Who was that Unmasked Man?
The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.
Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?
The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.
But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?
We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.
Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.
That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.
Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.