Wearing a mask puts “we” ahead of “me”

(September 25, 2020)

The ongoing dispute over making face masks mandatory highlights a larger problem in our global society — one that goes far beyond dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

To what extent should individuals be expected – or required — to change their personal behaviour for the benefit of others? Or, to put it another way, how much does “we” matter to “me”?

From the start, non-surgical masks were intended to protect other people from the virus I might be carrying — the droplets spraying out of my nose and mouth. The protests against required masking focus on limits to personal freedom, however, ignoring that protection of others. But living together in society always requires ethical limits on what I am allowed to do as an individual. I might want a red traffic light to mean “go,” but the law requires me to stop instead, whether I like it or not.

To put it another way, again, living in society requires “we” before “me,” much of the time.

And yet, that is not what the advertising machinery of consumer society barrages us with, 24-7, every day of the year. We are told to “shop till you drop,” to measure personal fulfilment through perpetual consumption — what we have, instead of who we are. #MeFirst is so much a part of western consumer culture that it does not need that hashtag to trend on social media.

It is troubling to realize this. For example, it means that U.S. President Donald Trump is not an aberration, but embodies what the American dream has unfortunately become for many people. More than ever before, he has made the presidential election about himself — not about principles or policies, but about his personality. In other words, #MeFirst – and it sucks to be you.

While it is easy to point fingers at our neighbours to the south, it is equally troubling to realize that we have exactly the same problem in Canada. Our political equivalents to President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are just more polite about it — at least, so far.

In saying this, I am not aligning to the left of the political spectrum: selfishness and privilege are members of every political caucus these days. But if there is a spectrum of social behaviour, I would rather identify with “we” than “me.” The trending hashtag should be #WeFirst, instead.

While COVID-19 — and the unfortunately related masking debate — consumes far too much of our attention these days, larger and more important issues related to the growing climate crisis reveal the scale of the me/we problem we face as a global civilization.

There is some bitter irony in the fact that the Me to We/WE Charity organization was the most high-profile casualty so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the mishandling of its involvement with the federal Liberal government. But it was the blood-in-the-water, shark-ish response of the other political parties that sealed its fate. No protestations of the greater good, the unmet needs of unemployed students, the importance of the work the organization had done to this point — none of that mattered, especially to MP Pierre Poilievre, who was Conservative fanatic-in-chief on that file.

It takes little imagination to link the ferocity of the concerted attack on the WE organization to protests over compulsory masking, and to the upcoming debate on mandatory vaccination. In a pandemic society, the idea of “we” is under threat from all sides. “We the people” is increasingly being set against “me and my house,” pitting collective welfare against personal well-being, caring for my neighbour against looking out for No 1. It’s #MeFirst, in everything from toilet paper to partying.

Fundamentally, social compliance is always a matter of personal choice — no government, however tyrannical, survives except by consent of the people. It is impossible to get more than a veneer of acceptance by threat or compulsion, which is why it is so important to shift from a culture of #MeFirst to a culture of #WeFirst.

Whether we are talking about responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to the climate crisis that is burning what it is unable to flood, somehow we have to see beyond our own personal horizons and appreciate the situation in which the rest of the world finds itself.

As author Damian Barr tweeted in April, we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same kind of boat. It is very easy to focus on yourself, and ignore others, when you think your boat is large enough to ride out the storm, or when you can head south and avoid the struggles that winter will certainly bring.

Yet when concern for ourselves consistently trumps our concern for others, the survival of global civilization itself is at risk. Choosing to wear a mask in public means more than you realize, to more people than you will ever know.

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