To Mask or Not to Mask

To mask or not to mask

The CDC has called for Americans to wear masks.  But some people still don’t get it.  Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when he visited a mask factory this week.  “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. 

Mask-wearing is an ethical no-brainer.  If masks help us avoid further outbreaks and quarantines, we ought to wear them.  Masks also show respect for vulnerable service workers like clerks and cashiers who must daily confront the wheezing masses.  And by slowing the contagion we support nurses and doctors overwhelmed by the sick and dying. 

A mask is a symbol of solidarity and compassion.  It says to other people that you care enough about them to try to prevent them from getting sick.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “You know how you show love?  By wearing a mask.” 

But masks have become a polarizing symbol.  According to a recent poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear them.  Those with more education are more likely to wear masks.  Black Americans are more likely to wear them than whites.

Skeptics and libertarians have warned that masks are a sign of government overreach and even tyranny.  Officials in Oklahoma and Ohio backed away from mandatory masking after public outcry.  In Flint, Michigan, a security guard was murdered for trying to enforce a mask requirement.

One Ohio lawmaker, Nino Vitale, went so far as to declare that his Christian faith prohibits him from wearing a mask.  He said that God made us in His image and that to cover the face is to obscure the visage of God.

Some backlash is understandable.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  But most don’t bristle at similar regulations such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”  When the national anthem plays, people take their hats off.  Kids can’t wear racist, gang, or drug-oriented clothes to school. 

And of course, public nudity is prohibited.  Although even this is contentious.  Men go topless.  But women may not.  Some women have protested against this double-standard

Perhaps the libertarian backlash against masks should extend to a refusal to wear clothes.  One could even imagine a religious point similar to Representative Vitale’s.  The entire human body is made in the image of God.  Perhaps we should show it all off.

The deep question is what counts as the authentic face or body.  People shave, cut their hair, and get their nails done.  Which version of your body is the one created in the image of God?

The issue of masking uncovers questions about bodies, identities, and cultural norms.  Not too long ago, people freaked out about Muslim women’s veils and headscarves.  And masks have been banned in the past, when associated with criminal activity.

The mask controversy exposes the social construction of reality.  Veiled women, bandits, and surgeons all cover their faces.  But the meaning of the mask depends upon cultural norms and the purpose we have for masking.

It is not easy to draw clear lines here since life involves a whole bunch of masking. We routinely put on masks in order to create or alter our identities.  Some, like the President, do it with make-up, a fancy hair-do, and a business suit.  Others get plastic surgery.  Professionals put on their “game face” at work, along with a uniform.  We change our demeanor when we hang out with friends, go to church, or go to a funeral.  Life is a complex masquerade. 

Existentialist philosophers have often wondered about the reality behind the masks.  Does the person remain the same behind the masks and under all of that make-up?  Or are we simply the masks we wear and the roles we inhabit?

This brings us back to the current issue.  In a pandemic, to wear a mask (or not) is to make a statement about who you are.  Whether you wear a mask or go bald-faced you reveal what you value and what you believe. 

Some apparently prefer to live and let die.  They walk barefaced and proud among the masked masses, believing that liberty trumps public safety.  But others emphasize solidarity with those who suffer.  They compassionately conceal their faces, so that others may live.

Are we really all in this together?

In this together

Fresno Bee, May 3, 2020

Hopeful signs have popped up saying things like, “we are all in this together, even though we are six feet apart.” That’s sweet. But is it true?

In many ways, we are not all in this together. Rich people ride out the COVID-19 storm in second homes and on private yachts. Affluent professionals work safely on speedy internet connections. But working-class folks, store clerks and bus drivers, must serve people who refuse to wear masks. Unemployment is growing while fat cats play the stock market.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed preexisting divisions. Some believe doctors and scientists. Others do not. Some think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Others blame the president.

The crisis has disclosed disparities in health care, economics, education and outlook. Black Americans are more likely to die of the disease. Poor communities lack the infrastructure to support online learning. And some Americans, like those who are married to undocumented immigrants, will not receive federal stimulus checks.

The president has encouraged protesters to “liberate” themselves from state governments. This week he asked why American taxpayers should bail out “poorly run states and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed.”

The answer ought to be that we are all in this together. But this doesn’t ring true anymore.

Perhaps it is time for Red and Blue Americans to seek a divorce. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said California is a kind of “nation state.” The folks calling for a “Cal-exit” have said that the COVID-19 crisis could help push California toward secession.

A new book by F.H. Buckley, called “American Secession,” argues that America may be too big for its own good. Buckley is a law school professor and Trump supporter. He says that smaller countries are happier and less corrupt. He suggests that now may be the time to downsize.

Of course, downsizing won’t stop the virus. A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response. The idea of “California alone” is as asinine as the idea of “America first.”

And if California succeeded in seceding, how would we prevent further downsizing? California is as divided as our nation. The citizens of Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco might be glad to get rid of the denizens of Devin Nunes’ Central Valley – and vice versa.

The big question, of course, is what counts as the real California. And for that matter, who counts as a real American? Who gets to tell the others to take a hike? Who ought to be liberated from whom?

The Trumpists want to be free of the mainstream news media and others they see as enemies of the people. Those “enemies” dream of a world without Trump. Whose country is this anyway?

The fact that we need to ask this question shows that our Union is dying. Marriages, friendships and nations only exist so long as people believe in them. As with most of social life, our beliefs create reality. Trust is the basic glue of social relationships. Once “we, the people” stop believing in those relationships, they dissolve.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was right about the nature of the Union. It won’t last if we don’t believe in it.

Lincoln led a war to restore the Union. That’s not what we need. Nor do we need to hear anymore from incompetent, corrupt and divisive leaders. A Union, if we want it, is up to us. Community is a bottom-up affair. This is how friendships, marriages and businesses work. Even if the economy is officially re-opened, it won’t revive until people believe it is safe to leave home.

Market forces, culture, religion and science operate independently. No government official ordered Americans to hoard toilet paper. That happened by itself, through the choices of individuals. If we are going to find a way to rebuild our broken Union, that’s how it will have to happen, one roll at a time, in the minds and choices of individuals.

Which brings me back to those sweet signs that have appeared as spontaneous love-letters to the world. If we believe that we are all in this together, then we will be. But once we stop believing, we will stand alone, even though we are only six feet apart.

The Pandemic Dilemma

Pandemic Dilemma

We are witnessing a “pandemic dilemma” similar to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”  A growing number of people want to be “liberated” from stay-at-home orders, including apparently, President Trump.  The desire to end coronavirus restrictions is reasonable.  People need to get back to work and get on with their lives. 

But if we end stay-at-home restrictions too soon, the pandemic will continue and we’ll need more restrictions.  Cooperation is necessary, along with a long-term perspective.  Selfish action in the short term will prevent us from getting what we desire in the long run. 

The Problem of an Early Win

Pandemic restrictions have apparently worked.  The curve is “flattening.”   Although the number of deaths is appalling, this has fallen short of the most-dire predictions.  That’s good news.  But the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders makes it seem that they are not necessary.

It is tempting to declare a win too early.  The permanent solution involves vaccines and effective treatments.  The stay-at-home strategy only slows the spread of the disease.  If everyone stays home, the threat decreases.  It will then seem that there is no need to stay home.  But to re-open things too soon will increase the pandemic risk.  That would make it necessary to extend stay-at-home orders. 

Short-term thinking will lead to long-term problems.    

Cheating can be Contagious

As the threat dissipates, there will be more cheaters and resisters.  The irony of this is that cheating and resisting may prolong the pandemic. 

The longer this goes on, the more likely a further negative spiral.  As patience wears thin more people will be tempted to cheat and protest.  But a resurgent pandemic would lead to an extended need to stay at home.

 As frustration increases, cooperation decreases.  If you are staying at home, you will view defectors with resentment—but also maybe a bit of envy.  Resentment causes distrust and polarization.  The resisters view those staying at home as mindless sheep.  The stay-at-homers view the resisters as ignorant fools.  Cooperation becomes difficult. 

The Problem of Polarization

Polarization in the United States was already a problem.  This crisis has amplified it.  Some trust science.  Others do not.  Some think the president’s incompetence has made the crisis worse.  Others think that this is a “deep state” campaign to bring Trump down.

Our divisions will likely intensify as the economic and political consequences of the pandemic unfolds.  When distrusts grow, there is a tendency to focus on short-term self-interest, while blaming others.  This makes cooperative action more unlikely, which causes a further negative cycle.   

Hopelessness exacerbates distrust and makes it difficult to focus on long-term cooperation.  These negative feedback loops make long-term success seem farther away.  At some point, people begin to shrug and say “what the hell, might as well join the cheaters.”  When the Titanic is sinking and there is no hope for rescue, you might as well enjoy the ride (a point I’ve made in more detail elsewhere). 

If that happens, we really are sunk.

The Solution

Philosophers have long pondered the problem of cooperation.  One source is Hegel.  I won’t bore you with the details.  But in Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” when rival parties struggle for recognition, they end up failing to get what they want. 

The solution is a more robust sense of community.  This is similar to the solution of the classic prisoner’s dilemma, where two people struggle to choose wisely when they lack information and trust.  The solution is solidarity and trust, along with a shared source of information. 

Hope is also essential.  We need a reason to hope that things will improve when we work together.  The good news is that there is a reason for hope: cooperative action has slowed the pandemic.

Community, truth, and hope are cherished goods of human life.  Without them, we are thrown back into a chaotic world, where narrowly focused self-interest prevents us from cooperating and actually getting what we want.  Philosophers have made it clear what the solution is.  But building community is up to us. We, the people, must choose to cooperate, seek truth, and find reasons to hope that in the long run solidarity pays off. 

Is it ethical to laugh at a train wreck? What can ‘Tiger King’ teach us about the tiger within?

Fresno Bee, April 19, 2020

It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.

Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”

But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.

Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.

But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”

But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.

It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.

But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.

The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.

Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.

Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”

Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.

There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.

When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.

Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.

Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.

Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.