Masks give a lesson in cultural sympathy.

Some readers may take this as inflammatory while others may take it as conciliatory, but as Rhode Island enters into this odd, uncomfortable moment of different expectations around masks, an opportunity for cultural sympathy emerges.

For context:  I stopped in a mostly empty store to buy a household item after dropping off one of my children at school this morning.  One of the few customers in the store was a young woman who appeared to be very attractive.  I qualify that description because I couldn’t see most of her face, which was covered with a big black mask.  It occurred to me that I was both the only man in the store and that I was the only one not wearing a mask.

At this point, if you have no COVID symptoms and are vaccinated, have already recovered from infection, or are young and healthy, there are only two reasons to wear a mask.  The first is the incredibly small chance that you will unknowingly participate in the continuing spread the coronavirus, whether by giving it to others or receiving it from them.  The second is that doing so will make some not-insignificant number of the people with whom you come into contact more comfortable.

We can generalize, at this moment, that Americans who are more politically liberal will be more likely to favor masking for either reason. People who are more politically conservative, in contrast, will be more likely to hold that it is their right to decide whether to wear masks and that others have the responsibility to address their own concerns, whether of health or of anxiety.

These general leanings flip, however, if we change the subject from COVID masks to modest attire.  One needn’t go too far toward the extreme of the traditionalist scale to find Christians and others who will decry revealing clothes on grounds very similar to the arguments for masking, particularly for women.  The response of feminists and libertines is that we have no right to limit others’ comfort and self-expression just because it makes us uncomfortable or causes sexual feelings that can become harmful.  That, they say, is for the other person to resolve, and fair enough.

Yet, covering cleavage is less of an imposition than covering your nose and mouth and therefore is less of a concession to the feelings of others.  And while the vast majority of people can be expected to encounter bare skin without much loss of self-control, there are undoubtedly some vulnerable people who are at higher risk of an adverse psychological and physical response.

Through the screen, I can hear the feminists and libertarians scoff (although for different reasons), but there is enough to this comparison that thoughtful people might find it worth considering as a test for their own approach to either question.  For my part, I come down in nearly the same place on both.  I have a right to make my own decisions and to vary them based on my own understanding of the circumstances, but I will take the vulnerability and feelings of others into account as I do so.


Featured image by Auguste Racinet (Early 19th Century Switzerland, pg 651) from The Costume History.

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