Masks: Individual vs Collective Responsibility

Current Affairs / Rhode Island

I saw a comment online yesterday that helped me to better understand the resistance to wearing masks in public in the midst of this present pandemic. (Such reluctance isn’t unique to this moment – there was an anti-mask league in San Francisco in the 1918 pandemic that led to an unnecessary increase in infection and death in the city back then.)

The point of the mask, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is that my mask protects you and your mask protects me. The protection only works if we both care for the other person. And in Asian cultures, where there is a deep sense of collective responsibility, wearing a mask when you’re sick, or might be sick, is a long tradition and a cultural value.

But our American culture doesn’t emphasize our care for our neighbor, it emphasizes our need to take personal responsibility for our choices. Want to not pay for flood insurance? Sure, but then know that your home will not be replaced if it’s destroyed in a hurricane. (Except that it often is, especially if you have enough power and wealth to influence the government to backstop your bad choice.) Want to gamble that you won’t need health insurance? Ok, if you get sick, you’ll probably become bankrupt. Want to live out in the wilderness, far from others? Ok, but should an emergency happen, you’re on your own until the community spends extra money to come help you…

The problem of course is that it’s an illusion that we can take full responsibility for our choices. Eventually, in most cases, the community responds to the situation often incurring unexpected and unreimbursed expense. That’s true for big-box stores that underpay their employees and expect the community to cover health costs and to supplement their employees’ nutrition. It’s true for wealthy business owners who discount the governmental support they take for granted (roads, public safety, defense) when they argue that they are self-made billionaires. (You can easily add to this list.)

So, in the moment of a pandemic, when our health depends on the choices our neighbor makes on our behalf, we have protests from gun-rights groups, ignoring social-distancing and mask wearing, insisting that we should be able to make our own choices about safe behavior and calling for the restrictions that *are* working to be relaxed. Common good takes a backseat to personal liberty and personal responsibility.

Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s any way to understand this as a Christian response to the present challenge. I don’t think there can be any claim that this is civic minded movement. (It’s likely fueled by astro-turfed existing networks of organizations funded by individuals concerned about their wealth and power disappearing.)

But the decision to emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of their neighbor is, to my mind, a direct consequence of our country’s culture of personal vs collective responsibility. And I don’t think it will change anytime soon. (The mitigation and recovery phase of the pandemic response is going to have to take that into account.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...