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Opinion: Want people to wear masks? A smarter conversation is needed

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

David Flanagan

Opinions editor

This article is about COVID-19 mask politics. It argues that fostering collectivist spirit is not an effective way to culturally combat the pandemic in an individualist country like the United States of America, and institutions like Willamette should shift their rhetorical strategy to one that praises individual choice and action instead of prattling off warnings and punishments.

Willamette University is a place that, by most standards, supports freedom of expression in the interest of the personal growth and development of its students. However, as seen by the development of strict mask-wearing policies and social distancing guidelines in the wake of COVID-19, the University is willing to lay down the law and force in-person students to wear masks under penalty of banishment from campus. Go to your Willamette student portal, however, and you’ll get a different message: Blitz the Bearcat trying to apply a mask in a variety of rakish ways, and statues scattered around campus donning masks of their own despite no need to breathe. Willamette is torn between encouraging collective action via social pressure and threat of punishment and by pushing the narrative that mask wearing is something everyone in the university community should be choosing to do.

This latter approach is essentially correct but our execution leaves more than a bit to be desired. The process of creating a common enemy and presenting a united front to combat it has drawn individualist cultures like that of the United States together before, and will do so again. Willamette University has a duty to its students, staff and the surrounding Salem area to shift the narrative around social distancing and mask wearing away from threatening individual punishment towards encouraging responsible choice on a personal level. However, the way to do this isn’t by copying the strategies of more collectivist countries, as tempting as that may be due to those countries’ smoother handling of the pandemic.

Every spring semester since 1989, Tokyo International University students have arrived at Willamette as part of their American Studies Program. Mores and means of communication vary so much between Japanese and American culture that resident advisors undergo specific training in order to best help ASP students integrate into social dorm living. Frequently—even before the pandemic—many ASP students could be seen wearing facemasks while traveling or while sick around campus. Japanese culture, speaking broadly, tends to understand the individual as not independent but interdependent, a cultural convention brought about by centuries of urbanized living and galvanized by public health campaigns following the wars and pandemics that shook the nation in the 20th century.

A Japan Times article published July 2020 further elaborates that Japanese culture has long been aware of the benefits of face coverings, starting with religious rites in the 1600s which required the covering of the face with paper or sakaki leaves. Eventually, mask wearing became widespread in industrial and sanitation work, before political programs during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 cemented the practice in mainstream culture. For those who could not afford masks, “newspapers began giving instructions on how to make them at home, much like the online mask-making tutorials that flourished during Japan’s latest mask shortage.” From then on, mask wearing trickled into mainstream culture, to the point where some Japanese beauty pageants judge contestants on how they look while masked, and people walking on the street who believe themselves to be sick may wear a mask and not receive a second glance.

Willamette University boasts a nudist campus. That is to say, by submitting forewarning 24 hours in advance of their nudity to Campus Safety, any Willamette student may legally galavant about the campus with nothing but their birthday suit and a backpack. The staff can’t tell you how to dress, how to study, or how to learn. Freedom and personal expression are of the utmost value to American culture, and are often preserved in a legislative capacity in a variety of amusing ways.

American culture has remained fixated on the idea that the lone individual can bring about instrumental change by defying societal expectations. This “maverick” trope has existed since our early colonial days where our heroes (think Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party) were explicitly anti-authority, and has contributed to a cultural ideal that a tremendous weight rests upon each individual’s shoulders to take care of themselves first and foremost. This is not some antiquated fixation, but a living and incredible part of American culture; it just doesn’t help us right now in a health crisis. Nor, to be fair, has this attitude been especially helpful in the past: reports that efforts made by lawmakers nationwide to combat the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 were often complicated both by lack of enforcement of mask ordinances and the circulation of pictures of lawmakers in public areas refusing to don the coverings as well. The same American spirit that encourages defiance and standing up to corruption has an unfortunate tendency to foster contrarian action at times when it’s not beneficial to the public interest.

American propaganda posters during the first and second world war often exploited imagery invoking American exceptionalism and individuality while using slogans that promoted collective effort. Perhaps the most famous image—that of “Rosie the Riveter”—explicitly draws attention to individual strength and connects it with a communal message (“We can do it.”) Other slogans share this same spirit, such as comparing factory workers to soldiers due to their common goal (“Together we can do it!”) and emphasizing individual choices as instrumental to the war effort (“Loose lips sink ships.”) The aim is not to minimize the role of the individual, but to entice them into acting a certain way by connecting generally positive characteristics with actions that can’t otherwise be enforced. This as opposed to the current response: performative threats. Framing the directive to wear masks and socially distance as an individual choice that contributes to a cohesive whole will tap in to the justified pride of the American people and reorient the conversation away from what one must do to what a patriotic American should do. This is not meant to suggest that this public campaign should take cues from other “wars” the United States has taken part in as of late, like the War on Drugs or War on Terror. Rather, we should co-opt the rhetoric of unity and free will to reframe the current inflammatory discussion about mask-wearing and social distancing.

All that is in the past. So what is to be done to encourage mask wearing on the small scale, and bolster faith that collective measures can and should be taken in the interest of public welfare on the large scale? Clearly, the same measures that have worked in more collectivist countries have failed to work in the United States due to cultural differences. While the concept of rapid culture shift can be enticing, especially for political radicals, it’s not clear that pushing for it would be a productive use of governmental resources, especially during an already tumultuous political epoch like our own. If practices that rely on collectivist understandings of public health aren’t universally enforceable in this country, what are we to do?

We as a country must use what we already have in spades: our already blatant individualism. We must treat COVID-19 not as an inconvenience to day-to-day life, but as what it is: a common enemy that can be beaten by unity and strength. Elected leaders, national health officials, news anchors and other visible public figures should be presenting a united front that unequivocally supports the wearing of masks and the absolute necessity of social distancing. Similarly, public health initiatives distributing quality masks free to low-income citizens or citizens otherwise struggling to procure them must be implemented immediately.

While such measures might be useful in the abstract, currently they are asking quite a lot of our at best mismanaged at and worst intentionally disruptive public health services. Our floundering federal response has done real and permanent damage to citizens across the nation. We can no longer passively rely on the federal government taking the initiative on matters of this magnitude, at least for the time being. Willamette University sits directly across the street from Oregon’s capitol building. Recent protests have spilled over onto campus, and as political dissent continues to spread, it seems that Willamette will continue to be visible in these political demonstrations, whether we like it or not. Pretending that our actions are inconsequential or too minute to have an impact on the minds of people near campus is frankly irresponsible, and a convenient way to shrug off the role educators—and those becoming educated—have across the country. The onus has fallen on smaller and more intimate institutions, and as one of those institutions, Willamette University should not sit complacent.

What might these programs look like specifically for Willamette? For Willamette University, changes in how COVID-19 precautions are discussed are essential. The aforementioned cartoon of Blitz struggling to bemask is one example of suggesting that Willamette is working as a whole to combat the pandemic and that precautions are something to be integrated into daily life. Regular and publicized video announcements from University officials would serve to create an accountable face with which both students and staff could interact as well as present that all-important unified front. Slogans and messaging (e.g. “Wear a mask—it’s what Bearcats do!” or “Make the right choice”) that bring attention to the individual’s choice, while implying that actions that put health in jeopardy are personally irresponsible, would be easy to design and promote via posters and on the Willamette website. These three suggestions (levity with the mascot, video updates from University officials, slogans and images that promote personal choice) would be straightforward in their implementation and pave the way for other schools and institutions to improve their messaging as well. An institution that’s experimental enough to allow for nude students could at least make the effort to try these suggestions.

None of this is to say that this political issue—how to incentivize citizens to wear masks without trodding on individual liberty—has a simple cause and effect, or clear solution. Direct and trustworthy medical advice and a competent federal administration, for example, might have nipped this pandemic in the bud back in March. But it’s well worth it to examine the inherent cause of this issue to further understand it, and to make sense of other political concepts that also revolve around the importance of the individual versus the importance of the system around them. The battle between those who defend their right not to wear masks and those who insist that public health can supersede the rights of individuals is a battle between individualist mentalities and collectivist ones. It’s not a new battle, nor is it likely to be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, it’s up to us—the students, the scholars and the voices of the future—to take concrete steps to fight our own worst impulses.

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