“It’s never about the thing it seems to be about.” That’s what my mom, a psychiatrist and perpetual student of the human psyche, always says when a seemingly trivial idea or object triggers a cascade of conflict.
Another friend describes this as “the thing behind the thing.” In any conflict, you always have to ask, she says, “what is the thing behind the thing?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question in the context of the “mask controversy.” The “anti-maskers,” in particular, seem disproportionately devoted to refusing to do what to many seems like a very simple, minor, and temporary public health measure. Could it be that the same country whose citizenry united to fight Nazi Germany would be fractured to this extent over covering one’s mouth and nose in Costco? Really?
I don’t think so. That’s because it’s not really about the mask.
The fact is that there is good scientific data to support mask wearing to prevent the spread of COVID, and it’s objectively not a big deal. So why do people get indignant over masks to the point of violent confrontation? Is it really about the slippery slope infringement of some imagined civil liberty? Is it really about inhaling carbon dioxide or some fabricated health issue?
These are surface arguments that try to rationalize the irrational, but they don’t withstand scrutiny—scientific or psychological.
What we are witnessing is an intentional, top-down assault on the American psyche, and the mask is simply a transient object—a canvas, really—on which people can easily and readily protect the rage, helplessness, and hopelessness borne of that assault.
Four years of sadistic, criminal leadership aided and abetted by naked corruption; the open celebration of white supremacy and misogyny; the 24/7 avalanche of disinformation; and a contempt for science have all conspired amid an unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes public health crisis to laser in on a simple piece of cloth.
Americans are isolated and afraid. They are at sea in a storm, rudderless, and seeking a sense of safety, belonging, and control. Many are out of work or struggling to meet their basic needs while those in power who’ve sold them on the American Dream run away with the store. Of course they are on edge and ready to explode at the slightest provocation. The “mask” has become that provocation, that spark in a tinder box ready to ignite viral fist fights or worse.
Because we have no meaningful leadership, we are unable to reconcile the tension between individualism and collectivism highlighted by the mask “debate.” Specifically, where do our rights as an individual end and the social contract begin?
We have no one to guide or unify us on the answer to that question, and so we revert to our basest animal instincts of self-preservation: joining a tribe of like-minded conspiracists, protecting our bodies, defending ourselves against perceived threats, acting out with aggression. Our collective adrenal system has been in perpetual fight-or-flight for at least four years now.
So next time you get into it with someone about masks, understand the futility of reasoned argument. It’s not about the science behind masks or preventing COVID or really anything at all related to masks.
It was never about any of that.
The mask is just the thing. The thing behind the thing—the thing behind the mask—is a lot bigger and more complicated than that, and a lot harder to resolve.