Why is it so controversial to wear a mask?

As the person whose job it is to moderate Alliance for a Better Utah’s social media accounts, I spend an uncomfortable amount of time reading through social media posts and comments. And when it comes to comments about the pandemic and how we as a society survive and heal, it’s become clear that, while most people are miserable during the quarantine, some folks are truly better prepared than others to meet the demands of the moment.

In a twist of irony, so-called “rugged individualists”—advocates of a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control, and people who generally pride themselves on preparedness—seem ill-equipped to handle the pandemic. These folks are gathering for in-person protests and posting online about their refusal to wear masks, the stated reasons being concerns about the economy—something all of us can all agree is a huge problem—and a general dislike for being told what to do. 

But it seems to me that these actions are fueled more by an allegiance to the cornerstone principles of a toxic version of individualism—contrarianism, elevation of the preferences of individuals above the needs of the community, and a worrying distrust of experts/media—than anything else. (It’s important to note that not all individualism is like this, nor is it all toxic. Here, I’m referring to a specific subset of extreme individualism).

Unfortunately, if we are to overcome the threat from this pandemic anytime soon, we will need to take the exact opposite approach: cooperate within our communities, listen to the experts, and implement expert recommendations, like wearing masks, on a mass scale. 

Recently, we called out the ill-advised decision of Mayor Katie Witt in Kaysville to host a concert because it would likely put her community’s health at risk. In response, we were bombarded by a small (but vocal) group of adherents to toxic-individualism who want society to reopen sooner rather than later, pandemic be damned. And in sorting through those responses, I read the words “live and let live” so many times, they were starting to lose all meaning. The intent behind the words was, “you do what you need to do to keep yourself happy and healthy, and I’ll do what I want, and there should be no judgment or interference in my choices,”—an individualist mantra.

Mayor Katie Witt

The thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree. Yes, we all must “live” by doing what we have to in order to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy. But when it comes to “let live,” the disgruntled respondents seemed to have a deep misunderstanding about what will help all of us “let live.”

Because of the prevalence of asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, not adhering to the recommendations of health experts makes it much more difficult to help our neighbors stay healthy and “let live.” Furthermore, as my colleague, Lauren, pointed out recently—our own health is intrinsically tied to the health of our neighbors and community members; it is harder to keep ourselves healthy when our neighbors are sick. More than ever, we must take measures to wear masks and practice social distancing not just to keep our neighbors safe and let them live, but also because by doing so we keep ourselves safe, and as more individuals remain safe, society as a whole becomes more safe. This is the kind of large-scale cooperation that individualists dislike so much, but by not participating they stand to hurt themselves as well as others around them. 

Listening to epidemiologists and following the guidance of public health experts during a pandemic—like the majority of Utahns and Americans are already doing—is both smart and selfless. Just like when a doctor diagnoses an illness in an individual, even if we don’t like the diagnosis and even if the treatment is inconvenient, most would choose to listen and do their best to follow treatment. In this pandemic, the doctors are giving all of us a treatment regimen to follow, but it only works if a critical mass of us adhere to it. 

As we begin to look at the possibility of a second wave of the virus this fall, my deepest wish is that the politicization of the pandemic will dissipate. But beyond that, I hope extremist individualists will come to see the value in collective action, and I hope they will join the rest of us as we show our love for our neighbors—live and let live—by doing simple things like wearing a mask.

Katie is the communications director for Better Utah.   

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