How Did We Get Here?

This week on the Potatocast, I dive (or at least wade) into the problems inherent with translating health research into health communications. It’s a complicated beast in the best of times, for a variety of reasons. But all the while I was doing the show, one thought kept tickling the back of my mind:

Why is it considered such a burden to wear a mask?

I can understand why some people might not wear one out of confusion. After all, as I discussed a few weeks ago, I’ve evolved on the topic as I dug into more information. Preliminary national advice was that they might do more harm than good due to a false sense of security (even now, it seems just as many people are wearing masks improperly as are not), and also that we needed to protect the supply of protective equipment for clinical staff. That’s changed (obviously), so it stands to reason some people might be a little behind on the latest updates.

But just this morning, I saw an article discussing a customer pulling a knife on a store clerk, simply for asking them to wear a mask of their choosing (now, by the way, a state mandate). We’ve all seen dozens of videos of people throwing tantrums in stores around the country. Against my own better judgement, I got into it over social media with some old schoolmates, who seemed to be against it just because.

But…why? Why has this, of all things, become a hot button? Why is this the line in the sand? It can’t be mere confusion. It also can’t just be that communications about masks being about others more for yourself has failed. Either of those should manifest more like indifference. What’s driving this incandescent rage?

I’ve seen explanations ranging from our stereotypical rugged individualism and historical celebrations of rebels with and without causes, to the increasingly splintered political tribalism that we seem to be stuck with these days. None of those answers really seems satisfying to me, though. The closest I can come is that so many people have been feeling disenfranchised and disempowered that fighting against an obvious marker like a mask is one of the few things they can control. I still don’t feel that explains it sufficiently, but the whole situation as so surreal and sad, I’m just baffled. If it were in a movie, I’d be complaining about having to suspend my disbelief too much.

Yet, here we are. I’m all out of answers on this one. Anyone else?