Shaming and its Mask(ed) Controversy

Shaming and its Mask(ed) Controversy

By Erica Belfi '21 (Illustration by Christine Rösch of The New Yorker)

With everything at stake, feeling frustration or anger towards the people disregarding pandemic safety protocols is completely warranted. By refusing to wear a mask or physically distance, they place others unnecessarily at risk. We’re all dealing with this behavior in different ways. While some folks are avoiding anti-maskers at all costs, others take a bolder approach, asking them politely to mask up and back away. Across social media platforms and Haverford’s campus, we’re seeing something else, too: shaming. 

Many of us, overtly or covertly, are shaming others who are traveling, eating out at restaurants, gathering with friends, and partying carelessly. We are confronting a collective image of U.S. society seemingly contaminated by individual negligence. It’s embarrassing that we’ve failed so miserably to keep the virus at bay. While shaming may feel like a tangible way to hold people accountable for their actions, I can tell you that it won’t work (and never has) for public health. 

Shaming is an instrument of power used to reinforce social norms, clarifying that there is a “correct” way to act and exist. With shame, we regulate deviant behavior, often by weaponizing stigma and enforcing social exclusion. But when we shame others for poor behavior, we lose focus on the state’s irresponsibility, inadvertently exacerbate social inequalities, and perpetuate a form of policing.

As colleges began opening in August and September, we saw that one after another reported the virus spreading across their campuses. Inevitably, school administrators and local officials blamed the students. For those of us who have cautiously returned to Haverford’s campus, we are met with periodic emails reminding us of the consequences of breaking pandemic protocols. They all imply that it’s up to us how well we navigate pandemic life. And, yes, student actions have and continue to shape our time here. However, placing the emphasis on individual agency distracts from the larger problem of state and administrative preparedness.

The implication that the safety and stability of our lives is dependent on young people’s behavior absolves our leaders of blame for what has unfolded. When the pandemic first began spreading, it demanded “a response that is swift, rational, and collective.” Instead, the U.S. national and state responses were slow, chaotic, and disastrous — reflective of the current administration, overall. In reality, governing actors did not take appropriate and timely action to address the pandemic when decisive action was most needed. We needed our representatives to create systems that better protect people, especially people experiencing housing insecurity, under financial stress, disabled, or living in neighborhoods with poor infrastructure. We needed leaders that decided against reopening high-risk spaces too soon. 

Our pandemic struggles point to the institutional failure to take care of the nation’s citizens, the weakness of our welfare programs, and the inequities in our infrastructure. As if our problems aren’t obvious enough, “the gross inequality of our healthcare system is evident in the sight of refrigerated trucks lined up outside public hospitals,” noted an article from The Atlantic. If we are to effectively address the pandemic, we must critically acknowledge the narrative of individual responsibility and simultaneously hold our governing bodies accountable for the policies that they choose to implement.

We’ve seen institutions use shaming as a tool during the HIV and AIDS epidemic, for cigarette smokers, and to discourage obesity, all unsuccessfully. Not only can shaming be dehumanizing and degrading in each of these contexts, but it can also exacerbate existing social inequalities. More often than not, the burden of shame works in favor of power-holders, opening the doors for abuse. 

During the pandemic, shame has fallen hardest on people who are already disproportionately marginalized, especially BIPOC and low-income communities. People who are struggling financially may not have the resources to purchase or make their own masks. Even with resources, others experience the looming fear of the unintended consequences of “being masked while Black”. If someone is working an essential job, they may not have the ability to physically distance or limit their exposure to other people. Without adequate public green space in neighborhoods or access to affordable healthcare, people are extremely limited in their ability to maintain their health. The ways that shaming compounds these injustices for low-income, BIPOC communities reinforces social and racial hierarchies, further perpetuating existing systems of power and control.

By accepting institutional shaming, specifically, as appropriate, we consequently allow a level of policing. Shaming requires surveillance. If the state or local institution is to maintain social control, it must first surveil its subjects for deviant behavior. Once identified, the institution may punish through containment or social exclusion. Not only is this kind of policing unhelpful, but it’s also counterproductive. By shaming anti-maskers, for example, shamers fuel growing animosity towards the “finger-wagging, ‘elitist’ public-health experts who want to take away the freedoms of ordinary Americans”. 

Stigma associated with certain actions can discourage openness and hinder public-health efforts. Necessary contact tracing begins to break down if students are too afraid to reveal that they or their friends were at an unauthorized party. When store employees attempt to enforce safety policies by requiring customers to wear masks, some people have violently lashed out, likely having felt targeted or excluded from the norm. Policing each other has not proved safe or effective.

Some may argue that the severity and extent of the pandemic merits shaming as an appropriate tactic. While we should consider any avenue that could help save lives, efforts that rely on policing do not address the core of the problem. Furthermore, alienating and excluding members of our communities will not move people to care about one another. Instead of changing minds, it will ground people in their hostility. 

We need to move away from shaming and look to ways that we can positively reinforce safe behavior. This can start with more emphasis on state responsibility. We must demand that our leaders provide conditions that will help us navigate our individual circumstances.

A harm reduction approach can more effectively and ethically encourage safety protocol compliance. “Public health works best when it recognizes and supports people’s needs and desires without judgement,” wrote Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. In her comparison between the current pandemic and the HIV and AIDS epidemic, Marcus shows that using public health strategies that meet people where they are allows for necessary flexibility.

We can start with the masks. Efforts into making them more comfortable, well-fitting, and stylish should be paired with mass distribution, just as condoms were treated in the late 80s. Standard, reusable masks should be in every grocery store, school, at the entrance of every subway station or bus stop, and readily available in any other public buildings. Ideally, they would be free. As Marcus points out, priority should be given to the most marginalized neighborhoods that the pandemic has hit hardest. 

And this doesn’t have to be where harm reduction stops. The point, however, is that we don’t need shame or punishment to make this work. If we mobilize in a way that encourages care and demands support from our leaders, we can learn to navigate both the pandemic and each other. These strategies have worked before. Let’s learn from history and try again.

4 thoughts on “Shaming and its Mask(ed) Controversy

  1. A great analysis of the costs and risks of shaming tactics. I’m intrigued by the suggestion of an alternative centered around widespread mask distribution, like the condom distribution drive that began in the 1980s. So the alternative you’re proposing is: center on leaders’ responsibility for protecting people, distribute masks widely and cheaply, prioritize those worst harmed, encourage care for others, positively reinforce safe behavior, avoid institutional shaming of people, and don’t engage in face-to-face shaming of people for risky conduct?

    I wonder how that strategy would have worked in the campaigns against cigarette smoking in the 1980s and 1990s in the US. I remember those battles: when I was 13, my 7th grade class was sent to another school for a lecture by ex-Marlboro Men models who’d appeared in the famous Marlboro cigarette ads of cowboys and such. They talked about how they’d been habitual smokers, and the harm it had done to their lungs and so forth. Message: Smoking is really risky–if you’re going to do it, do so in full awareness of the risks (there were similar “This is your brain on drugs” ads in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign). We left the lecture, and one of my classmates not unreasonably concluded that the message had been, “Just say no–don’t smoke.” So when he saw a teacher outside smoking, he told him, “You shouldn’t smoke, it’s not good for you.” The teacher flew into the kind of rage you mention and demanded that our teacher discipline my classmate. Would you say that the Marlboro Men show was institutional shaming, that my classmate’s comment was individual shaming, and the teacher’s was an anti-shaming rage? I’m not so clear about the first now, because I think the Marlboro Men didn’t actually say, “You shouldn’t smoke, period, because it’s harmful and wrong.” I think what they said was, “If you’re going to smoke, know that this is what will likely happen–it happened to us and our buddies–you have been warned.” Would you say that that kind of message also counts as institutional shaming, or contributes to it?

    Anyway, what would your strategy have recommended for the anti-smoking campaigns? The elements you mention, plus emphasis on how not smoking is cool and exciting? Should we do the same thing for mask-wearing?

  2. Thanks for the great article, Erica. I’m interested to know your opinion on how harm reduction practices would come into play when dealing with virulent (pun intended) “anti-maskers?” For example, what would this method suggest doing with someone who refuses to get off on an airplane or leave a grocery store even though they are not wearing a mask? I think the societal choice has definitely been stigma/public shaming by publicizing these videos and degrading the people who are seen doing this. However, I think that this pretty clearly breeds more anger and a greater desire to defy (as your argument would suggest). But what do we besides prevention campaigns? When met in these situations practically, how should we respond?

  3. Erica, your topic is so interesting, especially within the contemporary example of masking that we are living with today! Leading up to reading your article and hearing your thoughts on shaming, especially with regard to masking, I was far less conscious of my shaming of those who evaded COVID guidelines and refused to use masks. While I am still dismayed to see so many people flaunting the CDC’s guidelines, the past several months, especially, have shown me the inefficacy of shaming people into wearing masks. If they aren’t going to do it, they aren’t going to do it. Rather, we should focus on legal and scientific application to enforce the idea that a) not wearing a mask is a scientific health risk to yourself and others and b) legal requirements for mask wearing are more effective at enforcing mask wearing than simply shaming people into wearing one at a Wal-Mart. Do you think that legal action to enforce mask wearing is considered shaming? Would that differ from laws made to prevent smoking indoors, etc.? Additionally, thank you for including the section on how shaming often affects those who have the fewest accesses to resources and are least able to social distance. It is definitely an unintentional, yet very pervasive and disturbing consequence to shaming. All around very well-written, and definitely gave me a lot to think about!

  4. Erica,

    Thank you for such an interesting essay! Many times during reading this I found that I had a visceral reaction of wanting to argue against your logic. I *want* to feel justified shaming people who refuse to wear masks, who don’t social distance, who put others at risk. And it’s hard for me to accept that we shouldn’t not shame these people. For me personally to accept this, I have to frame it not as I’m refraining from shaming them because they don’t deserve it but rather that I’m refraining from shaming them because I don’t have a complete understanding of their situation. As you acknowledged up above, not everyone has access to a large, clean supply of masks. Additionally, during this pandemic mental health problems have arisen for more and more people as they try and cope with the isolation that our public safety measures have caused. Finally, I have to take into account the lack of a cohesive message from our federal and state governments has contributed to much of the anti-mask, anti-science attitude in this country. Can you imagine how different the narrative would be if our government had, from the start, advocated mask wearing and social distancing? If they had been one unified front against the pandemic instead of the absolute disaster that actually occurred.

    However, even knowing all of this I still feel the urge to scream at and shame anti-maskers over the internet. Even if they’ve been fed a narrative and even if we should be looking towards the government for the failure of our country to contain the pandemic, what steps can we take towards people who intentionally do what they want regardless of the science and public safety recommendations? Or, if we provided the services you suggest, such as free, stylish masks, do you think that population would be small enough to overlook?

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