‘I am fully aware that masks are alien to our culture. This will require a big adjustment,” said Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz as he explained his government’s new requirement that citizens wear medical masks while shopping in supermarkets. The order is expected to be expanded to more public spaces in Austria soon. And if public health authorities are to be believed, we may expect the same soon in other Western countries. Reopening business may require adopting the same culture of welcoming such masks in public that we find in East Asia.
The scientific evidence is very compelling that masks dramatically reduce the spread of virus-spreading droplets, and that the more of us who wear them, the more difficult we make it for sick people to transmit and healthy people to become infected. We will do it to pass safely through this extraordinary time of a global pandemic. We may even consent, for a slightly longer time, to require masks on people who are passing through airports or in certain close spaces. But this change will only be temporary; mask-wearing cannot become a “regular” feature of life in the West. People will tolerate them for a short while, but quickly feel that masks are ridiculous, menacing, or an imposition on life, then conclude they must be temporary.
Once the worst dangers of pandemic are past, airports and other places of business where they are required will notice that mandating them is a detriment to their profits. And the public itself will begin to defy or resist these measures. During the Great Influenza a century ago, people defied the local ordinance to wear masks over their nose and mouth in public by letting them dangle from their necks. An Anti-Mask League was temporarily formed.
We will struggle to articulate what it is that makes them, as Kurz called them, an “alien” imposition on our culture. It will be similar to the way some nations have struggled to describe what it is they object to about the veiling of women encouraged by Islamic cultures.
Medical mask wearing in East Asia goes all the way back to the Great Influenza, though a variety of other reasons are proffered. Industrialization and smog culture reinforced it. There is even some speculation that the influence of Taoism and traditional Eastern medicines, which emphasize the importance of correct and clean breathing, have influenced the wearing of masks.
Some say the mask has the virtue of being a kind of “social shield” that disinvited unwanted interaction in public. This is also frequently cited as a virtue of Islamic veiling. Our prejudice is to view it as a form of oppression. The virus locks us behind the mask. A low view of women imprisons them behind a veil.
Our objection to veils and masks is hard to articulate because it is so deeply rooted in Christian theology, and so deeply rooted in the culture of the West, that we almost never consciously think about it. Christian cultures assume that the truth is “unveiled.” It reveals itself in everything from our clichés, our high pattern of business travel to see people “face-to-face,” and even in our architecture, where unlike in the Islamic world, our homes are typically open and sociable to the street, showing their faces.
In the Gospels, the Crucifixion of Christ on Calvary was accompanied by another event in Jerusalem; “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” That veil at the heart of the temple was used to separate the holy of holies behind it from the rest of the temple, and it hid the place where God’s presence sat enthroned upon the Ark. To look upon that presence caused death. Therefore, one of the paradoxes of Good Friday is that the God-made-flesh took his new throne upon a cross. He dies there, and any looking upon the Cross are restored to life.
Ever since, Christian liturgy has featured “unveiling.” Statues that are veiled during Passion Week are unveiled as we approach Easter. Christian tabernacles are built with a veil that is opened before Holy Communion. In Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the Eucharist is brought out from behind the rood screens. And a Christian thinks of salvation in terms of the beatific vision, where we see God “face-to-face.”
Universally, the face is a sign of human self-consciousness, and our reactions to it. Our “relationship” to our own faces is different from that of lower animals to their own faces. In his work The Face of God, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton tried to outline the distinctiveness of a human face. We do not push our faces into our food as animals do, but lift up the food so that we might remain sociable. Animals cannot attempt to disguise or fake their facial expressions, as we do. Our face reveals us in a way that no other part of the body can. The mouth is never a mere orifice, but the seat of an individual’s voice. Lips are given as gifts in a kiss. The eyes are the entry point to the soul. In the West, we have inherited the view that God meets us face to face, because a face is where our personhood is incarnate in the world. Being made in God’s image means that God also has a personhood as well. To disguise ourselves forever would be to blaspheme his work of redeeming the world.
The mask may be accepted as an inconvenience of perilous times, or maybe even a necessity in travel. But it will always feel like an imposition. Even if we learn about diminished rates of flu deaths or other disease, or gained productivity, we will find ourselves rebelling against those implications. And we may discover that the unveiled, unmasked life of our civilization is worth the risk again.