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Editorial: Why are masks political?

It’s not a Republican vs. Democrat thing, as you may think. There are countless prominent Republicans who advocate mask-wearing, including the current vice president, a former vice president and the Senate majority leader. More Republicans are coming out in support of masks every day.

Polls indicate that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear masks, but that disparity is largely irrelevant once other demographic factors – such as urban vs. rural living – are factored in. People in big cities are more likely to wear masks, people who know someone who has or has had COVID-19 are more likely to wear masks. Those numbers are consistent across parties. 

So, masks are not a Republican vs. Democrat thing. They are a Trump thing. President Trump is not an advocate of masks (though he did say recently that he thinks masks “are good” and that he is “all for them”). He still is not wearing a mask in public. This has led some of the president’s more fervent supporters to boisterously condemn mask-wearing.

We believe that this is the real problem: people who wear masks do so quietly; people who do not wear masks have a tendency to get awfully loud about it, and the internet acts as a further amplifier for their fervency. For as much good as the internet has brought into our lives, it has also served as amazing fertilizer for things that would have previously been considered extreme positions.

Science is a problem, as well (which is a decidedly odd sentence to type). Our public health officials really screwed up their messaging in the early days of the outbreak and have only recently gotten on the same page. While there is now wide consensus among mainstream science and medical communities that masks are helpful in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, it is still quite easy to find data to refute that position. Need 10 PhD’s to support your idea that masks are more harmful than helpful? Just Google it. Make sure you Google “confirmation bias” while you are at it, though.

We live in an age where very complicated data is extraordinarily easy to find, but trusted experts are nearly extinct. Context is difficult to come by. Consensus is a myth. We have been arguing about the science behind global warming for 30 years, accomplishing little, persuading few. With COVID-19, we don’t have that kind of time. 

We live in an age where we get our news from anywhere but news sources. Traditional journalists dropped the ball and are now branded as fake news, so the public has turned to pundits, commentators and late-night talk show hosts for so-called news. We are aware that we are getting biased opinion but rationalize it because the talking heads never claimed to be fair in the first place. 

We also live in an age where our civil liberties feel constantly threatened, under siege. Something as fundamental as privacy is now a quaint idea from the distant past. The result is that people are highly sensitive to any threat – even one as seemingly benign as being told to wear a mask the same way we are told to wear pants. No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service is suddenly a constitutional issue.

Why are masks political? Because everything is political, because nothing is known or believed or trusted. We are swimming in the great unknown, drowning in cascading waves of decontextualized data points. How do we return safely to shore? We learn to trust again. 

That answer sounds too simple, but it is the right answer. So is this one: wear a mask. Common sense says that it will help. Will it help a little or help a lot? Don’t know, but let’s take a little step together. Let’s agree that even if we are wrong, we are going to be wrong for the right reasons. Too simple? Maybe, but simple sounds pretty good right now.

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