Mask politics and contrasting conceptions of freedom

A poster at a protest that reads "The New Symbol of Tyranny"

Capucine May

Capucine has recently graduated from UCL SSEES with an MA in political analysis, specialised in Central-Eastern European and Russian politics. Her interests lie in democratic institutions and consolidation, security studies, the politics of identity and the political economy. Her research has recently focused on the use of security discourses in altering popular perceptions of democratic representation, notably in Hungary. She is the online editor for SLOVO, UCL SSEES' postgraduate journal on Eastern Europe and Russia, and regularly writes about EU foreign policy in her own blog, Me & EU.

17th October 2020

Mark Makela/Getty Images

What COVID-19 has taught us about the West’s broken civic fabric


Despite mounting evidence to show that face masks and coverings are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, measures imposing them as mandatory have been the source of much controversy. The debate surrounding face-masks, part of a more general disagreement over the best way to deal with and interpret the COVID-19 pandemic, has caused widespread revolt across the Western world. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic back in February there has been intense disagreement about the role and importance of masks – even coming from medical professionals. For example, in March the US’ Surgeon General Jerome Adams encouraged people to stop buying masks because they could not protect from the virus, and would result in a shortage of PPE for medical professionals. Uncertainty has therefore surrounded the issue and its implications since the beginning.


Interestingly, skepticism surrounding masks has been significantly higher since the pandemic      in the West than in, for example, Asia and the Pacific. A poll carried out by YouGov demonstrates that, although the number of people wearing masks in Europe and the US has increased since March, the numbers have consistently been very high in Asia. Most large scale anti-mask protests began in the US, and have more recently spread to Europe – however, there has been very little backlash against face coverings in China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. 


Percentage of countries in each region in which more than 80% of the population wore masks

Source: YouGov (2020), Personal measures taken to avoid COVID-19.


This raises questions as to the nature of peoples’ reluctance to wear masks. According to a study by Brookings, the majority of Americans (64%) who do not wear face coverings state it is because masks are uncomfortable or because it is their right not to do so. Individual freedom and comfort comes before protecting the community from a potentially deadly virus. One individual interviewed claimed that no one is allowed to “make laws that take our freedoms and liberties away”. Another claimed the state was “removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights” by imposing mandates making masks mandatory in indoor spaces. 


Reasons for not wearing a face covering

Source: Brookings (2020), American individualism is an obstacle to wider mask wearing in the US.


The protest against mask-wearing is also alarmingly fuelled by President Donald Trump. Trump has consistently shunned masks as limiting peoples’ freedom and being useless in the fight against COVID-19. In fact, he has time and again refused to wear a mask in public and has mocked individuals, including Joe Biden, who have worn them, turning masks into a sign of weakness. Trump has even been said to have created a toxic, dangerous workplace in which individuals who choose to wear masks are shamed – a workplace culture which has recently facilitated Trump’s own contamination and that of at least 22 others in his inner circle.   


Since August, protests have begun to spread to Europe where anti-mask protests took place in France, Spain, the UK, Germany, and Italy among others. Some have claimed these protests are inspired by those taking place in the US. A broad variety of reasons are being stated as to why people are refusing to wear masks across Europe. One study found people did not want their children to grow up wearing masks, whilst others have identified more general anti-establishment sentiments and fears for individual freedom similar to those fuelling the movement in the US. For example, the protest in Berlin was referred to as the Day of Freedom. Generally, masks are being tied to conspiracy theories about 5G, surveillance, and other government plots to undermine individual freedom. 


In Asia, however, most people wear masks because they understand that it is an act of protection – not just of themselves but of others in their community. Even before the pandemic, it was considered impolite to sneeze or cough without a mask, seen as imposing one’s potential illness onto others. This attitude towards masks could be traced back to the SARS epidemic, in which Hong Kong was hit particularly badly. However, it may also be entangled with socio-cultural differences, notably a tendency towards more collectivist rather than individualist behavioral traits and cultural traditions. 


A study has shown that there is a marked cultural difference between Asian economies and societies which tend to be more collectivist, and American ones which tend towards individualism. People in individualistic cultures tend to think of themselves as independent from the group, whilst in collectivist cultures they tend to view themselves as intimately related and tied into the group.  


Generally, sentiments of individualism have been on the rise across the world, as they tend to be correlated with socio-economic development. However, the move towards individualism has been slower across Asia. Notably, of the countries experiencing high economic growth, China is an exception in that it has not exhibited an increase in individualistic practices.  The US, on the other hand, has been named one of the most individualistic cultures in the world, shortly followed by Western Europe. 


This reflects sociological studies which have identified individualism as having a close relationship with early Western capitalism, the one depending on the other to yield an economic system founded on the principles of individual possessive property rights. Interestingly, scholars have also identified that societies developing capitalist systems later, such as countries in Asia (notably Japan), developed a version of capitalism independent of individualistic principles (perhaps due to the region’s historic ties to Confucianism rather than Protestantism). This form of “late capitalism” was “nationalistic, paternalistic, and anti-individual” or “collectivist” – a trend which continues to be seen today. 


Collectivism - Individualism World Map

Source: GEERT HOFSTEDE, The 6-D model of national culture.


This could explain differing attitudes towards mask-wearing, and rings of Constant’s distinction between two different kinds of freedom – the liberty of the moderns and that of the ancients. This distinction is between ancient conceptions in which freedom referred to the liberty of the nation as a whole from submission and individual rights were second to the good of the nation, and modern understandings in which freedom refers overwhelmingly to individual civil liberties. The latter, according to Constant, was brought about by the growth of commerce and consumer-based economies. However, Constant warned of the potential risks of forgetting to combine modern with ancient liberty. This contrast between individual and collective conceptions of ‘liberty’ is what we are seeing reflected in the mask debate today. 


In individualist cultures, the individual has become king to the point where it becomes difficult to ask him to sacrifice his personal comfort for the benefit of the wider community. This reflects a very modern conception of freedom, and it dominates in the Western world. In collectivist cultures, it is the norm to make small individual concessions for the good of the nation, such as in ancient societies. This understanding of freedom, taken to its extreme without balancing it with a modern conception, can also lead to disastrous outcomes for and overwhelming constraints on individual wellbeing, such as in China and Hong Kong.


The pandemic is a reminder that a functional nation requires individual sacrifice, but upholds individual rights and freedoms necessary to the functioning of an efficient democratic state. It is simply a reality that living in a nation or society requires placing restrictions on individuals, in order to avoid one encroaching on another’s’ freedom. This is how wearing masks should be presented and understood. Just as societal norms and legislation place limits on our right to carry a weapon or to use speech to incite violence, for the protection of others, wearing a mask is a similar sacrifice to be made in solidarity. Here, we must remember the words of J. S. Mill, a fierce proponent of individual liberty: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”


For this, we need to rebuild the civic fabric which individualism has torn in the West. COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in Western societies – and rather than allowing those cracks to grow by increasing dependence on technology and social alienation, there needs to be a conscious effort to rebuild our sense of community before we are required to make even larger sacrifices for it in the future. 


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