however, it makes a difference. You can explain that to righties all day long, but they won’t grasp it. Notice I say won’t, not can’t. It’s the same with trying to explain herd immunity to anti-vaxxers. The “antis” keep coming back to arguments about personal choice and refuse to see how their personal choices impact other people.

Paul Krugman wrote a column a few days ago titled “Republicans Keep Flunking Microbe Economics.”

Take the insane resistance to wearing masks. Some of this is about insecure masculinity — people refusing to take the simplest, cheapest of precautions because they think it will make them look silly. Some of it is about culture wars: liberals wear masks, so I won’t. But a lot of it is about fetishization of individual choice.

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

Do read the whole column. For  more on cognitive differences between righties and lefties, see ‘The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment’ by Thomas Edsall.

This leaves us with the question of what to do with the anti-maskers. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a federal mask-wearing mandate. And my reading of all the articles about masks and the Constitution say that the feds actually have less authority than states in areas of public health. All I can say is that if you are living in an area with low mask-wearing compliance, as I am, then your own freedom is more severely restricted. Just stay home as much as you can and wash your hands a lot. Try to survie the year.