Masks in a Vaccinated Nation

Compassionate or insane?

With vaccination rates surpassing 50 percent, the U.S. is beginning to navigate the process of returning to normal. To many Americans, masks remain a salient and emotional symbol — but of what?

Here’s the current conversation around masks within each side’s own terms:

To the right, wearing masks is a symbol of government overreach and herd mentality. The CDC says it’s completely safe for vaccinated people to unmask. Continuing the mask wearing charade is unnecessary virtue signaling and exhibits a lack of independent thinking. This behavior shows it was never about science, but fear and control.

To the left, wearing masks symbolizes safety and compassion for other people. Although vaccinations are going up, the pandemic is not over. We need to make sure vulnerable people in our communities are safe and be ready in case new variants start spreading. Going back to a maskless life is difficult, and we need to be respectful of people who find it hard to make that adjustment.

Themes in the mask conversation

How a person instinctively views masks depends on their broader worldview.

People on the right tend to be rooted in the value of self-reliance and uphold the primacy of the local community. They tend to believe that the people closest to the problem are the ones best suited to solve it — not a national or state government hundreds of miles away.

Mask mandates violate these principles by stripping the individual of their autonomy and putting it into the hands of national officials who don’t know that individual’s specific circumstances. When viewed in this light, a piece of cloth is transformed into a symbol of government overreach.

People on the left tend to focus on the whole nation as the unit of analysis and emphasize the idea of compassionate self-sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good. They see a strong central government as the best solution to the challenges society faces, especially when it comes to protecting and supporting marginalized groups. 

In times of crisis, left-leaning people tend to push collective action over inaction. Since mask mandates are seen as a way to ensure everyone is doing their part to fight this virus, they will see mask-wearing as a symbol of a united, compassionate nation taking action. 

These dynamics become clear when you take a closer look at the conversation about masks over the course of the pandemic:

Key takeaways

Symbols often elicit an emotional reaction rooted in a moral intuition. To some, masks immediately evoke vivid anger around oppression, control, and herd mentality. To others, masks bring about feelings of protection and compassion as a sign of care for community members at risk. And depending on your interpretation of masks, your contra-partisans are transformed into either mindless government drones or selfish science-deniers.

Because masks are such a salient symbol, interactions between the left and the right are about something more fundamental than a piece of cloth — a conflict of values. 

If we wish to have a fruitful conversation about masks, we must understand that our contra-partisan’s position on masks is as obvious and real to them as our position is to us. On the whole, the mask is as much a shield as it is shackles.

Note: The right/left division in this debate is not cut and dry, but remains useful for understanding the conversation and the motivations behind each position. As with all of our analyses, the positions described are not exhaustive representations of the discourse.

Other notable amplifiers