The news that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador tested positive for COVID-19 doesn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with his famously anti-mask stance. His careless refusal to wear a mask has now become a national security concern not only for Mexico, but for North America, as Mexican national security and stability is interwoven with ours in complex ways.
But López Obrador’s refusal to wear a mask during the worst days of the pandemic is not an isolated case. Anti-maskers are everywhere, including in the halls of the U.S. Congress, reflecting a general attitude by a large portion of the U.S. population who equate not wearing a mask with freedom.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why being told to wear a mask might offend. It seems like an infringement on the right to choose. But I don’t think that’s right.
Anti-maskers are not afraid of losing their freedom, they’re afraid of facing the reality of their own mortality. Putting on a mask in this pandemic means that the wearer realizes that if she doesn’t, she might get sick, and that if she gets sick, she might die. This is a recognition of one’s frailty and weakness in the face of something that is obviously greater than any one of us.
It puts a spotlight on our mortality. And so we put on the mask because we’re afraid of death.
As a professor of philosophy, I think a lot about freedom and what it is and what it is not. I don’t think it is what the anti-maskers think it is. It seems to me that I am no less free than I was before I began wearing a mask “full-time.” My world is bounded by laws and regulations that existed before any of this.
I’m still limited by what I can and can’t afford. I’m still encumbered by family responsibilities and my own physical abilities. Now, I’m in the same situation I was in before COVID, but wearing a mask to protect myself and those around me from a deadly virus. There was never a time in the pre-COVID era when I could cough in someone’s face without consequence. I wasn’t free to do that then, and I am not free to do that now. The only freedom I’ve lost is the freedom to avoid thinking about dying… in public.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons to not wear a mask. I’m thinking here of serious medical conditions. But then, this vulnerable community must be vaccinated against COVID and its various strains—they should be prioritized and we should make every accommodation necessary. Less legitimate reasons are aesthetic ones: I heard folks complaining about feeling like they were wearing a “diaper” on their face. But you’ve worn worse things on your face. Admit it.
Aesthetic reasons are not valid. I’m reminded of my youth, when some refused to wear seatbelts because they feared wrinkling their clothes, or, as was the case with my teenage self, not looking cool-while-driving. We are now unanimously agreed that seatbelts save lives, so we strap ourselves up without a second thought, unconsciously. If anything takes away my freedom is being strapped onto a car seat, but no one complains about losing the freedom not to do it. We’ve come to grips with our weakness before the awesome power of 5 tons of steel crashing against something at 60 miles per hour. It took time, but we’ve come to accept our frailty.
These days, wearing a mask reminds me that the contagion is real and that there’s some probability, however slim, that if I get it, I will die. It’s like wearing your mortality on your face. And that’s what anti-maskers fear the most: to admit that they are not as strong as they’ve been told that they are. However, just as with seatbelts, masks should be seen as the only defense against the awesome power of the virus, and we should welcome the reminder that we are powerless before it as before most acts of God.
There’s a philosophical adage that says, “If you stare into the void, the void stares right back.” Perhaps that’s the source of the fear: if you start thinking about your own death, then death starts to think about you. It is a terrifying thought to think that death is always just around the corner. But we must stare into the abyss, and we must do so for our own good—it is actually liberating.
The philosopher Epictatus put it best: “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” And we escape the fear of death by facing it, and we face it by putting on a mask and thinking about why every time… until we start to forget, until it becomes like wearing a seatbelt.
Those of us who wear masks and do so readily and without complaining, seem to be comfortable with our vulnerability, with our human weakness, and with our own mortality. This makes us brave, and free. Those that refuse to wear masks, or do so kicking and screaming, seem to be uncomfortable, not with losing some nonexistent freedom that they think they have, but with their own finite humanity. This makes them cowards.
Carlos Alberto Sánchez is a professor of philosophy at San José State University, author of the book, A Sense of Brutality: Philosophy After Narco-Culture and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Follow Carlos at @locoprof.