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Mother and child during the COVID-19 pan­demic. | Wiki­media Commons

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.

Together?

“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.”

Epis­temic cultures

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.