“I WILL not be muzzled like a mad dog,” yelled one man at a public hearing on a proposal to mandate wearing of face masks in Florida.
“I have the ability to do what I want, when I want, how I want,” said another.
Across the United States, there have been reports of people being abused for wearing face masks or for not wearing them.
Bizarrely, in North Carolina, one of the few states to require wearing of masks in public, the practice could soon become illegal.
Like many other southern states, North Carolina legislated in the 1950s to ban masks as a means to combat the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group whose members wore white hoods while committing violent crimes against African Americans.
The law banning face masks was temporarily suspended in April due to the coronavirus pandemic but, as a local television station reports, that suspension is due to expire on 1 August and the Republican-controlled legislature has so far failed to agree on extending it.
How did a simple piece of cloth attached by elastic behind the ears become the potent symbol of ideological allegiance it is in the US today?
The country’s president memorably derided the wearing of masks as a sign of personal weakness, while requests that people mask up have allegedly led to numerous violent incidents including the fatal shooting of a Michigan security guard.
In the delicate balance any nation needs to strike between individual liberty and broader social interests, the US has always leaned more towards the individual end of the spectrum. Their long-standing refusal to restrict gun ownership is perhaps the clearest example of that.
So perhaps it’s not surprising, at a time when the nation’s political divisions are so stark, that any attempt to control individual behaviour would become such a flash point.
The humble face mask might turn out to be a better indicator of how people will vote in the next presidential election than any opinion poll.
Those who oppose compulsory mask wearing don’t always limit their activism to protecting their own right to go bare-faced. There have been incidents across America of people being attacked physically or verbally for wearing masks in public.
Apparently, individual liberty only applies to those who object to the masks, not those who support them.
It’s not just in the US either. In my inner city area, a local GP and her wife were recently verbally abused by a group of young men on the street for wearing masks.
When one of the women shared the experience on social media, responses were a mix of sympathetic and further criticism of her for wearing a mask in the first place.
Several commenters chose to lecture her about the alleged lack of evidence for mask wearing. (For what it’s worth, the evidence that mask wearing helps to prevent the spread of disease is growing and a number of experts are calling for it to be made mandatory here).
Why would anybody attack someone for choosing to wear something on their own face? I guess some Moslem women might have a thing or two to say about that.
Masked faces can be disquieting, as the Ku Klux Klan and its victims surely knew.
Those towering white hoods were not just about concealing the perpetrators’ identities so they would be protected from criminal prosecution. They were designed to inspire terror.
When we can’t see somebody’s face, we lose many of the cues that help us to navigate the world and relate to others, cues we have been learning to read from infancy. Perhaps that is why some people seem to find the masked face so threatening.
If so, it’s a fear we should be capable of overcoming. After all, in many Asian countries, wearing masks in flu season is just part of everyday life – a practice we might be well advised to start emulating.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.