It used to be that people shunned the use of a mask. Outside of Halloween or playing pranks on our friends, a mask was nothing to be proud of. Sure, we might praise the masked surgeon, fighter pilot, or hero running into danger to save others, but it is in the taking-off of the masks that we find cause for joy and celebration. For it is in the removal of the mask that we see their humanity, we see they are one of us. The fact that there remains a kinship between us and them offer us the promise and hope of potential glory.
Those who kept their masks on were thieves and criminals. A mask was a mark of cowardice or treachery in everyday life. It meant one could act with impunity as they hid behind their mask. They could lie and cheat and steal without being called to task for what they had done. And the very mask they wore removed some of their humanity. It allowed us to see them as monsters and criminals instead of brothers and sisters.
A mask wearer was equivalent to an online troll who lurks in his mother’s basement and launches endless attacks while hiding behind a pseudonym. We despised these people for they were not called to give an accounting for what they had done. They could say whatever they wanted without fear of repercussion. They could spread misinformation, they could slander and gossip and destroy another man’s reputation, and there was nothing that could be done about it. And like the thieves and criminals, we did not concern ourselves with their humanity, with their struggles and dreams and fears, for they were just faceless ideas we needed to tear down.
Today we watch clashes of violence on our TV’s as police forces in full riot gear engage lawless mobs. Whether their cause is just or unjust, whether the police have gone too far or have been limited too much, one thing they all have in common is their masks. In the masking of humanity, it is easier to demonize the other side; easier to see them as less than human, less than our kinsmen. They are the embodiment of an idea and they absorb all our fears and accusations into their faceless forms.
And then, adding to all of this, we have a growing virtue in our country around the wearing of masks in public. I cannot exactly explain it, but it seems as if it is not so much out of a necessity that people wear them or out of fear or out of concern, but there is a joy in it; a love even. The venerable facemask demonstrates our love for neighbors as we move in and out of stores like a mass of faceless forms reducing our contact to the bare minimum. They are becoming fashion accessories equipped with corporate logos and clever decorations to make yours utterly unique.
Now when we look at someone’s face what do we see? All the tells that clue us in to their humanity, to their suffering as well as their joy, are hidden. Instead, we see another brand, another line of separation, another barrier to our life together. Shouldn’t we hate this? Shouldn’t we despise it with every fiber in our being? Even if we had to do it to slow the spread of the virus, shouldn’t we buck against it the entire time longing for the moment we can tear them off and throw them away for good?
Why then do we love them? Why did we so eagerly embrace the mask?