There’s a lot going on in the world today — far too much to take in. Nevertheless, we might take the time to wonder about the mindset of a middle-aged Florida man who assaulted a number of Walmart employees as he tried to enter the store without a mask on. He’s not even deterred when he falls on his face; he is dead-set on shopping, and doing so mask-free, no matter what.
It occurs to any rational viewer that simply wearing a mask to gain admittance to Walmart is a hell of a lot easier than squaring up against their entire staff. Masking is also a relative breeze compared to printing and laminating a fake but supposedly government-issued exemption card, as members of an anti-mask Facebook group called “Freedom to Breathe” have done. One has to conclude, then, that the objection to masks has little to do with inconvenience — it’s that some people, especially men, would rather get in fights with strangers than slightly modify their routine behavior.
It’s a stubbornness that swerves around the problem at hand, like when male skeptics of #MeToo complained that they could no longer flirt with or compliment women. If something requires these guys to rethink their responsibilities in the world, they’re not having it.
There’s no shortage of explanations for this. Back in March, biopsychologist Nigel Barker noted that men are both more prone to risk-taking and less disposed to think themselves vulnerable to COVID-19 (even though they face higher mortality rates from infection). “Wearing a mask expresses vulnerability,” he wrote, and is therefore “perceived as unmanly.” In The Atlantic this month, Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus warned that shaming and scolding outspoken never-maskers like former MLB player Aubrey Huff is counterproductive, since it feeds their personal narrative of righteous rebellion; moreover, these guys know that the mask primarily prevents others from getting sick, they just don’t care. In their worldview, the most vulnerable segments of the population should seal themselves off while the rest of us get back to normal.
This contrarian thinking is seductive precisely because it absolves you of a responsibility you don’t want to shoulder. And you don’t have to be a hard right-winger to lapse into indifference. For one thing, it’s easy to look around at everyone forgoing masks, even congregating in social groups in enclosed spaces, and say, “Well, why should I obey an irritating code of health etiquette that no one else does?”
On the flip side, mask advocates can be unhelpful ambassadors for the cause, seeming to imbue these barriers with talismanic power. I always wear a mask while shopping or doing errands, and whenever I am in close proximity with others (at a protest, for example). But days ago, as I stood outside to smoke, a passing woman berated me from clear across the street — a span of some 30 feet — to put a mask on. I felt a flare of anger at being identified as part of the problem when I was keeping extensive social distance, then frustration at this stranger for thinking I could somehow infect her when we were so far apart, outdoors, having nothing resembling contact except for her smug directive.
Then I realized that the never-maskers must think all mask recommendations to be this condescending, and therefore, an illegitimate kind of authority. By this logic, you cannot submit, or you’re a pushover. To put it more crudely: Wearing a mask makes you a pussy. It’s gay.
It’s not immediately obvious how to combat this gendered bias against masks, any more than we have an easy solution to the heteronormativity that forces boys to play with toy trucks instead of dolls, or take up baseball rather than ballet. Once men reject an individual choice as effeminate or cowardly, it takes a massive cultural shift, and lots of prominent dudes leading by example, to correct the knee-jerk stereotype.
Not to mention, the one fellow who could do the most to promote mask-wearing among men — our president — is pushing them in the opposite direction. MAGA nation is able to rationalize, justify and emulate whatever he does, but, alas, he continues to mock face coverings, and has managed to alienate members of his own party by doing so. His supporters take this as instruction: They, too, regard the mask as an empty, ineffective symbol.
We shouldn’t count on the rising tide of coronavirus cases to make a difference, either. The proudly unmasked who catch it are given to saying that a mask wouldn’t have protected them anyway, reiterating the point that this policy is meant to save lives besides our own. Evidently, that visible sign of public concern is the dealbreaker. How un-American, to be seen caring what happens to anyone besides yourself! It’s better, some men conclude, to embrace the worst for all. That, at least, they can pretend is bravery — the courage to invite death into our midst.