The Deeper Meaning Behind the Face Mask Dispute: Freedom
“Is freedom the permission to do what you like or the power to do what you ought?”
While face masks are not required by all state and local authorities, many restaurants and businesses are requesting they be worn by customers. Videos are going viral of persons who refuse to wear masks despite store policies, such as the Costco customer who declared, “I’m not doing it ’cause I woke up in a free country” or the Trader Joe’s customer who ignored local requirements and erupted in expletives when questioned by employees, stating, “my doctor will not let me wear a mask,” as she left the store.
Stories and videos continue to surface around the face mask dispute, from a San Diego woman shaming a Starbucks barista, to a man fighting his way into a Walmart in Florida, to various persons coughing on bystanders or produce then announcing they have the virus.
Such defiance is being explained as a symbol of the cultural wars, however, the philosopher in me believes in the beginnings of a deeper explanation offered up by social critic Os Guinness.
What is the nature of this division?
Guinness argues that the divisions seen throughout America today are due to a disagreement in how to view a republic and understand freedom, with each side originating its ideas from either the American Revolution or the French Revolution. In America, the revolution was about freedom from taxation and freedom to self-rule while the French Revolution emphasized only freedom from monarchy.
He cites the work of Isaiah Berlin and the concepts of negative liberty and positive liberty. Berlin defines negative liberty as an absence of obstacles, interference, coercion, whereas positive liberty is a presence of self-restraint, self-mastery, and self-determination. Reflecting upon this, Guinness asks, “Is freedom the permission to do what you like or the power to do what you ought?”
Is it “Freedom from” or “Freedom to” or Both?
Put another way, is choosing to not wear a mask about preserving one’s “freedom from” or one’s “freedom to”?
In the classic Escape From Freedom Erich Fromm writes that “freedom from” is to live in a free country, to not be a slave, to be free of coercion or restrictions. “Freedom to” is freedom to be one’s own master, to have a capability to choose, have alternatives, variety. In this way, Americans can make good use of their freedom by building upon their “freedom from” to exercise “freedom to,” reaching a full potential of freedom.
What does a full potential of freedom look like today?
Public Health as a Safeguard for Collective Liberty
In March of 2017, Dean Sandro Galea of the Boston University School of Public Health published a letter on the tensions of public health and the infringement of peoples’ rights. Galea wrote, “[health] institutions are necessary to ensure that unfettered individual liberty does not trespass on the liberty of anyone else, and that such a trespass is, in fact, an injustice.”
In an eloquent explanation of how narrow arguments about freedom ignore the right that populations have to health, Galea states: “being able to live a healthy, productive life is not only a right in itself, but a necessary condition for our capacity to enjoy other rights.” This statement reminds me of the recent tweet by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams:
The American Lung Association has assured citizens that wearing a mask is safe and effective, sharing that “mask-wearing allows us to open the economy up faster. Not wearing a mask around others only worsens the pandemic, leads to more disease, and worsens the economic effects.”
Individual liberties such as choosing to wear or not wear a face mask can cause tension between freedom and public health concerns where limits on one’s liberty (wearing a mask which may be inconvenient/uncomfortable) can actually result in more freedom. Practicing safety as a collective group lowers the risk of the virus spreading and decreases the number of cases which in turn allows for businesses to stay open.
Freedom’s Full Potential
Where health institutions attempt to prevent the emphasis of one’s individual liberty, explaining that to not wear a mask infringes on the liberty of others, there still remains those who take on a spirit of negative freedom, freedom from responsibility, to “do what I like,” to claim freedom as its base meaning “to not be a slave” and “live in a free country.”
For others, the face mask dispute is about positive freedom, freedom “to be one’s own master” with a “capability to choose” and the “power to do what I ought,” understanding that wearing a face mask is an exercise of free choice that takes into consideration alternatives and decides upon the greater good for the health of the population. And in practice this choice, if collective, leads to the ultimate freedom “to go out” sooner.