Are masks the next front in the coronavirus culture war?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Debates over masks and other face coverings have been at the center of discussion since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. For much of that time, the conversation focused largely on practical matters, like how effective masks are at stemming the spread of the virus and questions about shortages for health care workers.

The debate has shifted in recent weeks. There are no longer questions about whether masks prevent infection. Experts agree that even homemade ones help. The current conversation is more contentious. Those who refuse to wear masks have been accused of ignorance or selfishness while the mandates that they be worn outside or in shops have been painted as violations of civil liberties.

The discontent over masks has been strong enough to force some politicians to change their policies. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who has been praised for his early and aggressive response to the virus, has lifted the state’s order requiring masks be worn inside stores, saying, “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.” The city of Stillwater, Okla., rescinded its mask policy after employees at some stores faced threats of violence.

The disagreements over masks have even turned violent. In Michigan a security guard was killed after reportedly demanding a patron wear a mask.

Why there’s debate

How did the discussion of masks morph from a conversation about their medical merits to a clash over politics and liberty?

One of the most obvious answers is the partisan divide over how best to respond to the pandemic. After facing criticism for his administration’s actions during the onset of the outbreak, President Trump has turned his focus to reopening the country and accused skeptics of his largely unpopular plan of playing politics. Declining to wear a mask could be, for many, a gesture of support for the president and his vision that it’s time to start returning to normal.

Trump may have solidified this view by refusing to wear a mask at recent public appearances despite the administration’s recommendations for U.S. residents.

Wearing a mask can be a symbol of trust in leaders and scientists who set health policies. Refusing to wear one suggests a rejection of that authority. The mishmash of laws from state to state combined with confusing messaging from medical authorities like the World Health Organization may be contributing to doubts about the importance of face coverings.

The intensity of the disagreement may have more emotional roots, some psychiatrists say. In times of difficulty, humans are wired to look for someone to blame for the challenges they face. Mask wearers may see the bare-faced as responsible for exacerbating the health risks of the outbreak. Non-wearers might believe that overzealous restrictions are causing severe economic pain. For these groups, masks can be a symbol of a disagreement that goes much deeper than whether someone has a piece of cloth over their face.


Masks have become more about politics than health

“The wearing of masks is morphing into an unnecessary and unhealthy political test in which your face is the bumper sticker.” — Jim Galloway, Atlanta Journal Constitution

The debate over masks triggers resentment and defensiveness

“The way we do things is right. The way others do things is wrong. Usually the gulf between the two is a matter merely of frustration; now it’s also a matter of fear. And for those of us who are told we’re not being careful enough when we’re convinced we’re being very careful indeed, it’s a matter of resentment tinged with guilt.” — Molly Roberts, Washington Post

Masks are symbolic of big government control to some people

“The decision not to wear a mask has, for some, become a rebellion against what they regard as an incursion on their personal liberties.” — Rick Rojas, New York Times

Trump’s strategy of reopening the country made masks a political statement

“Trump has apparently decided that the way out of the current crisis is to be bold about reopening as quickly as possible in as many places as possible. … So we can expect to see the president out and about around the country, projecting confidence in the nation’s health and resilience. And that is what he is modeling by not wearing a mask.” — Ron Elving, NPR

Masks create an in-group/out-group dynamic that is primed for conflict

“We find that when beliefs become shared by social groups and are part of how we identify that they are very difficult to change, even in the face of scientific evidence. Sharing beliefs is one of the ways we bond with others, and the desire to bond with others is so strong that often it distorts the objective evaluation of information.” — Psychology researcher Jonas Kaplan to NBC News

American individualism conflicts with public health measures

“Making personal sacrifices for the public good has not always been an American priority. We are an individualistic culture, and by nature we may find it more difficult to empathize with others when our own freedom and liberties feel like they are on the line. There is resistance to allowing the government or anyone else step in and require — or even strongly urge — Americans to cover their faces.” — Catherine Pearlman, CNN

America is so polarized, everything becomes a political fight eventually

“These days, everything is a partisan issue. Everything is political, and that includes health regulations.” — Politics professor Jack Pitney to San Francisco Chronicle

Conservative news outlets have stoked conflict over masks

“If Americans simply studied the evidence and behaved accordingly, erring on the side of caution, many lives could be saved –– which makes it frustrating that hugely influential broadcasters who reach millions of Americans are turning masks into yet one more front in the culture war, telling their audiences that elites favor the use of face coverings to take away the freedom of the masses.” — Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic

Poor communication from leaders diluted the health message about masks

“If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.” — Scot Lehigh, Boston Globe

Overreacting to masks is misguided and counterproductive

“If we want authorities to actually allow commerce and freedom of movement again, and to avoid top-down impositions of protective-gear rules, we should be encouraging people to voluntarily adopt mask-wearing. … If protecting civil liberties and constitutional rights is really the aim, it’s time to drop hysterical or pointlessly contrarian objections to wearing a mask. That’s not anti-authoritarian praxis, it’s just being a jerk.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images