Masks, rights and smiles

Preface: I’m sure I’ll post a lot of goofy, hopefully funny stuff here. But when I dive into an issue, it may seem a little different than that to which you are accustomed. You won’t leave one of my posts saying: Man, he destroyed the other side! That’s not my intent. Much like the Village Square, I’d like to just be able to talk — to reason — through an issue without shouting and brazen partisanship. That won’t be for everybody, I know. If this is too dry for you, there are plenty of places you can satiate your appetite for yelling and screaming. Also, I might not always make my specific position clear. Often that’s because I’m too conflicted to take a position or that I value the discussion more than sharing my exact view.

Preface, the sequel: I was with my good friend Gary Yordon earlier this week — and was telling him about my blog. Gary asked: “What are you writing on next?” I said: “Masks.” He laughed and said: “Same.” That was bad news for me because Gary is a better writer than me in every respect. Anyway, just thought that context was appropriate.

So, let’s talk masks.

I’ll wade into to the issue of mandating masks in a minute, but first an observation, as the family’s primary grocery store shopper. Have you noticed how much non-verbal communication is lost when people are masked?

There are so many times a quick little smile can be a sign of courtesy when someone realizes they’ve been holding you up on the baking goods aisle or darts by because they only need a few things.

Eyes, as someone wise told me recently, are much better for “giving a look” than they are for a softer, more conciliatory facial expression. So now, in addition to sickness and death and lost jobs and so much more, the grocery store — and the rest of the indoor world — is a little big colder place these days.

I think that matters more than we might know or appreciate.

Now, to the wearing of masks.

The intersection of public health and individual liberty is often congested and messy.

Public health, by definition, is improving the life of citizens by advancing good health practices. Often this can be done voluntarily, but infectious diseases are a different story.

Intersecting with public health is the idea that individual Americans are free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish.

Actually, that’s not right — we are free, but only so long as we do not fringe on another’s rights.

And there is the rub when it comes to the government mandating masks.

Yes, the research has been contradictory and fuzzy. Yes, we have a lot to learn about how the virus is transmitted and there are likely things we think are true now, that will end up being different than we thought.

But let’s state what we do know:

First, there is a virus. Second, it’s contagious. Third, it has killed for more people than any pandemic in recent history. And four, there are many known cases of transmission that happened indoors.

It seems fair to conclude, then, that there is at least SOME risk of transmitting the virus from people being indoors together without safeguards. And if that is the case, we are not longer talking about just an issue of individual freedom, because Joe exercising his own freedom may jeopardize John.

It’s interesting for me to think of a spectrum of individual rights and public health.

Seat belt laws are one example — here are laws that have very little opposition now, but that take away an individual right (to ride in a car seat belt free) even though that right doesn’t infringe on any else’s right.

Smoking in restaurants is also interesting.

One could argue that a just like a restaurant ought to be able to cater to smokers and let people decide for themselves whether or not to smoke or be subject to second-hand smoke, the same should be true for wearing masks.

But the difference is, once someone has sucked in smoke during dinner, they can’t transmit that secondhand smoke to someone else, hours or even days later. With COVID, transmission is still quite possible. And, of course, smoking has now been banned in most indoor areas and there is no longer any significant opposition to those laws.

A better parallel to the masks is drunken driving — I’m free to drink alone in my house as much as I want. Doing so isn’t violating anybody else’s rights. But the minute I get in a vehicle and get on the road, things change — now others are at risk.

And risk is key. It’s not “I KNOW my drunken driving will kill somebody,” it’s “there is a clear (and present?) danger that someone else could be hurt. I know of nobody arguing drunken driving laws infringe on individual freedom.

All of this is to say, with regards to mandatory mask laws or ordinances, I think the personal freedom argument is very tough to square with the nation’s recent history of balancing individual rights with public health concerns.


What do you think?

If you are opposed to wearing masks in public places or businesses, where does the above logic fail you?

If you support wearing masks in public places or businesses, how do you square that support with NOT mandating masks outdoors?

2 thoughts on “Masks, rights and smiles

    1. I support wearing masks indoors. I also support wearing masks outdoors where the accepted norm of 6’ social distancing can not – or will not – be maintained. I simply can’t grasp the argument supporting infringement on personal rights. I would certainly bristle at any mandate to wear protective cover in my home, or in my car, or even walking across the parking lot to the grocery store. However, public mandates are made necessary by the refusal of the “few” to follow reasonable safe practices in circumstances that potentially endanger the “many”. The comparison to being under the influence at home v. behind the wheel is appropriates. I also agree with the Paul Harvey quote although, obviously in this case, the end point should be farther than the tip of my nose.


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