Sunday, May 17, 2020


A few days ago, Dalia Lithwick wrote an article for Slate, which the publication titled: "Refusing to Wear a Mask Is a Uniquely American Pathology." It was subtitled: "The obsession with individualism and the misinterpretation of constitutional freedom collide into a germy mess." It was, of course, designed to be eye-catching. Slate is, for the most part, a free commentary site, which means that most of its operating revenue comes from advertisers. And that means driving clicks.

When I went for a walk late this morning, something stood out for me. While people were somewhat touchy about perceived violations of social distancing or other items related to the current COVID-19 outbreak, things like right-of-way and other trail-use guidelines were, for the most part, completely ignored.

Given this, I expect that when people don't wear masks (or other face coverings, given how difficult formal masks can be to obtain) that it's less about some "obsession with individualism" or a misinterpretation of the constitution, and more about a simple lack of fear. Riding a bicycle on a narrow sidewalk when it's been clearly posted that cyclists should dismount simply doesn't carry the same perceived level of consequences as walking, or breathing, too close to someone, even though it's entirely possible to kill someone by striking them at speed. Knocking someone down on concrete is nothing to be taken lightly. But dismounting a bicycle, walking it fifty yards, and then mounting up again is an in convenience that many people would rather not deal with, and they don't see the harm.

And perhaps this is part of the reason why there seems to be so much fear-mongering in the modern United States. Not specifically related to the current coronavirus, but in general. Fear of consequences drives compliance, and people tend to be poor at understanding the general level of risk of any given action. So it becomes about scaring people.

And we can relate this back to people not wanting to wear masks. Given that the CDC says that even a t-shirt can supply the materials to make a serviceable covering, it can be understood that people may detect a whiff of the theatrical in all of this. After all, many t-shirts are made of very thin materials, and not very densely woven. Sure, it's not meant to be up to the standards of a surgical mask, but that may be why people find it odd. After all, surgical masks aren't respirators and "They are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or virus particles," according to CVS. So why should a makeshift face covering made from a shirt do any better? So, if someone's not particularly afraid of becoming sick, and most face coverings aren't designed to prevent illness in the first place, why bother with it?

There is a degree to which one might legitimately see wearing a face covering as being more of a concession to public piety than public health. And I'm not sure there any real pathology in not following the crowd.

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