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Science Deniers and Anti-Mask Protestors: Can We Talk?

“I’d rather bury my family from COVID than see them enslaved to the fear of it."

This week the US surpassed 200,000 deaths from coronavirus. With just 4% of the world’s population, the US has over 20% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Is the pandemic "disappearing"? No. Twenty-one states are seeing a rise in cases this week. And here's another fact: Mask wearing and physical distancing are effective means of reducing transmission of this airborne virus (CDC, 2020). And yet, resistance to physical distancing and mask wearing can be fierce.

This week, on social media, I reposted a photo of a white woman carrying a sign that reads “I’d Rather Bury My Family From COVID Than See Them Enslaved to the Fear of It." Why? I was curious about others’ thoughts on it. Suffice to say that they are many screwed up elements to this sign. “Enslaved” seems to suggest that social distancing regulations and requiring masks in public areas and stores are tyrannical, and as coercive and oppressive a human rights violation as the institution of slavery in this country; that's both extremely insensitive and false. The sign also imparts that fear of a real global pandemic is worse than actually dying from it, or as the Lieutenant Governor of Texas intoned, “There are worse things than dying.” Here is a sampling of Facebook reactions to the sign:

“Please do not reproduce.” “Take your antipsychotic, dear.” “It's possible her wish will be granted.”

“Have you asked your family their opinion on that?" “Just ignore her. Someone who says this is clearly not a rational thinker.” “Have they buried a family member that truly means something to them?” “What does this human know about being enslaved? To use this term is very disrespectful.” “Choosing between watching loved ones die, or wearing a cotton mask for 20 minutes in the supermarket is a really tough choice!”

A poster from Georgia offered, “Country logic: You’d rather see your family dead than ‘concerned’, ‘worried’, ‘cautious’? Are they enslaved by bike helmets and seatbelts?”

A person over 70 years of age shared, “Science shows wearing a cloth mask offers some protection. Plus, a cloth mask protects others from you, if you’re an asymptomatic carrier. I Protect You. You Protect Me.” And here is a longer response, quoted with permission, from a highly educated person:

“I would say the substance doesn’t matter. It’s clearly irrational. What matters is the feeling. What is she feeling and how do we address that? She is feeling fear and doesn’t want to, so dismissing the pandemic helps alleviate that fear. Are there ways to help alleviate the fear? Overly educated people try to deal with [science deniers and anti-maskers] on the basis of facts, [but] reason doesn’t work.”

 Anshu A/Unsplash
Mask wearing definitely does not constitute enslavement. But there are other ways to begin a conversation.
Source: Anshu A/Unsplash

Highly educated intellectuals—people literally paid to type and talk—must resist the urge to make fun of this person or to lecture down to them about virology, science, etc. What is key, crucial in fact, is not dismissing or mocking this person, but interpreting the signage as an indicator of a fear-based response. In this case, masking requirements have been equated in this person’s mind to a fundamental loss of freedom or liberty. Fear has clouded this person’s thinking; instead of seeing social distancing and masks as a way of caring for others, putting the Golden Rule into action, or acknowledging that some folks feel just fine but are actually asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, she sees them as a threat. One could choose to affirm this person, beginning with a soft start-up like “That’s a strong statement” and then following this with some reflective listening: “It sounds like you are afraid of not having control, or losing your power/control. Please say more about that.” So, as this person’s neighbors, friends, and family members, we could start by asking about her fears.

The messaging on the sign gives voice to individualism on steroids: “Your pandemic guidelines threaten my liberty, take away an ‘American birthright’ where people shouldn’t have to wear masks, even during a pandemic.” Of course, smoking bans and driving without a seatbelt faced stiff resistance, too, when they were first introduced. And COVID-19 guidelines do not prevent people from doing many of the things they did before March 2020. Outdoor seating at a restaurant? Check. Jogging and walking outdoors? Check. Driving around with the windows down and the music turned way up? Check. Can one reach someone who potentially views the government as an enemy bent on taking away their liberty and way of life forever?

 Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Does standing six feet apart in public represent a loss of freedom?
Source: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

I suppose it depends on whether she believes COVID-19 is real, or deems it “a hoax” or “conspiracy” (click here and here for posts on that subject). That’s a tough nut to crack. But I take inspiration from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Highly educated people should resist the tendency to heap contempt, derision, and pity on persons carrying signs like this. We can try to find ways to dialogue, and hopefully our conversation partners will grant us six feet of space and be willing to wear masks while we do it, and not mock us for being social conformists and “sheeple.”

I am not living in fear. I just know that science doesn’t care what you believe, and that while Darwin doesn’t care if you wear a mask or not, I do, and so do some of your friends and relatives. As we fast approach a million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, coronavirus doesn’t care what you believe, either. It just wants another warm body to hitch a ride in. Let’s do our best to protect one another, and not grant it safe passage.

More from Kyle D. Killian Ph.D., LMFT
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