Before the coronavirus pandemic, Americans were already an angry lot.
The past four years unleashed a nightmare in the United States: a tyrant president determined to set the country’s clock back to a time when inequality was common and accepted, and willing to do just about anything to realize his vision. Those who oppose President Trump’s agenda began marching in the streets while he effectively decried such opposition as un-American. Meanwhile, his devout supporters sometimes rally in public with guns at their sides.
Now, the anger has reached a newly horrific pitch. Trapped by a virus that could kill hundreds of thousands of people if left unchecked, people are sad and desperate. They want life to return to normal. They want to scream at those who make normalcy impossible by foregoing common sense or ignoring the rules. The people who refuse to wear a mask or socially distance are furious at being told what to do. Viral videos of such encounters capture just a slice of this resentment, but it remains a constant, inserting itself into once ordinary moments, like casually strolling into Costco.
And then there are those who believe their individual freedom should take priority over the common good or who put such stock in wild conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins and efforts to tame it, that no appeal to our shared humanity can shake their opposition to masks.
The mask wars have revealed a new dimension of our collective rage. It took only a few months to arrive at this moment, but it’s unclear how or when we’ll emerge from it. Public health authorities say universal mask-wearing could curb transmission in several weeks. Just imagine the prospect of safely sending kids back to school and reopening businesses that just shuttered for a second time. The majority of Americans are convinced and wear masks, according to recent polling. Major medical groups say mask-wearing is safe. The president even donned one for the first time last week.
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Yet heaping anger and shame on those who resist, however tempting, is a short-lived victory. When properly harnessed, anger can lead to transformational change, channeling people’s energy and resources into holding the powerful accountable. But, as the writer Charles Duhigg masterfully in The Atlantic last year, contempt can turn into poisonous revenge-seeking. That anger is a dead end. It quashes compassion and empathy, further erodes our sense of connection and community, and pits family members against each other.
No doubt you see that in your social media feeds, at the grocery store, and in your neighborhood. People masking up post memes, some of them helpful or humorous and others geared more toward judgment and ridicule. Let me be clear: I don’t believe advocates of masking deserve a lecture insisting that they’re to blame for opposition to the public health measure. The president, first and foremost, is responsible for that. Pretending that this is a “both sides” problem that can be solved by advocates and opponents being a little nicer to each other is not a real solution.
But if you believe mask-wearing is imperative and find yourself ready to shout at a mask-less stranger in a crowded public area, ask what expressing that anger will accomplish.
“The question becomes: What is the goal of our emotion?” says Jamil Zaki, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of the book . “If you’re feeling anger, what do you want to do with it?”
Zaki wisely recommends turning first to self-care before letting anger override your decision-making. Practice self-compassion and acknowledge those negative emotions. While you don’t owe empathy to anyone and shouldn’t fake it for the sake of taking the higher ground, Zaki says we can practice the art of “disagreeing better” by stopping ourselves from reducing someone to a single behavior or opinion. By doing so, “we tend to stop seeing them as people and tend to stop seeing their motivations,” he says.
During our conversation, Zaki reminded me that shaming and judgment can be counter-productive forms of persuasion. While shame can have an important chilling effect on certain behaviors, efforts to change minds might be more successful when rooted in the values we share. This truth counters what most of us mistakenly learn through family, school, work, sports, and religion: Holding people accountable for their behavior, deeds, or words means leaning into humiliation and embarrassment.
Just because someone should feel regret and remorse for their decisions — like Amy Cooper, for example — doesn’t mean we should respond by substituting shame for accountability. The researcher Brené Brown elucidates this distinction in a recent podcast on the broader subject, which should be required listening for anyone grappling with the complexity of how to tell the difference.
In terms of mask-wearing, Zaki likens shaming opponents or skeptics as similar to the folly of abstinence-only sex education, which we know is ineffective and may lead to the dangerous or risky behaviors we’re trying to prevent. Instead, we might try to seek common ground, noting shared experiences or values, like trying to protect at-risk family members, supporting the most vulnerable in our community, or even wearing a seatbelt.
It’s also OK to sympathize with the hassle of wearing a mask — it’s hard to be heard clearly, they fog up glasses, they are cumbersome — while noting that the positive benefits far outweigh the relatively trivial annoyances. The science is convincing now that mask-wearing can reduce the virus’ spread, a fact that wasn’t known in March, when authorities discouraged masks because they feared a shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers. It might even be helpful for skeptics to hear that others can relate to feeling frustrated or confused by the evolving guidance. Chances are they’ve heard others take that legitimate sentiment and cynically sow doubt about the usefulness of masking.
Ideally, advocates should engage friends and family in person or over the phone, rather than in the public square of social media or via text and email. It’s easy for recipients to assume your tone is condescending or dismissive when the exchange is digital, and then fire back with a defensive or even hurtful response, which further frays your connection.
Preserving your humanity — and someone else’s — feels like a harder challenge with strangers, precisely because it seems like we have nothing to lose. But if, for example, you see a pharmacist going mask-less near her coworkers and where prescriptions are refilled, file a complaint with the store management instead of shouting angrily — and publicly. If the store lets the pharmacist continue to work without a mask, stop giving it your business and matter-of-factly let your friends know why. This is what accountability can look like.
If you want to train your camera on a mask-less customer brazenly violating store policy and post that confrontation on the internet, consider whether letting the store’s supervisors resolve the issue would be more effective than creating content that makes some viewers feel righteous and others feel ridiculed, playing into the latter group’s sense of victimization.
Zaki says that instead of contributing more shame to an online pile-on, people can leverage their digital presence and power to back positive goals and shared values. That could mean contributing to a GoFundMe for a barista harassed and shamed by a mask-less customer or retweeting a video of people sharing why they wear masks.
A more careful approach to the mask debate, of course, has its limits. Some people are so fragile or unsure about their beliefs that even the gentlest engagement feels like an affront. Still others are spoiling for a fight, perhaps posting selfies in which they’ve draped lace underwear over their face to mock mask-wearing, like a Las Vegas councilwoman did recently. For these people, including those who subscribe to conspiracy theories, there may be no good faith attempt to talk about masks. Shouting, shaming, or even calmly talking won’t change their minds, and it might just embolden them.
Our path out of this pandemic requires masks. Though we can’t control who wears one, we can invite reasonable people to join that effort and hold accountable those who defy norms, regulations, and policies, including politicians who make mask-wearing a political issue. That may be less satisfying than shaming our perceived enemies, but it’s far more likely to make the path forward possible.