Shame on the Shamers

“You should socially shame them, so they fall in line.” – Providence Rhode Island Mayor Jorge Elorza

Like many of you I have found myself embroiled in numerous discussions regarding our current situation. It goes without saying that COVID19 is an extremely dangerous virus and I take it very seriously. But as a society, far too many have allowed fear to dictate their actions. The wearing of a mask is just the latest battlefield we find ourselves engaged in (or not wearing a mask to be more precise).

Before I get too deep into this article, I want to be very clear on one thing. What you decide to do to protect yourself and your family is up to you (of course within the bounds of reasonable behavior). Should you decide to make those decisions out of fear you should be mindful that your reactions will also come from a place of fear and not of reason. There is a difference between allowing fear to control your actions or acknowledging danger and responding to that peril while in control of all your faculties.

Recently NY Governor Cuomo said during an interview with late night comedian Jimmy Fallon that people were “selfish” if they choose not to wear a mask. The word selfish seems to be just another word that people easily cast upon others. But what Mayor Elorza and Cuomo are doing goes much further than just name calling.

During this time of a heightened sense of fear that many are experiencing, words such as “selfish” are nothing more than dog whistles for those consumed by anxiety regarding our current situation. In the COVID19 world that we live in when people point the finger of shame and use words like “selfish”, other people hear “enemy” and irrational behavior will follow. Don’t believe me? Take a look at social media, especially Facebook.

Shortly after Cuomo made his statement, a disturbing video emerged from a Staten Island (NY) grocery store showing a mob harassing and then chasing a woman for not wearing a mask (link to story and video – language alert – The vile nature of those socially shaming this woman is the end result of everyone calling for public confrontations.  The video is not only disturbing, but an example of the mob mentality that Cuomo and Elorza encouraged.

I also recently found myself in the middle of a Facebook posting that demonstrates how easy it is to descend into madness over the wearing of a mask. This Facebook post was on the Facebook page of an individual running for the Executive Council of NH (a person I actually admire). To this person’s credit they removed the post as the comments turned ugly.

The post was a re-post from another individual. This individual is a very strong proponent of wearing a mask in public. Doing what Mayor Elorza proclaimed, the poster decided to engage in social shaming. The post starts with a picture of a man in a local supermarket not wearing a mask. The post continues to explain the negative encounter between the mask wearer and non-mask wearer. To no one’s surprise it did not go well. As ill-advised as the encounter was and the virtue-signaling demonstrated by the post, it was when the comment mob took over that things got ugly.

The comments became more violent and more dehumanizing. Remember we are talking about a mask that provides a minimum amount of protection. Person after person vilified the man without a mask. The comments cast this mystery man as less than human, deserving of not only public shaming but arrest by the police. People demanded that this mystery man be charged with attempted murder or assault. Some even wished upon those that don’t wear masks the fate of not only catching COVID19 but suffering a painful death. Others threatened bodily harm if they encounter someone without a mask. There were over 200 comments filled with hate and threats of violence.

When we allow fear to control us panic ensues. When panic is the law of the day we act irrationally. Vilifying a seemingly innocent individual from afar is easy. Wishing him harm and a hideous death is justifiable for those we see as the enemy – the selfish.

Mayor Jorge Elorza encouraged people to speak up if they see someone in public without a face mask or people gathering in large groups.  Gov. Cuomo recklessly called people without a mask selfish. Elorza and Cuomo (and those that think like them) couldn’t be more wrong and what they are suggesting is irresponsible and dangerous. Should someone act on Elorza’s words or take Cuomo’s words to heart, acting as the de-facto social shame enforcement officer will eventually lead to violent confrontations. Sadly, it already has.

The mask has become a symbol of the manifestation of a false reality that we have control over the uncontrollable. For some, wearing a mask makes them feel safe. But then the irrational sets in and the mask wearer looks upon those not wearing a mask as the enemy and an existential threat to their safety. Some go so far as to believe that the person not wearing a mask is not only “selfish” but purposely trying to harm others.

At the beginning of this pandemic and up until about 4 weeks ago medical sources at every level were telling us not only to not wear a mask but begging us not to purchase masks. We were asked not to wear a mask because masks provide little protection in real life settings and that the masks were needed for medical personnel and first responders. But like the hording of toilet paper, some people thought only of themselves and gobbled up any mask they could get while depriving PPE to those that needed it the most – medical personnel, first responders, and other essential personnel.

I do not doubt for one minute that with the right type of mask fitted properly, and adhering to all other prescribed medical practices, that a mask may provide some degree of protection. But none of those factors I mentioned are achievable, at least by enough of our population to make a sustainable difference.

Creditable studies and numerous leading epidemiologists, such as a leading expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Dr. Lisa Brosseau, have stated that masks may provide a minimal amount of protection, but masks also create a greater concern.

What it will do is create the false sense of security that epidemiologists are concerned about. This is especially true for those who are part of an “at risk group.” The false sense of security that somehow the mask around our nose and mouth is like Superman’s cape may make us feel better but for some it may be doing more harm than good.

Rational thought, sound data, and calming voices are what we need now, which seem to be in short supply during these times.

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