I remember those wide-eyed days of Early Pandemic, when people were assuming that the reality of the virus would overcome partisan divides and bring us all together. Even then, while I hoped it would be the case, as a communication and rhetorical scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication, my instincts and training both told me it would likely not. I blogged about my concerns about partisanship and anti-expertise rhetoric here, even in the earliest days of COVID-19. In the present article I’ll discuss the ways in which subsequent events have unfortunately justified those concerns I had back then, specifically in the case of mask-wearing–which has been recently branded as “liberal.” At the end I’ll address what we can do in the face of unhealthy rhetoric in this area.
My Specific Focus
I’ll especially try to unwrap the ways in which mask-wearing has been targeted as a “liberal” thing, and how conservative Christians enacting “Christian Nice” have ended up advocating against love of neighbor as themselves via mask-wearing.
In doing so, I’ll extend some of the other things I’ve been talking about elsewhere, getting into how the current administration’s rhetoric has built on existing foundations of conservative rhetoric that see both expertise and care for others as devil terms to be fought at all costs.
In the process I’ll talk a bit about how this creates cognitive dissonance for politically conservative-leaning Christians in the US that often leads them to minimize the effects of government action on COVID-19 in order to maintain their conservative ideologies.
Thanks for hanging in there with me! This article’s on the long side–because even reactive and unjust rhetorics have nuance and context to their usage and reception.
Let’s Get Started
Okay, so let’s talk about mask-wearing and how it came to be such anathema to large swaths of those who support conservative ideologies and the current administration, and an optional extra to others.
This is no overgeneralization, by the way. Several recent polls have shown a strongly partisan divide between those who wear a mask and those who don’t.
In addition to the polling data, I’ve seen this in my experience as well as hearing it from others who know a lot of people across partisan lines.
A Really Sharp Divide
Even as someone who studies this stuff and mostly-expected it, the starkness of how this has emerged down partisan lines has somewhat taken my breath away.
How the Demonization of the Common Good Comes In
But it makes sense when I think about the political rhetoric. See, mask-wearing, in most cases, according to the research, is like vaccines—in most cases, it requires others as well as yourself to do it for it to work for all parties well.
In light of this, those who seek their own autonomy in terms of not wearing a mask in public spaces, especially indoors, are doing so at the expense of others and often themselves as well, according to the research.
The Discomforts of Mask-Wearing
Now, naturally mask-wearing isn’t a perfect solution: it can be uncomfortable. It can be sweaty. It can be difficult during hard-breathing activities sometimes, such as workouts. But other than a small percentage of people who have medical issues such as asthma that make mask-wearing particularly dangerous, most people have no major risks associated with mask-wearing.
How People Started Literally Dying Over Asking Others to Wear Masks
This is all according to the research put forth by the medical world, though—and it’s natural that those who have suspicions of such advice as coming from “liberal elites,” or the “lamestream media” delivering the information would doubt that.
It’s to the point where people who are conscientious about mask-wearing are specifically being called names by some conservatives for wearing a mask—and that’s not even getting into the service workers that are being shot for enforcing mask-wearing policies, and visible public health officials resigning their posts because of death threats.
How This Ties into the Election
Election rhetoric regarding the pandemic is also split down the middle, with the current administration’s rhetoric directly denying that the pandemic is an ongoing problem and Democrats making it part of their stump speech that they think we should listen to doctors.
Just Really Sharp Dividing Lines Here
Again, even to people like me who study this stuff, the lines seem REALLY sharply drawn right now. One party largely minimizes the pandemic, flat out defies its existence, and/or makes up conspiracies about it, while the other largely says it exists and that we need to do what we can to mitigate it and listen to public health officials’ advice.
So how did it happen that things got this starkly divided?
Socialism as a Devil Term—Again and Still
Well, as I’ve described before, for at least a century the US, the term “socialism” has become detached from its dictionary definition and defined as something to be fought at all costs. This, as I’ve described before, is what it means when a term gets taken and used as a “devil term.”
Those Pesky Dictionary Definitions
As I’ve discussed before, the dictionary definition of socialism involves looking out for the common good, which is why regimes such as the Third Reich that start off claiming the term socialist for themselves (false though that was from the beginning) actually jump ship on living out the dictionary definition when they become totalitarian dictatorships and kakistocracies instead. If you’ll remember, that latter term refers to being governed by the worst people.
Planting and Exploiting Fear
So leaders that use socialism as a devil term (as opposed to recognizing most healthy forms of government are a mix of capitalism and socialism) are actually implanting fear of being governed by the worst people when they use the term. And in consequence, they’re planting fear that people who are actually trying to work toward the common good, and asking others to do so as well, are the enemy.
Fear of Win-win Conflict Styles
Ironically, they’re painting those who see the highest form of conflict management as collaboration—working toward the good of all, including ourselves where possible, as much as possible—as those to be fought at all costs.
Sure, collaboration isn’t always the best conflict style, especially when you’re one-on-one, and it doesn’t work for all situations, but generally, research shows it to be the most effective style where it’s feasible. (Obviously, there’s no point in collaborating with bullies who refuse to look out for the good of the other person or group—which is why I recommend speaking up against them for the good of the audience and to record a countervoice rather than to expect to have an influence.)
This doesn’t mean this is people themselves in their attitudes divide so evenly between caring for others or working together with others or not. But the interesting thing about mask-wearing is that it has strongly divided them in mask-wearing practice, at least to a strong extent. So even though devil terms are disconnected from real dictionary definitions, they lead to real consequences for real people in terms of viral spread.
What I would guess happens in the case of those 35% of mask-wearing conservatives, from what I know of conservative ideologies, is you have a group of people who see caring for others only as a private enterprise, not to be mandated by or enacted by the government in any form, over and against a group that sees caring for others as, well, a collaborative enterprise that should happen at all levels as much as is feasible.
Mask-Wearing and Morality
This dynamic is particularly interesting when it comes to mask-wearing, as it creates this rhetoric in which people either choose to wear masks and justify it as their own personal choice, and feel all moral about it, but fight for others to be able to choose something different, even if it hurts others.
But because the positive effects of mask-wearing in group settings only works if the large majority are wearing them, by standing up for autonomy over and against the common good, these people end up advocating for collective harm. They do so in the name of individual freedom.
Now, to be fair, sometimes individual autonomy is more important than collective action. But in a situation in which humans are hopefully working to defeat a strongly organized virus, trying to stand up for individual freedom is, well, really unwise.
“Freedom” as a “God Term”
In this view, “freedom” is the god term to be defended at all costs, and divorced from the large majority of its dictionary meaning.
The History of Freedom as God Term in the US
So, a little history: Freedom as a god term has at least as long a history in the US as socialism as a devil term does. It’s telling that there’s a long history of these two things being opposed in American political rhetoric.
In fact, this century or more of history with these terms has laid the groundwork for today’s current events, and that’s important. The way the usage has shifted, though, is important as well.
Liberation from Oppression? Maybe Not.
Interestingly, the closest dictionary definition of freedom that seems to fit with the usage of the term in these recent stay-at-home order protests is that of “liberation from oppression.”
As I’ve discussed before, the fear of tyranny from above has been an issue since at least the Revolutionary War, so this would make sense if put in that context, and if enacted by people who were actually being oppressed.
Yup, the Founders Were about Collaboration and Such Within the US System
Unfortunately, the current strain of conservative politics has strayed far from the Founders’ initial solution to the problem, which involved a series of constraining checks and balances so that no one person or party should be allowed to gain too much power.
That’s right: the Founders’ vision involved people having to work with others: to collaborate and compromise and accommodate as needed—a mix of the different conflict styles.
Unfortunately, this particular view of “freedom” as a “god term,” especially paired with those who are representing it in the public eye holding “don’t tread on me” signs and machine guns, suggests the conflict style of competition/domination, and not the kind for the common good—which, again, was the Founders’ vision for the country, actually.
A Zero-sum Worldview Strikes Again
In fact, the current conservative ideology, in painting “liberation from oppression” as the enemy of the dictionary term for seeking the common good, has associated the term “freedom” with a zero-sum view of the world in which some people (only those aggressive bullies with the loudest voices, sadly) shouldn’t actually have to do anything they don’t want to, even if it hurts them or others.
Freedom for Whom?
In short, these are not calls for freedom for all, but only for those who are holding the guns to get their own way—and for whoever happens to fall in line behind them, provided they’re the “right kind of people.”
Enter “Christian Nice”
Whoever is willing to fall in line behind them is where “Christian nice” comes in (I’ve written a whole series on Christian nice starting here and talked about how it enables authoritarianism and covert abuse here). After all, as I’ve said before, Christian nice sees accommodation as the highest form of spirituality, and conservative versions of that have also absorbed fears of collective collaborative action.
After all, if you want to hang around people who want to win at others’ expense, keeping them happy through accommodation is necessary. Aggressive competitors really are not up for negotiation or collaborative solutions.
How Christian Nice Folks End Up Being Hypocritical
What you get is this weird situation where Christians who have sublimated their fight instincts end up getting to avoid doing what those on the side of “the enemy” tell them to do—and they get to avoid it by placating the bullies in their midst.
They do NOT actually end up accommodating to their perceived political enemies, as Jesus told them to. In fact, they end up participating in their own domination and that of others while symbolically feeling like they get to stand on the side of “freedom.”
In short, these conservative-leaning Christians who have absorbed the spirituality of “nice” end up following those bullies and oppressors who champion “freedom” at the expense of those who are fighting for love of neighbor as self.
Again, they may, individually choose to wear masks, so they can feel individually virtuous and protected. But ultimately they join the side of those fighting the efforts to listen to those learning about what’s needed for the common good. They may do so in a variety of ways, but ultimately it comes to the same result.
No Absolute Morality—Knowledge of the Disease Is Still Evolving
It’s a tangled web here—and there are no easy answers, as knowledge of this disease are still evolving.
But with an emerging consensus that mask-wearing paired with as much social distancing and other reasonable precautions such as remote work and curbside where possible are our best chances of as much collective survival as possible, the ethics of mask-wearing when possible and reasonable in public are pretty clear-cut for the time being. I hope this explanation has helped you understand why conservatives, especially conservative Christians, might be against mask-wearing while claiming to love their neighbor as themselves (which is admittedly a confusing position).
What Assertive Folks Can Do
What can we assertive folks do in the face of this? For starters, we can:
- Wear a mask if in public around people, of course, and take other reasonable precautions recommended by epidemiologists whether or not the government is mandating them.
- Advocate for policies that uphold reasonable precautions wherever you can, from the people you meet to local organizations to government.
- Stand up against any bullying against mask-wearing.
- Speak up to our government representatives about working toward the common good, and hold them to policies that reach toward that.
- Work to elect those who are in favor of evidence-based practices and policies that help people as much as possible.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against unhealthy rhetoric and practices toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?
Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. Sometime this summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.