Public health officials want to discredit fake mask exemption cards that have begun to circulate in California. Photo credit: @lapublichealth, via Twitter

Has it really come to this?

The “Freedom to Breathe Agency” is issuing “facemask exemption” cards, which state that the bearer is not required to wear a mask as it’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course, ADA officials have granted no such exemption. Such is just one of countless desperate idiocies in which half of Americans won’t wear masks, believing the requirement treads on their individual rights.

OK, the unmasked have individual rights. What’s that got to do with a pandemic, which is, at the end of June, becoming tsunamic with more than 45,000 new cases each day, the majority now among the young?

The exemption claims of the young and unmasked followed, for a time, a more hoped-for than sensible logic.

If young, mask deniers were largely immune since the majority of deaths hit the elderly; if young and white, they would survive because the virus disproportionately targets minorities; if infected and without underlying conditions, that, too, would up their survival odds; and if infected, treatments were improving and a vaccine is around the corner.

(A mid-article reminder from The Lancet: 172 recent and worldwide observational studies conclude that face masks “can result in a large reduction in risk of infection.”)

Digging into the motives of the young, I find swaths of specious reasoning. To wear a mask is: to be concerned more with health than with looks, to be a stick-in-the-mud at social gatherings, to lose potential dates unless the masks come off as signs of romantic daring, and, according to Trump, to side with liberals as a vote against the President’s cavalier certainty that the virus is dying out.

Drilling down further, I discover commonalities to the unmasked cause. You’re less likely to wear a mask, according to surveys, if a) you live where you’ve been less affected by the disease, usually in less densely populated communities; b) you’re a male and vote Republican; c) you’re disinclined to think your health choices affect others; d) you’re unemployed and “opening up the economy” less masked is your road back to a job; and f) your belief that something is true is the prime measure by which something is true.

Flashing Neon Sign: What is true is what you believe is true. Does belief make Americans rational agents? As a rule, do our countrymen and women examine issues from their constituent sides and, after careful study, assert that when the data is lacking or unpersuasive or wrong, then the explanation we believe fits must be right?

If we are rational, then it follows that we shop wisely for the best price, say, on a used vehicle, an affordable college, the lowest-priced pizza. Lots do. Lots deploy Internet search engines: Comparative hunts on Orbitz locate the cheapest flight, an overnighter to Atlanta by way of Seattle and three plane changes. No one buys that ticket, but that’s not the point. Orbitz’s business model lures us to search (clickbait, eye candy) because we are motivated to save $30 by acting against our best interest, which, in the end, we don’t.

We aren’t rational actors; it’s why we have to be convinced—facts help a lot—so we don’t just believe what we think is right. Otherwise we become fact-avoidant and conspiracy-prone.

Look no further than the stock market. Buyers get in when markets have already gone up, fearful they’ll miss the trend; buyers get out when markets have already begun tanking, fearful they’ll lose their profits.

Worse, once we buy a product, say, for more $100, and we don’t like it, we don’t admit our mistake but pervert our “logic” that our time, hassle, and embarrassment is not worth seeking the dollars we’ve lost. In such cases, the sizzle replaces the steak: Las Vegas blackjack, time shares, boats, gym memberships, the Paleo diet—anything in which vanity is the measure, not wisdom.

Back to face masks and the claim that I’m right and the experts are wrong.

Such self-surety is a cousin to religious conviction. Those who won’t wear masks won’t because they’re sure they’re protected by a magic power, which controls their fate, for better or worse. Faith in the unseen and the unproven is baked into the American cake. None of us can weasel out of a culture that’s steeped in the (non)science of “what I believe is true is true.” If millions assume that a faith-based outcome has been ordered up, then outcomes otherwise indeterminate will also rule.

For example: How do you convince the lax masked that a face covering is a buffer against what cannot be seen or touched, transmissible by air, a microscopic little devil?

There’s only one way. You work backwards from the effects to the cause to convince the deniers they are wrong.

Think about our foreign wars. How, if they were fought in lands far away, were Americans convinced they were worth fighting? The actual evidence of the war’s effects made people sacrifice personal freedom and join the cause.

Men fought in and women organized during the Second World War because the reported stories were wholly reliable (the facts were agreed on): the Nazis overran several continental countries like Poland and Austria; the Blitz was a nightly occurrence, narrated by Edward R. Murrow on radio; Jews and other European minorities were pleading for help; and the attack on Pearl Harbor was described—and felt—as it happened. Likewise, didn’t the media convince us of retribution after we saw 9/11 repeated on TV thousands of times?

I propose that we use the storytelling power of the media to counter the so-called Anti-Facemask Patriots. WARNING: This is as graphic as I can make it.

Run a nightly news program that does two things. First, present the stories of people who having lost loved ones express the emotional tragedy they live with because they couldn’t say goodbye. Second, show the suffering of patients and hospital workers live. Third, televise the death throes of individuals asphyxiating and/or the corpses of the COVID-19 dead. Regard them like bodies on a battlefield because they are victims of a war much deadlier than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.

My mother told me of a judge in Chicago who as punishment for teenage drunk driving took the cocky lads to the morgue and made them look at, smell, and touch not a few but many mangled victims, kids their own age killed by drunk drivers, their bodies torn limb from limb, their heads severed.

If we know the bodily consequences of the threat, we might be able to dispense with these ludicrous face mask exemptions, from President Trump on down.

Thomas Larson is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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