My first impulse in the beginning of pandemic life was that mask-wearing was silly, that if you are compelled to wear a mask, you think of yourself as sick, so you should stay home. I have a niece in Vietnam who wrote about her experience there and that mask-wearing was an important part of their pandemic control strategy. I told her of my resistance to mask-wearing. Not long after that, we learned that you could be a carrier and not have any signs of sickness. That was enough to make me wear a mask, and I texted my niece — You were right! It seemed so simple to me, but yet …
I have a friend, a gentle soul, an artist, who has taken on anti-maskism as his passion project. When he first started to post these ideas on Facebook, my impression of him was that he was reasonable, so I engaged by sharing my perspective. I soon found out he is committed to his position. It seems to be uniquely American, our value for individual freedom playing out for all the world to see. These fervent anti-maskers insist we are wrong, that the medical establishment is wrong, that we are not following the science.
Conflict — the stuff of drama. Because I am a playwright, I have a tendency to want to understand the innards of people who evoke conflict, to treat them like characters in a play. So, here is a character study of a particular anti-masker. Though this is inspired by real people, this character study “is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons or other real-life entities is purely coincidental.”
- He is an artist but he hasn’t been doing much art in the past few years. It was something he did when he was young. He still has a sense of beauty and works in his garden a lot.
- He sees himself as skeptical. Early in the pandemic, he made the decision to go against the establishment. He hated wearing a mask and so went on a search for the “science” of it. He found he agreed with the anti-mask logic, especially that CO2 gets trapped in the mask, and everyone knows that we need to expel CO2, not keep it in.
- He prides himself as being independent. He does not belong to a party. But the subject of one of his posts was the claim that more deaths were occurring in blue states and so there must be something wrong with the Democratic approach to the pandemic (masks, distancing). He doesn’t really know what guides his thinking but doesn’t like people telling him what to think.
- He is anti-government. Few people have great experiences with government, especially if your main visceral experience is taxes and at the local level, the DMV. And there is a lot to be critical of. But he’s taken it to another level. He thinks the government is deliberately lying, that the government has a hidden agenda.
- He is anti-vaccine. This came up as a side project because it gives credence to his anti-government perspective.The anti-vaxxers also say that the government has a hidden agenda, which is to enrich the CDC, whom they claim are making money from the patents. These claims of corruption give evidence that support an anti-government, anti-mask stance. He wasn’t anti-vaccine before this, but their claims seem to have intensified his distrust of public health directives.
- He is anti-science. Rather, he is anti the scientists and medical experts who represent the mainstream. He uses fringe “experts” to validate his position against masks. When someone told him that a certain doctor was considered a conspiracy theorist, he responded by calling him a “whistleblower” instead. He thinks that the establishment tries to discredit people brave enough to go against the norm. He even supported the “demon sperm” doctor, saying she was being smeared for speaking out against the establishment.
- He is non-confrontational. He is not the type to go out in defiance of orders to wear masks in public places. That is why he is committed to this controversy online. It is like an outlet for him to be this anti-government, anti-corruption, anti-establishment advocate. He handles criticism well on his own Facebook page. maintaining his gentle persona.
- He identifies with this “tribe” of anti-maskers. Several articles have been written about why people oppose masks. This one suggests it has something to do with identity, having an affinity with people who think like you. In this time of uncertainty, it makes him feel like he belongs to something. He feels like a champion of the oppressed and silenced, i.e. the ones who are speaking out against masks.
- He sees himself as a warrior, fighting the good fight. When he was criticized for not caring about our elderly, our kupuna, he was offended. He said that because masks can kill, he is protecting them by speaking the truth. He believes that unless we have herd immunity, we will never control the virus and mask wearing is preventing us from obtaining this gold standard.
- He is a Trump supporter. He wasn’t before the pandemic. He claims he is independent. But he liked that the President resisted wearing a mask, and was pleased with his executive order “preventing online censorship” after some platforms were taking down posts they claimed were spreading disinformation about the pandemic, particularly the benefits of hydroxychloroquine.
Resolving the Conflict
One way a play can unfold is through a thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern. So my thesis would be that this character starts out as an anti-mask crusader. The antithesis would be as he confronts and deals with different events: friends who unfriend him, a beloved family member who dies from COVID, a grandchild who challenges his thinking. There is dissonance and confusion when confronted. The synthesis would be the resolution of the confusion. I am only listing the following in the order I presented them above, but in a narrative, it will not be this linear.
- Artist. He starts to paint again as a way to deal with depression and his cognitive dissonance. When he starts to paint again, it opens up his spirit.
- Skepticism. Being skeptical was the portal, where he found anti-establishment ideas about mask-wearing. He learns to be skeptical of himself and consider opposing views.
- Independence. He heard Bob Dylan singing “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” He didn’t know what he was serving as an independent, but he knew he didn’t want to choose a side, a party. When the news hits that states such as Texas and Florida are also being hit, and it wasn’t a Democratic thing, he ignores it. And then there was the news that those in power withheld a national approach to testing believing it was only harming blue states. There is cognitive dissonance, but he eventually deals with it. He still continues to be independent, but he learns to articulate his values, which seem more “socialist” than capitalist.
- Government. The corruption in the CARES act gets him even madder at the government. But he is able to sort out that some aspects of government does benefit him, both individually and to his community. He is still mad at the government, but he doesn’t just dismiss it when he gets his social security check.
- Vaccines. The ethics of vaccines are similar to the ethics of mask-wearing. Parents are not just making a choice that can affect their own child, but unless they live in impervious bubbles, they are also putting others at risk, such as babies who are too young to be fully immunized. Similarly, mask-wearing is not about protecting yourself, but about protecting others if by chance you are a carrier. When making his decision about whether or not to take the vaccine, his ability to be altruistic will be considered. He decides to take the vaccine, which will be a pivotal plot point in the narrative.
- Science. Knowledge does grow. It IS possible that what we consider true today may differ tomorrow, based on the evidence, but it requires a lot of proof, as in the Sagan standard described here, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and claims posted on social media are far from extraordinary. After being opened up by art and an event that affects him personally (an elderly relative dying maybe), he is able to ask: Is my evidence against established science quantitatively and qualitatively strong enough? He has to admit it’s not.
- Confrontation. He thinks maybe he should walk his talk and try to defy the authorities and the mask mandate. But when he can’t, he goes back to being an online warrior. In the end, as the story resolves, he does go out in real life, sees one of his anti-masker friends, he puts on a mask in an act of bravery. His friend yells at him for selling out. The response could be: “Real men wear masks.”
- Affiliation. He sees more and more of the ugly videos of anti-maskers: the white supremacist who punched a female staff person at a restaurant; the people throwing tantrums because they are being barred from entering the stores; the pastor in his car ranting about his loss of freedom. This causes dissonance because he doesn’t see himself that way. He doesn’t want to be in that tribe.
- Warrior. He becomes a warrior for the power of changing your mind and the power of altruism.
- Voter. He realizes he does not fit in with the Trump tribe, seeing the disregard they seem to have for human life, especially when they could have had a national plan but decided to scrap it when they thought the pandemic was only affecting the blue states. He votes by MAIL!
I know. I know. This is an improbable happy ending. But this is art, right? It can take us from the dismal cynical reality into the realm of the possible. So in my imagined resolution, I will evolve my character! He was drawn to this “cause” because of a need to defy authority, to resist the establishment. This gives his life meaning. He changes, as light creeps in, little by little. At first, there is cognitive dissonance when he gets exposed to more and more bits that contradict his stance. This causes frustration, confusion and depression. He uses art to bring him out of this depression. In this process, he is able to sort out the contradictions. He realizes his need for affiliation, but does not identify with other anti-maskers. He chooses to affiliate as a protector of his family. He becomes a hero by sharing the ability to change one’s mind.