It’s one of the most polarized accessories of 2020 and I’m not talking about the lenses on the new pair of shades you’ve been eyeing.
I’m talking about masks. Americans’ mask journey hasn’t been an easy one. A culture woven by individualism that values one’s freedom more than public health cultivated a mask “resistance” among many. The hesitance to wear a mask has lessened lately; based on a recent poll, about 90% of the Americans now wear a mask, a belated but positive behavior.
Not wearing a mask is indefensible at this point. The research is clear that wearing a mask reduces the spread of the novel coronavirus. Understandably, failing to do so invites scorn and recrimination. If it’s not the latest viral video at Costco or CVS, it’s one of our revered celebrities breaking people’s hearts. Thousands of people called Aubrey Huff, a former Major League Baseball player, a social disgrace when he tweeted his vow not to wear a mask inside any business. Mask naysayers are often side-eyed and openly taunted for disrespecting the community, abdicating civic duty, and putting elderly at risk.
Even recently, in the aftermath of the January 6 siege on the United States Capitol, three members of the House of Representatives tested positive for the virus, one of them a 75 year old cancer survivor, and they attribute their contracting it to the fact that other members of the House weren’t wearing masks when they were holed up together, all hiding from rioting marauders. U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) tweeted: “Only hours after Trump incited a deadly assault on our Capitol, many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic—creating a superspreader event ON TOP of a domestic terrorist attack.“
But we have to understand what underlies the refusal to wear masks. It’s robust individualism. Yes, that belief system is selfish and irresponsible at this point. When the pandemic is over, though, we need to understand that the spirit that suffuses anti-mask attitudes is uniquely American and essential, provided it’s used in prosocial ways.
Interestingly, mask wearing isn’t new to individualistic cultures like the United States and, in fact, it was considered a way to stand apart from the rest of the society before this health crisis. Just before the pandemic outbreak in the United States, teenage music phenom Billie Eilish wore a Gucci face mask at last January’s 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, well before the extent of the health crisis was known, to make a fashion statement. Before the pandemic, a simple mask sold for $100 or more from a chic men’s designer; too expensive of a price for a rectangular piece of cloth for the common man to have invested in it in 2019. Over a year ago, in a time we can hardly recall now, designers relied on masks as a way to make a unique statement and tellingly experimented with ideas ranging from veils (precursors to our current face shield) to air-filtering face masks (makes one ask: How could they have known?). Masks were a way to join a logo-driven, flashy society in a novel way.
However, during the pandemic, when masks went mainstream, their value in individualistic cultures changed. Instead of an accessory that conveyed status and a break with norms, masks were suddenly marked by a collective spirit, a turn from “I” to “we” and “us” that developed a conflict. As soon as the accessory became necessary for community benefit, it couldn’t fit fashion goals anymore. Being our brother’s masked keeper clashed with many Americans’ individualistic norms. Now that same ‘spirit of one’ is maligned, mostly because it’s dangerous. But that doesn’t mean its essence is something we want to lose long-term.
A good way to understand this is to compare the United States with Asian countries; that area of the world is mostly community-minded in nature. Masking went down easily there, mostly because they view their protection of others as a part of their social identity. Here, American social identity is forged in ways that abandon the herd. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have expected the same compliance in the United States as we did there; the regions are too culturally different.
The individualistic drive that is so American isn’t something we’re going to be able to live without. In fact, it’s this same need to be unique and different that buoyed parts of the economy. “Fashionable face masks” — a formal commercial category that didn’t exist before in fashion —have served as a silver lining for the industry that was heavily affected by the pandemic. For example, retail platform Etsy mobilized more than 100,000 vendors and helped them sell 24 million face masks in different colors and designs in the third quarter of 2020, generating revenue of $346 million. Cashing on masks that reflect one’s unique personality and taste helped retailers — both big and small — bounce back. By designing statement-face masks that reflect one’s identity, The Gap pulled in $130 million in revenue in face mask sales in the second quarter of 2020 alone. The company bounced back from a speculated bankruptcy because of masks.
Individualism supports rights — a certain kind, of course — creativity, and free expression. The ostensibly selfish United States prides itself on being a leader in world-class scientific innovations. Masks fit into that category. The design house Louis Vuitton, for example, introduced a light sensitive face shield which, besides being photochromatic, further turns into hat if its visor is flipped.
This isn’t to defend those who refuse to protect others by donning a simple protective piece of fabric. Right now, eschewing masks is wrong. But the late famed boxer Muhammad Ali once thought wearing mini-skirts was wrong. Women wearing pants was considered wrong as recently as last year. Transgender people wearing clothing that matches their gender identity is judged by some. Of course, no one contracted a disease or died from a woman’s or man’s wearing — or refusal to wear — pants or a miniskirt. But that obscures an essential point, namely that resistance to new trends helps us refine them — and ultimately helps transformation, progress and a true expression of individual rights.
We may not need to worry about mask compliance as wearing one becomes even more common than it is now; mask wearing is poised to become an ingrained practice. In fact, it may not even be a choice anymore; the Biden administration is expected to impose a mask mandate soon upon taking power, asking fellow Americans to wear masks for 100 days. This probably explains why Grand View Research, a U.S.-based market research and consulting company, predicts that North America will be the fastest growing market for face masks from 2020 to 2027. This would mirror what happened in Asian countries; in those that dealt with the 2002 SARS epidemic and the 2006 bird flu panic, mask-wearing remained a habit. Before the COVID -19 pandemic, Japanese people used 43 masks per year on average; disposable blue and white surgical masks were as common an accessory as sunglasses or headphones — and no one takes a categorical, individual-rights approach to wearing those. Eventually, masks may become so commonplace that no one thinks about them enough to reach any kind of rights analysis.
When masks refuse to recede into history, we can’t let our new, steady practice squelch the individualistic spirit that may have led to some to reject masks initially. That indomitable force within each of us —one that may appear selfish on occasion — is what makes the United States the leader it is. Let’s marshal the good parts of that into further innovation.
Shipra Gupta is an Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Illinois-Springfield and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.