Masks: a shibboleth?

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.


corona- mask 2 Image by Engin Akyurt
Image by Engin Akyurt || CC0

Between a rock and a hard place!

It’s an excruciatingly difficult problem balancing health and livelihood in the midst of a deadly pandemic. I feel that this is true no matter where one gets their news.

I start there.

However, this isn’t the article about whether we should continue staying home or open-up wide. While there are no states that meet the four coronavirus task force criteria required to move to phase one of the ‘Opening-Up America Again’ plan, it looks as though we are going to experiment with opening-up anyway, even though the move is not backed by public health science or the data. Besides, there are plenty of articles on that out there to satisfy your reading appetite.

The basic question I have here is with regard to protecting each other by wearing cloth face masks when in public: Will a shared sense of common decency be able to prevail?

Sounds simple, however, in practice it seems to be rather complicated.

I wish it were as simple as a question of: Will common sense prevail?, and leave it at that. Actually, it is not really all that complicated in that way. A helpful info-graphic from Clay County [Missouri] Public Health Center [CCPHC] that appeals to common sense:


Covid mask Clay County Public Health Center


One would like to think that the simple ‘common sense‘ wisdom of the CCPHC info-graph ought to be sufficient to get everyone on board in wearing masks.

Sadly, it’s not. It quickly becomes complicated along both scientific and political lines.

Scientifically, in New York City they are now finding that a significant percentage of people testing positive for new Covid-19 infections are people who say they have been faithfully locking-down at homee.g., in the “Virtually none” spread-risk category. How are these people getting infected?

Politically, we find the separation line of a very deep polarization fissure in our society. In the U.S.A. the divide is as old as the one vs many argument found in the states rights vs federalist approaches to governance. How is individual freedom and liberty involved here?

Last week the CDC made recommendations regarding wearing masks. A major complication is seen here in President Donald J. Trump’s “leadership” on it (18 secs.):



Leadership bankruptcy 

While I’d argue it’s mostly coincidence, President Trump was fortunate to present it in that “it’s voluntary” way. It cynically recognizes that the nation is, as on most issues, pretty evenly split on whether or not it’s a good idea to wear a mask when in public. Common sense and asymptomatic spread be damned, a significant percentage of Americans see no good reason to wear a mask—I’d say less than half of the people I see when I go out to the grocery store are wearing masks.

Asymptomatic spread is the key to the difficulty of containing Covid-19 and it must be well comprehended (and well taken) in order to see the reasoning behind wearing masks.

Trump knows it’s a big mistake to try to declare this CDC recommendation and administer it by enforcement—his support is partly grounded in a rejection of ‘elites’ telling everyone what to do. The mask initiative is not suited to a top-down mandate. Rather, it must be a movement of human empathy, unity, and care. So, as Trump’s base is generally on the no-mask side of this face-off, he’s washed his hands of making any effort to lead a groundswell of common sense and decency.

I’ll spare you the video of it, however, the president states emphatically on various occasions that he will not be wearing a mask. He has offered a few reasons for his reluctance to do so. First, he said he feels it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to wear a mask while receiving foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Second, he also feels that if he wore a mask it would send the wrong message regarding the economy—never mind that this notion is upside down. Finally, it’s reported that he has told aides that he thinks he would look ridiculous wearing a mask, and that video of him in a mask would make a campaign weapon for his opponent.  —Back on April 5th I offered an Occam’s Razor take on why Trump wouldn’t be wearing a mask (see “The whether to ‘mask’ or ‘not mask’ question?” sub-head).


V.P. Pence had to walk that back after awkward  Mayo Clinic visit

Double standards

Since Covid-19 has made its presence felt in the White House [WH], it’s ironic that new policy now requires anyone working closely proximate to the president to wear a mask. Funny, too, that protecting the president and WH workers and keeping their workplace safe also now requires an intense regimen of testing and tracing. I notice they, thankfully, don’t seem to be having any difficulty getting the testing materials they need, you know, to make it safe to go to work. 

So, I strongly feel that the CCPHC graphic really ought to be sufficient. However, many people seem to have residual effects from the ‘it’s a hoax’ phase of the administration’s (and Fox News’) early Covid-19 messaging. Even worse, the mask issue gets tangled-up in peoples’ notions of ‘liberty‘ and ‘freedom.’

Head-on collision of rights

Not a new topic on the blog (see here), a legacy problem of Enlightenment philosophy is a paradox of rights:  the personal freedom vs equality dilemma. It’s much like the inhaling vs exhaling dilemma of breathing that can never be finally decided one way or the other. While tragic, it is extraordinarily curious that this perennial freedom/equality dilemma has found in Covid-19 a way to face-off on a very prominent stage (the nation) and on a truly existential matter (a life and death pandemic).

One side stands on a dogmatic, narrow understanding of freedom and liberty. This view springs from the bedrock declaration (e.g., misunderstanding, overreach) that freedom means “No one tells me what to do!” Apparently, in these highly charged Covid-19 days, not even an own-sense of decency can put that in check. 

And the other side stands on the right to equality. That is no mean feat, though, because it is a bit of a carom shot. It is tricky, so let’s go through it. The ‘sense’ of why wearing a mask is the right thing to do is best seen through holistic eyeglasses. We need a self-interested/other-interested approach that indicates a shared sense of decency. An approach that says we protect ourselves by protecting each other from asymptomatic spread. I protect myself by protecting you, and you protect yourself by protecting me, and together we all protect each other. It’s very practically holistic, that is, masks and this approach only works well if we all wear masks.


Stillsuit blog illustration



The term ‘shibboleth’ is drawn from an ancient narrative in the Hebrew Testament [Judges 12.1-6]. Thanks to masks, I reckon it will be plain enough where each of us stands on common sense and/or decency regarding the question of how to maintain the safest public environment in the context of Covid-19.

I wonder, “Will a shared sense of common decency be able to prevail?” because I feel “decency” transcends our opinions. While “common sense‘ has been a casualty of our polarized society, for some ‘liberty‘ has issued harmfully overreaching warrants on personal freedom rights.  Regardless of where one gets their news, making a commitment to be decent is a healthy expression of equality rights and loving our neighbor. If you see your being decent and wearing a mask as a sacrifice, well, whenever you wear one, then, well done you! Good on you! I’ll do the same for you.

See: TL;DR on coping with Covid-19

[this post approx. 1,325 words (5 mins)]

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?


Note: I moved away from stadial/stage theory in August of 2021. This piece is not rectified except for this graphic:

corona- mask 2 Image by Engin Akyurt

7 thoughts on “Masks: a shibboleth?

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