The Dow Science building feels like a scene from a pandemic. Walking past someone else means as little contact as possible. Inevitably, they tend toward the wall opposite the one you’re closest to — you do the same out of respect. Empty classrooms pepper the hallways, all of which end at doors littered with signage reading “MASK REQUIRED FOR ENTRY.”
In Kendall Hall, the difference is stark. Students and professors alike roam the halls maskless and with intimacy. Dozens of comforting smiles — unseen in such large numbers since March of last year — warm the atmosphere and invite students to unmask. Just 300 feet away from Dow, a short walk in the brisk January air, everything and everyone seems at peace and harmonious. There is no pandemic here.
“Hillsdale pushes us to do what we think is right,” said junior Chloe Kersey, a self-described mask-wearer. “The problem is that right now, different people think that different things are right. On campus, we tend to agree on what is right and virtuous. Right now we don’t, and that’s so hard, divisive, heartbreaking, and unlike what we’re used to.”
As far as higher education goes, Hillsdale emphasizes its community. Students enter as freshmen and embark on a four-year curriculum including two years of grueling core classes to cultivate and maintain this exact sense. Given the closeness of community and proximity, why do students and professors act so differently when it comes to masks? Last semester, I conducted several interviews for a research project on mask cultures trying to answer this very question.
Masks at Hillsdale present an interesting cultural case study for several reasons. First, masks are a new cultural object that quickly subsumed everyday life less than one year ago. Hillsdale also decided to hold in-person classes when many colleges didn’t. As a result, subsets of students and faculty produced vastly different perspectives compared to their academic peers. Third, people experience masks almost exclusively in collective contexts, which means group identities and social pressures reign supreme.
In general, differences between student groups and the specific cultures in their respective buildings held true. Science students appreciated the mask requirements as a practical tool to combat the spread of COVID-19. They saw it in a positive light, affirming that the right thing to do — often informed by Christian morality and ethics — was to bear the mask, however burdensome it may be.
Politics students, on the other hand, tended to reject masks. They held a strongly negative view of masks, characterizing them and their requirement as a political symbol, a despotic government imposition on freedom and liberty.
Senior Emma Cummins best characterized this understanding in her October 2020 op-ed “Resist Masktopia” when she quoted Peter Hitchens. “Face masks turn us into voiceless submissives,” he said, “and it’s not science forcing us to wear them. It’s politics.” In conclusion, Cummins wrote, “Mask wearing is a symbol of the people’s dying desire for true liberty.”
One might expect one of these views to resolve or fade away as the other wins out. After interviews with more students at the start of this semester, however, neither cultural undertone disappeared. Instead, they synthesized dialectically and became more value-neutral. In classic American fashion, masks became hyper-individualized. Whether or not you choose to wear a mask is now a personal decision.
Sophomore Dylan Palmer first saw masks at an airport, heading home for spring break. “At the time I just thought it was silly,” he said. “I still think it’s fine to wear a mask, I just personally don’t think it’s that important to do.”
Pandemics present a troubling social issue for individualist cultures. Diseases spread and prevail in large, dense groups. Prevention efforts focus on collective action and reducing overall spread through uniform, community protocols. Masks, for example, are primarily used to stop sick people from coughing out COVID-19, rather than to protect the person wearing one.
“People who have health conditions or are really old … they should wear a mask,” Palmer said. “I know that a lot of times people say the mask is more for not spreading it to other people rather than not getting it yourself, but I would assume there has to be some level of protection.”
Palmer’s main issue with a mask is political. “I feel like people should not have to wear a mask,” he said. “There shouldn’t be mask orders. Public places should not be enforcing people to wear a mask and kicking people out of stores.”
Palmer, however, still thinks it’s prudent to wear a mask at the right times. In general, students expressed that wearing a mask can help protect yourself, but you shouldn’t impose it on others. On the other hand, in specifically dangerous situations, like in the presence of an at-risk or elderly individual, students who harbored anti-mask sentiments said they might lay down their arms and mask up.
Junior Kamdyn Shaeffer said he doesn’t mind wearing a mask where it’s required. On WHIP last semester, Shaeffer and his friends politely obeyed D.C.’s mask mandates. “I’ve always been totally chill with wherever I go, just doing it,” he said. “I’ll do it to get in. I don’t really care to make a stink. If people want me to, I’ll do it just to respect them.”
As a politics major, Shaeffer said he has experienced both extremes when it comes to strong opinions on masks. He noticed two different types of politics students. Like himself, many don’t care much either way about masks and tend to focus on political theory. Others are very opinionated and immerse themselves in the daily news cycle and political world.
Senior Logan Pentecost, another politics major, said he thinks mask debates are a symptom of political division. “It’s a sign of the increasing polarization in our society,” he said. “You have to pick your team and whatever your team says to do is good. The Republican team has decided masking is bad and the Democratic team decided if you don’t mask, you’re evil.”
The trench dividing perspectives on masks is unsettlingly deep and may never be resolved. In cultural studies, academics use a concept called epistemic cultures to describe incommensurable differences like these.
According to sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina, different disciplines maintain different methods, tools, ways of reasoning, types of qualifying evidence, and specific practices which unify empirical and theoretical spaces. Individuals in specific fields, with different training and tools to work with, attach different meanings to objects according to what they know.
A political person interprets masks through what they know according to political epistemology: masks are bad because they’re imposed and unduly required by the state. A scientific person interprets masks through scientific epistemology: masks are good because they’re effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Cummins’ article provoked serious debate, eliciting at least two replies in The Collegian and inspiring many conversations across campus. Who is right? Nobody; neither perspective is right or wrong. The debate consists of two different understandings of masks which, at a fundamental level, do not relate to one another. A mask and its state-backed requirement can be a tyrannical imposition while also serving at the same time as a scientifically effective tool to save lives and prevent disease. At the same time, masks could be neither of these.
Palmer said he attributes peoples’ decisions to wear a mask more to social factors than reason and logic-oriented decision-making. Young people, he observed, won’t wear masks if it’s clear that the people around them don’t mind. “A lot of wearing a mask is just a social stigma. It’s way more about the social aspect than it is worrying about the disease.”
Junior Jade Juniper, a psychology student, agreed with Palmer that mask-wearing and attitudes are a social product. “In classes where a couple people take off their mask, I see other people follow along,” she said. “Or if the first few people walk into the class and the professor’s wearing a mask, everyone puts the mask on. It’s not really about what people believe, it’s about what others are doing.”
Though she errs on the side of wearing a mask, Kersey said she sees both sides. “It can be easy as a student who wears a mask to look at students who don’t and go, ‘Well they don’t care about my life or my livelihood,’ but I don’t know if that’s true,” she said. “It can also be easy for a student who doesn’t wear a mask to accuse us of virtue signaling.”
Kersey clued into something important. Each person, no matter their specific interpretation, believes they are promoting the public good. “I don’t think anyone on campus has malicious intent,” she said. “I don’t believe the students who don’t want to wear a mask do it out of hatred or malice. But I also don’t think the students who choose to wear a mask are doing it because of virtue signaling.”
A little charity and good faith can go a long way.