One of the downsides of political polarization — and there are many — is that virtually every issue becomes politically polarized. For example, many Americans refuse to wear masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. President Trump opposes masks, to the point of mocking other people who wear them. Therefore, all the mask deniers among us must, by definition, be Donald Trump supporters.
The problem is, this makes it almost impossible to change anyone’s mind. By now, hardly any American is neutral about Trump — you either love him or despise him — so invoking him in a discussion about masks immediately slams the door to dialogue. Rather than reason with the mask deniers, the other side’s tendency is simply to point fingers and “shame” them. Meanwhile, the “anti-maskers” being shamed simply dig in their heels.
The drumbeat of partisan politics in the 21st century has effectively drowned out all ambiguity. It’s assumed that if someone voted for Donald Trump, they must obviously agree with every one of the president’s statements and positions. Conversely, it’s inconceivable that a Joe Biden supporter might actually agree with Trump on some things. Everyone is assumed to be 100 percent “red” or “blue.”
However, it would be helpful to consider why a person might decline to wear a mask even if Trump was taken out of the equation.
- Youthful hubris. Young people do all sorts of things that are reckless, dangerous, or unhealthy. They drive too fast, drink too much, have sex without protection, risk breaking their bones in skateboard falls, and volunteer to serve in Afghanistan, in part because they are convinced nothing bad is ever going to happen to them. So why should they wear a mask if they aren’t going to get sick, anyway?
- Macho posturing. I defy the coronavirus, therefore I am manly.
- COVID-19 is a hoax — lots of people really aren’t dying from it. This is where politics does come into play, along with the Internet source or TV news network one follows.
- Confusing information. With medical people, sharing what they know about a particular illness is often a process rather than an immediate destination. What they say can frequently change as more knowledge is acquired. Most people don’t think like that, so they are likely to fixate on a particular aspect of medical information, especially if it makes them feel better (“Lots of people smoke their whole lives and never get lung cancer”). Early in the pandemic, we were told that young people probably wouldn’t experience any more than cold or mild flu symptoms from a brief dance with COVID-19. Coupled with the “bulletproof” mentality of the young, this caused many to say: “Oh, good. I guess it’s not my problem, then.”
- The medical establishment that cried wolf. There have been other diseases or viruses that were supposed to be unstoppable (remember the bird flu? The Ebola virus?), only to wind up affecting only a few in this country. Even AIDS never really lived up to its dire predictions.
- A lack of firsthand experience. The most compelling argument in favor of young people wearing masks is that they should do so to avoid infecting others who may be in a higher risk category. But what if none of your older relatives — or any older person you know, for that matter — has been stricken? Or maybe a member of your peer group has gotten infected, only to walk away laughing at how mild his or case turned out to be? While we may consider the information we receive from others, what we experience (or don’t) often trumps it.
- Good old American independence. It’s in our genes to mistrust government — after all, most of our ancestors came here because they didn’t like the government where they were. And Trump aside, a lot of the voices urging universal mask-wearing come from some species of government official, like Dr. Fauci or the CDC.
- Knee jerks. Humans tend to become comfortable with a specific routine, and we don’t want to change it.
- Masks make us look silly.
One of my favorite cartoons shows a teenager, adorned with piercings and a Mohawk, walking toward the front door as his father sits in an easy chair reading the newspaper.
“Have a good time, son,” the father says.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” snarls the teenager.
The resistance to masks (and change) reminds me of the early reluctance to accept automobile seat belts. I wasn’t an actual opponent of these devices, but I put off having one installed because it seemed unnecessary. Then, as a newspaper reporter, I covered a talk by a young man who had been paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident. He sat in his wheelchair in front of a high school audience and demonstrated what he had to do simply to write his name or brush his teeth. His accident happened, he explained, when his car hit a patch of ice and slammed into a utility pole. Because he had no seat belt, the impact threw him violently under the dashboard.
I looked at the kids in the audience and saw that the speaker had the full attention of most. As for me, I walked out as a seat belt believer.
This, I believe, is the key to stating the case for masks to a mask denier. Make it about yourself, not them. Say, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but here’s why I wear one …”
So maybe this is all overblown. But what if it isn’t? When the conversation arises, I usually say: “I’d rather wear a mask and have it turn out to be unnecessary than not wear one and have it turn out to be fatal.”
Or, “I don’t like these masks, either. I probably wouldn’t wear one except that I often visit my grandmother.”
Wouldn’t it be better to inconvenience ourselves a bit to usher COVID-19 out the door and go back to doing what we were doing before? When you think about it, this is not a plot to inflict permanent change on us, but merely a possible path back to normalcy.
As for politics, don’t go there.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."