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Is there room for critical thinking behind the mask?
Are masks an effective health measure or a tribute to authority?
(Painting: Rembrandt’s depiction of the near sacrifice of Isaac)
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In Ontario, Canada, the chief medical officer of health has strongly recommended (but did not mandate) once again wearing masks in indoor settings because hospitals are overwhelmed, and the health system is facing “extraordinary pressures.”
In the context in which it is framed, masking is a moral imperative, devoid of power-oriented considerations and focused entirely on alleviating excessive human suffering—something that any reasonable human being moved by empathy should agree with. We all want to protect vulnerable people. So why not make the small sacrifice of wearing a mask once again (and any subsequent time we are told to do so in the future)?
But given that human nature is anything but pure, it is precisely statements that seem above reproach that need to be unpacked. We have come to accept that the idea that hospitals are overwhelmed can be invoked to demand behaviors that are then assessed as virtuous. There has been, objectively, an increase in the number children entering hospitals in Ontario, which is stressful and worthy of compassion–but some say that this was to be expected as children returned to normal life after two years of relative isolation.
But is hospital capacity primarily a practical problem that requires collaboration from the reasonable public in order to alleviate? Is the current spike in respiratory illness an unusual and extraordinary phenomenon calling for decisive measures—or will we be told the same thing—or more—year after year after year after year? And who is the authority that shall determine the ground rules by which we must conduct ourselves?
We all want to protect vulnerable people. But is it a sin to think critically when we are asked to obey in the name of “hospital capacity?”
There is no doubt that a well-functioning society must have well-managed hospitals with sufficient capacity. If the government hypothetically asked us to pay an additional reasonable tax called “hospital capacity” and if I knew that that tax went toward building hospital capacity in a rational, effective and humane manner, I would be happy to pay that tax—in addition to the significant taxes that we are already paying toward the healthcare system, as well as the constant stream of donations and gifts that we are asked to make to hospitals through various other means—from grocery-store checkouts to charity events and fundraisers.
My skepticism begins when I feel that we are being asked not simply to respect and support but rather to worship and pay tribute to the concept “hospital capacity” (and its various allied concepts)—and that “hospital capacity” might be invoked in a manner that resembles a quasi-religious entity.
There have been studies that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of wearing masks and that provide evidence about the harms of masking. Why are authorities so insistent that we mask when the evidence in favor of masking is, to say the least, not very compelling? Interestingly, I have yet to come across any public-health official in Canada even acknowledge in the media that there is a body of evidence that suggests that the efficacy of masking is not as high as they seem to be forcefully asserting.
I am not citing these studies that cast scientific doubt over masking here partly because I am not an empirical scientist; I am writing a personal reflection, not a scientific argument, and partly because the following point needs to be made: After more than two years of Covid culture, one does not require the skills of an empirical scientist—or the wit of a writer such as Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal—to ask questions about what we are being asked to do in the name of public health.
The demand to back up arguments with data is a crucial principle of empiricism. It is this principle that historically enabled us to move beyond Aristotelian dogma and to benefit from the achievements of the scientific revolution—including the incredible advancements of medicine. However, the industry of producing evidence is not a purely scientific or truth-seeking enterprise. Studies can be designed to be more likely to prove or disprove controversial points—and papers are often written in accordance with career interests and societal trends. This is one of the reasons that common sense and feeling cannot be discarded as foundations for truth-seeking and morality.
Can a person argue against mask mandates on the basis that masks are a constant source of physical irritation to them? Or on the basis that I did not spend my childhood wearing masks and that I would like children today to live similarly free of coercion? Or on the basis that I find masks dehumanizing?—or must “hospital capacity” automatically override and silence any critical thoughts of this nature if one would like to be reassured by themselves and by society of their own moral decency?
And do we have the right to ask why we do not have the required hospital capacity? After all, hospitals are not a natural resource such as diamonds that needs to be discovered and mined in nature; hospitals are human-made institutions whose capacity can and should be built by skilled managers.
The root of the problem, we seem to be told in not so many words, is us and our own failure to live up to ideals of purity–we need to take measures and more care to limit the spread of seasonal respiratory viruses due to the capacity issues in our hospitals and out of compassion for our fellow human beings. The time-honored and important practice of staying home when one is sick is not compassionate enough, even if my intuition tells me that it is good enough.
In short, we cannot go back to living like we did in 2019 or earlier. But why is it that we are not allowed to look in the other direction and ask a simple question: In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, why do seasonal respiratory viruses exhaust hospital capacity? And what is being done to solve this problem? And are we allowed to look at what other countries are doing—or would this be another act of insolence against our own indefatigable authorities who embody virtue and from whom definitions of virtue must emendate?
If in the coming months and years we continue to hear about hospital surges (especially for illnesses that have been around for a long time and that we should have known were coming) as a trigger for requiring obedience, then we have in effect accepted hospital capacity as a quasi-religious term, not as something that can and should be rationally managed. We have crossed the line from respecting hospitals as essential institutions that should be well funded so that they can serve society and into worshipping them as temples from which commandments for behavior are handed down.
In 2012, Nell Minow noted, in a context unrelated to hospital capacity, that the word “busy” was becoming toxic:
Saying “I am busy” can be just innocuous venting and sharing of feelings and information about one’s schedule—but it can also in some instances be an assertion of status and power: I am busier than you because I am such an important and productive person (and whoever remains silent about being busy is inferior).
Is “hospitals are overwhelmed” only an objective reality that demands our collaboration to overcome—or could it also be a variation of “busy” on steroids? Hospitals are indeed busy and should certainly be supported with ample resources, but the idea that the busy capacity of hospitals should have an intrusive impact on our lives, requiring us to wear masks—as opposed to staying home when we are sick and focusing on doing a better job with taxpayers’ money to build hospital capacity (or even more heretically, allowing the private sector to offer medical services alongside the public system, as they do in many other countries – which are not currently asking their citizens to wear masks)—raises questions about whether a relationship of subjugation might be in the process of being cemented.
For ancient cultures, sacrifices involved “the offering of something of value to a deity.” Minhah, one of the Hebrew words for sacrifice in the Bible, “has the general meaning of a gift from an inferior to superior.” Minhah “can have the nuance of a tribute from a vassal to a suzerain. . . . or part of an effort to curry favor with someone more powerful.” In other words, a mihah might be offered not only to God, but also to a human being who is regarded as superior or who is victorious in a political or military scenario. The Hebrew word minhah is usually translated into English as “tribute.” For example, in Judges 3:15, “Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab.” And in 2 Samuel 8.2, “ David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought him tribute. And in 2 Kings 17:3, “Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up to attack Hoshea, who had been Shalmaneser’s vassal and had paid him tribute” (Coogan, page 147).
And when a tribute is given not to a human being but to God, Michael D. Coogan notes that “in religious contexts, a minhah is thus a gift to God as superior from the offering individual or community. . . As a gift, the sacrifice, whether an animal, or other commodity, could have several functions, including appeasing an angry deity, thanking a supportive deity, or motivating a deity to help the offerer” (Coogan, page 147).
Given the ancient background of sacrifice as “tribute” in human history (including in some instances human sacrifice), it is not unreasonable to wonder whether one of the functions of the sacrifices that we have been asked to make in the context of Covid has something to do with the enduring human tendency to establish a certain group of human beings—in this case health authorities—as superior, worthy not only of taxpayers’ money but also of other tributes such as praise, obedience without critical thinking and the compromising of bodily autonomy.
This dynamic of tribute-giving also means that the overseers of our health care system, instead of looking inward and asking what they can do themselves to increase the capacity of the system, are deflecting the blame onto us for not being pure enough, for not giving enough of ourselves to the common good.
While sacrifices were an integral part of Israelite life, the Hebrew God, speaking through the prophets, also repeatedly associated sacrifices with hypocrisy, emphasizing that in the absence of social justice, sacrifices are repulsive. Ultimately, the Bible, as well as the post-biblical tradition, replaces the physical giving of tribute with faith in the heart and with concern for justice.
Amos 20: 21-24 (NIV)
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Isaiah 1: 11-17 (NIV)
The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
As we once again don (or not don) masks, it is meaningful to reflect on whether we are obeying a medical necessity or a quasi-religious ritual that involves giving tribute to a superior authority. Authorities are invoking masking—which they know to be a socially divisive measure—as if they are doing so for purely benevolent reasons and as if any reasonable human being must agree with this presumably collective imperative. The effect of the request to mask as a moral imperative might be that society will once again divided into good people and bad people, depending on whether or not they conform and offer tribute. And from Amos and Isaiah we can learn that when social justice is absent from the heart and when one part of society is pitted against another—the meaning of offerings tends to come under question.
Coogan, Michael. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew
Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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