Those Americans who oppose wearing masks sure know how to get attention.
One anti-masker, Ashley Smith, a co-founder of ReOpen NC, took to Facebook last month in a video rant against mandatory face coverings. She invoked her right to “personal liberty and the constitution and personal freedom,” declaring, “I’m standing up and I’m saying, I will not comply.”
Then, she set a mask afire, attempting to create a viral movement called #ignite freedom.
Her effort fizzled, according to the Charlotte Observer, with most on social media siding against her, like this poster who wrote: “What it does do is set an example of not caring and encouraging other people not to care, and to actively spread the disease.”
Ashley Smith is far from alone. Anti-mask protests are regular occurrences, with recent demonstrations taking place in Indianapolis, Provo, Utah, and San Francisco, to name but three locales.
Then, there’s President Donald Trump, who regularly refused to don a mask in public. It’s only in recent days, with his poll numbers cratering, that Trump changed course. With more than 150,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and its complications, Trump finally declared at a White House briefing last week, “I have no problem with a mask.”
While the anti-maskers’ voices may be loud and dramatic (and completely wrong about the science), I’ve noticed a counter narrative that runs deep and wide, and which is gives me hope.
Hope, not only about how we can beat this pandemic, but hope for our very partisan and fragmented nation. I first noticed a Wisconsin public service announcement, which reads, “Mask up to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The mask protects WE, NOT ME.”
The Sauk Prairie health department had capitalized those crucial three words as a call to action, an explicit critique of American individualism that is often at odds with “common good” principles about community.
Increasingly, as the pandemic surges again in many parts of the U.S. (and globally), the message — that our collective fate depends on all of us — is catching fire.
Megan O’Rourke, an essayist for The Atlantic captured this perfectly when she wrote, “No person is an island; the nation that believes in individuals more than it values community risks its own survival.”
Similarly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently declared in Time magazine, “This is a time to act together; only concerned action can effectively combat a threat of this scale.”
Even the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, argued in a blistering YouTube critique of Trump, “I think we have to start appealing to the better side of human nature by pointing out that that mask is not so much to protect me. It’s to protect other people.”
In other words, “we — not me.”
Americans largely united on masks
Recent polls and surveys tell a different, more encouraging story than the actions of the anti-mask protesters: Americans are actually united in favor of wearing masks. A Pew Research study concluded that 80 percent of us say we’ve worn a mask in public at least “some of the time,” while 65 percent wore them “all or most of the time.”
Only 16 percent said they “hardly ever” or “never” wear a mask.
Similarly, a Gallup poll reported this month that 86 percent of U.S. adults said they’d worn a mask in the previous week.
The Pew study, the first to ask about attitudes toward masking, found a partisan divide, but surprisingly, strong majorities of both Democrats (88 percent) and Republicans (72 percent) reported wearing a mask at least some of the time.
And why are we wearing masks? A survey conducted by Morning Consult in June concluded that about three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) said they wore masks “to protect themselves and others.” (Another 6% claimed to wear masks because it’s required.) In total, that’s an astounding 80 percent of those surveyed who said they were wearing masks, largely to benefit the common good.
We need to share in common good
And that is the silver lining to this pandemic. As I argued in my TED Talk “3 Ways to Practice Civility,” Americans have lost the original notion of civility, derived from the Latin “civilitas,” which roughly translates to “the conduct becoming citizens in good standing, willing to give of themselves for the good of the city.”
Or more simply: to be a good citizen who cares about the common good.
Despite the protests and lack of presidential leadership, Americans clearly understand the importance of “we — not me” in fighting this pandemic. Maybe we can even apply it to other challenges, starting with climate change.
I have hope.
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books and host of The Civilist Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @StevenPetrow. Additional reporting by Kenrick Cai.