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  • Curt

You're Not the Boss, I'm the Boss

I have been wondering about this mysterious mask/no mask battle. Seriously, should it take a governmental mandate to get people to do something that is minimally invasive, that demonstrably protects others, and that may also protect yourself? We don't intentionally grab a hot frying pan without a potholder, do we? We don't drive through an intersection with our eyes closed, do we? We wouldn't pick a fight with Muhammad Ali in his prime, or challenge a cheetah in a footrace. So why have masks become such a metaphor of the cultural divide within the country.

Some would ascribe this development to a political divide in the country, with the masks serving as a visible symbol of the team you support. Wear a mask, you are a communist, a socialist, a liberal, or, worst of all, a Democrat. Don't wear a mask and you are a culture warrior, a science denier, a Trumpian, a card-carrying member of the alt-right, or a crank determined to be ignorant.

But I wonder. Those characterizations seem a little too contrived. I have seen elderly churchgoers without masks, I have seen protesters without masks. I have seen liberals and conservatives wear masks. I have seen folks become irate when asked to wear a mask, I have seen others apologize for forgetting to have a mask on. Yes, the political divide certainly contributes to the masking phenomenon, but I think there is another explanation.

When children, particularly young boys, are first socializing, they learn cues about social hierarchies and personal autonomy. Some of those cues come from their parents and other family members, some from their peers. I am certainly no psychiatrist (although I certainly know a few :)), but I still remember my friends engaging in a constant low-grade battle to exert dominance over the group, often with resistance from the other members of the group who had their own designs on leadership and dominance. Inevitably, this would result in one of the members, having finally decided that they had had enough of being ordered around, yell out "You're not the boss, I'm the boss!!"

Now, at first blush, it might seem that this outcry is a demand by the formerly oppressed to become the new boss. However, it seems to me it often stands for something else--namely, I am my own boss and you don't get to tell me what to do, so back off. This constant battle between leadership and personal autonomy was often fed by parents who admonished their kids to take control, to fight back, to stand up for yourself. I can still remember my own Dad telling me that if I didn't fight back, there would be worse in store for me at home. So, I fought back-- winning a few, losing many more. But, in the end, I believe this way of thinking has been a dead end. Why? Because it has led too many of us to be wary of surrendering our autonomy, of letting others take the lead, of accepting the authority of others, even when those folks are, well, authorities.

So, in this COVID-19 pandemic, a doctor or scientist who asks a person to wear a mask is not viewed (by some) as being a person of goodwill- he or she is an oppressor, much like the kid in grade school who tried to tell you what to do. And those who refuse to go along, even in the face of overwhelming science against them, are often saying "YOUR NOT THE BOSS, I'M THE BOSS."

Personal autonomy is important. It is how we find out who we are, and what we are capable of becoming. But, in truth, none of us are truly our own boss---not in our work, not in our relationships, sometimes not even within the interior of our own lives. That does not mean that we are helpless or that things are always beyond our control. We are empowered to do much and self-achievement is a beautiful thing. But some things are too powerful for any one of us to overcome individually. COVID-19 is one of those things, and you will not be its boss. WEAR. A. MASK. (Not that I am telling you what to do).

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