Barefaced masculinity stares at us everywhere we go. Its boastful machismo says that it’s inviolable. “Real men” don’t wear masks even when they are told to. On a train in England the other day, where all the other passengers were masked and distanced, two young men were telling each other how much they liked to be off their heads and how they wouldn’t wear masks because … at that point I stopped listening. This was not going to be a discussion about civil liberties, was it?
The basic idea that we wear masks to protect others in case we spread the virus had not reached them. These guys were outlaws. Social solidarity? Not for these rebels without a hand sanitiser.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has failed to follow the science. It has certainly not listened to behavioural scientists. Lockdown came in too late because the risk-takers at the top of the tree did not believe most people would comply in the way we did. And now most of us are nervous about the muddled relaxing of rules.
To say there has been mixed messaging on face coverings is an understatement. As all the science is moving to the idea that face coverings will help stop the spread of the virus in indoor spaces, the government bangs on about choice and common sense without showing any. Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, conceded on Monday that if people are not wearing masks in shops out of choice, they should be “mandatory perhaps”. I love this phrase for its utterly delusional meaningless. “Compulsory maybe”: that will get things done. As for Boris Johnson, although he has urged the English public to wear masks in shops as “extra insurance”, he still hasn’t made them compulsory.
Masks have not quite been as politicised in the UK as they have in the US, where they are seen as a communist threat to personal freedom, but it is only recently that Johnson has been seen in one. Rishi Sunak served food without one.
As with a whole load of health issues, “toxic masculinity” does not just make women’s lives miserable; it is a form of self-harm for men. Men are more likely to die of coronavirus than women, just as they are more likely to get lung cancer or cirrhosis, or die a violent death. The association of mask wearing with weakness is not one that I naturally have. Years ago on visits to China and Japan, it took some getting used to, and I felt everyone else must have thought us unclean for not wearing masks. But I began to see it not as about selfish protection, but as a collective sense of health.
Besides, all my associations with masks are quite “bad boy” anyway. Bandannas, balaclavas or gimp, I suppose. Surely, too, the new heroes are the masked-up medics we have seen over the past few months.
Yes, wearing a mask is a bit uncomfortable, but attitudes need to shift. And they can. Michael Gove’s burbling about common sense means nothing when “common sense” so clearly means different things to different groups of people and the reluctance of men to wear face coverings is clear.
If the virus has not touched you or anyone you know, the view that mask wearing is cowardly may hold. Being a man is being brave and taking risks and not trusting authority. Yet the idea that we protect others when we may be infectious could surely also be a central part of a masculine self-image?
The denial in some is strong. If we are afraid that mask-wearing signals the new normal, then I have bad news for you: yes it does. The holy grail of a vaccine is way off, antibodies may not protect for long, and this shilly-shallying on masks in confined spaces is stupid.
So show, don’t tell. The idea that mask-wearing is effete and shows your fragility may be lethal. Not wearing a mask does not make a man look more manly, it just makes us aware of his vulnerability. You may think you are showing us some heroic invincibility. Wrong. We see the unmasked face of fear. Nicola Sturgeon has made masks mandatory in shops in Scotland. Johnson is going to set out some guidelines soon. Why wait? What is he afraid of?