Presumably no teacher gave them the memo that being contrarian to the point of causing public health crises is no substitute for a personality. I’m talking, of course, about the anti-mask stalwarts currently dominating our social media feeds and, occasionally, seen in the wild on national television.
Taking a step back from the circus of daily news, it’s obvious anti-maskers should be treated with nothing but mockery. These people have, perplexingly, taken a quick glance at the wreckage that constitutes contemporary politics and drawn the conclusion that the modern libertarian cause should be focused not on removing financial red tape or on denouncing limits to freedom of speech, but on their right to cough onto creme brûlées in Waitrose. The musicals of the future will, presumably, follow on from the traditions of Hamilton and Les Misérables and depict the struggle of these modern-day heroes, who alone stood against tyranny, defending their inalienable right to subject their fellow citizens to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
Where would we be without the anti-maskers? That’s right, probably not facing another six months of lockdown and hints from Boris Johnson that he may have to deploy the military. If their aim is to enhance public freedom, their movement is entirely counter-productive.
There is a serious point to be made here. That the likes of Denise Welch think her public health advice is needed or, indeed, wanted by anyone more than the opinions of our top public health experts is the natural conclusion of the last five years of anti-intellectualism. This movement didn’t begin with Michael Gove, but his now infamous speech claiming “people in this country have had enough of experts” set the tone for the next few years of public debate.
Now, political “balance” demands talk shows counter the opinions of educated experts with the uninformed opinion of celebrities, who think they know better than those who have spent a lifetime studying and working in their highly specialised field. Although this Balance To The Point Of Madness Syndrome isn’t unique to the medical sciences, some other branches of science remain mysteriously unaffected. It is not expected, let alone routine, for BBC talk show discussions on engineering to involve participants who believe that gravity doesn’t exist. Yet this kind of situation arises in other areas of science – most notably, in public health and climate change. This may have something to do with the fact that public health and climate change are both topics that the average person can claim to have experienced first-hand (we have all experienced the weather, and have all visited a GP in our time), whereas topics such as astrophysics are accepted as quite beyond the understanding of anyone not well-versed in advanced mechanics and calculus. It should be the job of editors to appreciate that providing “balance” on scientific topics, when these topics have a high degree of consensus among experts, does not mean capitulating to the views of someone who has run a handful of reddit forums and has no other qualifications in the topic. “Should” being the important word. The last few years tell us they often don’t.
Anti-intellectualism has become the default in our mass media, and a government that has openly denounced the opinions of experts on Brexit are reaping the rewards now that they need all citizens to listen to public health officials. Why should voters who endorsed their anti-intellectualism on Brexit listen to experts now?
But when anti-intellectuals thrive and are given public platforms on national television, we all suffer. In the case of the COVID anti-maskers, their stance is legitimised when their videos are shared across social media platforms, and this has public health implications.
In the anti-masker’s plight you can see that anti-intellectualism combined with an oppression-free existence can make for some of the most ugly politics. During a COVID pandemic, it can lead to deaths. If the worst discrimination you have ever faced is a polite request to wear a mask for a few weeks while you waltz down supermarket aisles eyeing up your Cabernet Sauvignon, then your life must have been pretty easy going so far. Some of us may go so far as to envy you: for the anti-mask movement is the rallying cry of the entitled. And while the Western libertarian right rants about masks, real tyranny exists elsewhere: US law enforcement murders Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the West, Muslims are forced into concentration camps in the East, Belarus teeters on the verge of revolution and mainland China shuts down Hong Kong’s free press. And if mainstream talkshows covered these topics as avidly as they do the anti-mask “debate”, maybe your weekly shop would be safer. And that would be healthier for all of us.