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An ugly tendency has been unmasked of late

There have been many responses to ending the legal requirement to wear a face mask - but we need a rational discussion about it, says Simon Zonenblick

The news that Covid restrictions in England end on 19th July has, understandably, prompted many responses – from relief at the prospect of freedom, to warnings that the plans are premature, and could lead to further deaths.  But it has also brought to a head an ugly,  increasingly evident, tendency: putting words in others’ mouths – especially on social media…

“Another of the brainwashed,” scoffs one twitter bigmouth. “You’ve swallowed government lies,” sneers another. Calmly expressed concerns meet with sarcastic blasts of “if terrified, stay locked up indoors”, or cartoons depicting trembling wrecks cowering in cellars. Terms like “bed-wetters” and “sheeple” predominate. Healthcare professionals are accused of a sinister plot – the purposes of which I’ve ceased trying to decipher after 18 months of contradictory conspiracist gobbledigook.

None can say for certain what is the best way to proceed.  We are bombarded with graphs, stats, emotive statements and arguments based on pre-existing views on the government. Those accusing Boris of risking lives for the economy in the next breath say he doesn’t care about the economy. Some who want continued restrictions are negative or authoritarian, yet even an instinctive mask-shunner like myself, faced with claims that binning them risks lives and leaves those for whom vaccines are useless feeling at risk on public transport, I feel I must continue carrying them at least for a while in case the need for wearing it arises, such as, to use the PM’s own example, on a crowded train.

I welcome personal responsibility, but will have to make decisions I am unqualified to make, and I’ve sufficient experience of the general public to know not all will show concern for others. Compromise will be needed, guidance on masks will need to be clear. But online, this reluctant support is interpreted as pro-mask zealotry, as “sad” and “anti-social.” I see innumerable assertions that, after 19th July, anyone wearing a mask should be regarded as brainwashed, just as many claiming anyone not doing should be seen as almost psychopathic. Might it not be that people will have their reasons, or may even be in two minds? Is it too much to expect the issue of 19th July can be debated without anyone wanting restrictions lifted automatically being accused of heartlessness, or skeptics of all being brainwashed or fascistic?  

I hope that, at least in secular settings, masks do not have much of a future. They are irritating to wear, hinder integration, are security hazards, and a nightmare for those reliant on lip-reading. Even cheering up a child on the bus with a smile across the aisle is impossible behind a cloth. See-through materials might overcome these last two points, but could worsen the environmental impact. Masks benefitting wearers would be a way forward, but are often expensive, and their successful adoption could take time.

So surely we need a little give and take? Not according to self-appointed experts on social media. “Its time for everyone to make their own choice,” declares one. “They’re trying to control us,” insists another – as if voluntarily donning a mask in exceptional circumstances demonstrates Orwellian subjugation. 

Conversely, many in favour of restrictions have reacted to their imminent end with accusations of mass murder. In countries governed by military dictators, I could credit this. But the idea that Britain’s elected officials have collectively decided to unleash a crime against humanity for no reason, after 18 months of being accused of excessive restrictions, is ludicrous. In difficult times, it is tempting to look for bad-guys. But does it never occur to those who do this that our government are just people trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances?

Over-simplification, and attributing of false motives, goes beyond Covid – take arguments over Brexit, gender, immigration and statues, for example. The slightest nod to an idea, or acknowledging its flaws, can see you characterised as your opposite. I have seen Boris Johnson denounced as “Marxist” by disgruntled conservatives, Keir Starmer “a Tory” by diehard Corbynistas. During the EU Referendum, some people supported remaining in spite of misgivings, but were regarded as “Remainiacs” sold on the entire EU project. Others voted to leave while admitting they would love to remain, but believed the EU had veered too far in directions they could not support. To many detractors they were simply dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteers. To some, accepting opinions differ within movements would be admitting their tribe was tainted by the membership of those not up to their vision of the true adherent. They prefer to pretend that anyone who differs from them must belong to the rival tribe. 

At the risk of assuming motivations myself, I’ve spent enough time following online Covid carping to conclude that, for many, the wrongful application of beliefs is a calculated move. To be described as the thing you are not is destabilising, and often intended to intimidate, such as a Jewish person being accused of acting “like a Nazi,” or a victim blamed for the crime of their abuser. But I think that for every devious bully building straw men, there is another person who, conditioned by our online culture of simplification, feels threatened by challenges to their comfort zone, and, unable to comprehend the concept of the lesser-of-two-evils, is incapable of anything other than dumbed-down, binary caricature. 

I welcome ideological diversity. What I feel is corrosive to healthy social discourse is for considered, caveated positions to be intentionally misinterpreted. If you are prone to knee-jerk assumptions, please consider that the next time someone says they would love to ditch masks, but reluctantly agrees not to, they might mean it. If someone expresses sadness at restrictions while defending their necessity, rather than being a fanatical restrictionist who favours “eternal lockdown,” they might actually be sad at restrictions, but believe, after consideration and listening to others, they should remain. Distorting others’ stances turns complex issues into slanging matches, and is manifestly dishonest.

I’m not expecting everyone to agree with my point of view. All I ask is that if they dispute it, they do so on the basis of what is said, rather than on the basis of misrepresenting, in accordance with simplistic templates out of keeping with reality.

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Simon Zonenblick

Simon Zonenblick is a poet and nature writer also trying his hand at podcasts, radio and journalism. His existing work includes a film about Branwell Bronte, several collections of poetry and fiction. This autumn he is due to publish a collection of poems and an audio CD. He lives in the Calder Valley, Yorkshire.

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