Masks and Violence
Have we stopped seeing each other as human?
I walked into an ER room to see a sick child the other day. As I did, her little mask was hanging down past her mouth while she played with a tablet. She frantically looped it back over her ears, having learned to be compliant and likely afraid of being caught without it.
To be honest, our COVID numbers have been close to zero. I couldn’t have cared less that she was wasn’t masked. (Lately I’ve been talking to low-risk patients without one myself. I’ve been triple vaccinated and it seems to be a great relief to senior citizens who have poor hearing and often can’t afford hearing aids. They cope by reading lips. I also think it’s reassuring for already fearful infants and children to see a human face.)
The interaction I had made me think about the effects of masks. By way of disclaimer, I’m not going to try to convince anyone either way about masks and COVID. The battle lines are drawn and I doubt that any anti-mask person will love them, nor will any pro-mask person cease and desist.
There have been concerns that children may struggled to learn due to masks. That makes sense. Humans have highly developed facial expressions and we use those all the time to communicate in both obvious and subtle ways.
Children, especially small children who are still learning language and social skills, have likely been impeded by mask use. It may take a few years to confirm this, but I suspect that part of the educational ‘injury’ of lockdowns had to do with masks. Learning from teachers involves information and communication; communication involves facial expressions. This is equally important in adolescence, but for different reasons as teens are trying to navigate very complicated social rituals and interactions.
But I wonder about something else. I wonder if masks have helped to make us more violent. I write this as America grieves for two more mass killings, one in a grocery store in New York and another in a church in California.
There has been an uptick in violence across the country. Much of it gang-related, some clearly racially motivated, some political, others seem random. The list goes on and we tend to apply whatever causation fits our own political and cultural paradigm at the moment.
However, I can’t help thinking about the fact that we spent two years not only hiding, but accusing one another of making things worse. The news media did not try to smother the fire, but regularly tossed fuel onto it, and social media tossed in a side of gasoline all day, every day.
And we didn’t only spend the time accusing, we spent much of the pandemic lock-down being compelled to cover our faces (or being asked to leave a location because we weren’t covered). We were divided not only by masks but by vaccination status, or by political affiliations, with divisions becoming sharper all the time.
I’m not trying to say explicitly that masks cause violence. I am saying that they might make violence easier. When we don’t see faces, when even news reporters or sometimes performers are wearing masks, when we see people on Zoom calls wearing masks (for what reason I can’t imagine), maybe it’s just too easy to stop seeing others as human beings at all.
It makes me fear for the future given that so many children may have missed formative years of brain development in which they learned to recognize fear, loneliness, sorrow or even joy and friendship in the faces of strangers.
We all know what happens in times of war. We label the enemy. We “other” them. We make them less human and more animal. We create nicknames that make it easier to hate them and kill them. There’s a certain dark logic to this, but it still diminishes us all.
Now, in a time of economic turmoil, international crises and cultural and political battles, masks may have just come at exactly the wrong time.
When we should be recognizing that the people we disagree with have faces like our own, and emotions like our own, we may have simply learned that they don’t have faces at all.
And that just can’t end well.