Opinion: Make mask-wearing a sign of personal strength, not weakness. Lives depend on it

Those who reject masks are motivated by the feeling of toughness derived from the kinds of associations Trump and others forge

Article content

By Robert Danisch

As a second wave of COVID-19 sweeps across Canada and the high tide of a first wave continues to inundate the U.S., a seemingly exasperated Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Anthony Fauci continue to remind North Americans to wear masks. Which begs the question, given all the evidence, and the mounting numbers of dead and hospitalized, why are some people still not wearing masks?

The answer is that this is a problem of communication and persuasion, something that Tam and Fauci, despite their medical knowledge and skill, are ill-equipped to solve. Here’s the difficulty: Masks work to prevent the spread of the virus and we have the data to prove it. Tam and Fauci believe that if they just give the public this information, then their jobs are done. But information doesn’t motivate action, and the transmission of information doesn’t accurately describe how communication or persuasion work.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Communication is a process of making meaning, and persuasion is the strategic art of assigning meaning for the purpose of motivating action. Any time we introduce a new idea or object into our public culture, we have a contest over the meaning of the idea or object. This contest over meaning is inevitable. Let’s consider helmets in hockey: For years hockey players thought helmets were a sign of weakness, misaligned with the general belief that hockey players were supposed to be macho and tough. The NHL had to fight this meaning in order to motivate players to wear helmets. Now very few people see helmets as a sign of weakness.

This contest over meaning is inevitable

In the case of the mask, we are living through a contest over what the mask means. For some, the mask means weakness, femininity, governmental overreach, or an infringement on personal freedom. A Fox News host tweeted: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask Joe” about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Clearly this is an attempt to equate mask-wearing with weakness or femininity.

It’s called semiotic tying, when we associate one object (the mask) with another (the purse) in order to suggest that people should relate the meaning of one to the other. This is how communication and persuasion work. President Donald Trump clearly believes masks mean weakness, which is why he so often refuses to wear one. The Trump administration has tried, since the beginning of the pandemic, to strategically tie mask-wearing to weakness by suggesting that someone who wears a mask is not tough enough to take on the virus. If you explore right-wing media for a few moments, you’ll find the communicative labour of tying weakness to mask-wearing and government oppression to masks.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Meaning motivates action, information doesn’t. The statistics we receive about COVID-19 infections will not change behaviour. Drs. Tam and Fauci want us to see masks as necessary instruments of public health. For masks to work though, we need to be motivated to wear them because of what they mean. To achieve that, we need skilled communicators to tie the meaning of mask-wearing to values that can motivate action. Instead, Tam and Fauci like to tell us what function the masks serve (that they prevent the spread of aerosolized virus from our mouths and noses). But every time they do that is a missed opportunity to participate in the contest over meaning. If we do wear a mask because of the information we get from these doctors, it’s likely because we trust science and we’ve assigned meaningful values to science more generally. Or we do the labour ourselves of associating masks with other kinds of health and safety measures.

A city of Calgary sign encourages Calgarians to wear masks to help avoid another lockdown amidst rising cases of COVID-19 on Oct. 14, 2020. Photo by Gavin Young/Postmedia News

Those who reject mask wearing are motivated by the affective feeling of toughness derived from the kinds of associations Trump and others forge. But our government has not offered a competing, patriotic, uplifting set of associations that would motivate action in the same way. We have the slogan “we’re all in this together,” but that slogan remains unconnected to mask-wearing and is far too generic and vague. Canada Health and the CDC can transmit as much information as they want, but that information is unlikely to produce the effects necessary to motivate action.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

People make decisions, who to vote for or whether to wear a mask, not based on reasonable calculations or rational deliberation. In other words, people don’t think to themselves that the mask will lower their probability of getting the virus and therefore wearing one is the right thing to do. People need to be motivated to act, which requires a feeling driven by a value that derives from the meanings we associate with masks.

Lives depend on the outcome of the contest over the meaning of the mask. It would be nice if Canada or the U.S. had a communication strategy that took the project of persuasion seriously, or at least understood that transmitting information was not all we need to do to motivate action. What we need now is to make mask-wearing a sign of respect, civility and patriotism. Returning our lives to normal may depend on that just as much as it depends on a vaccine.

Dr. Robert Danisch is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo and host of the podcast Now We’re Talking.

More On This Topic

三级片网站-三级片在线-免费三级片