On Masks, Ableism, and Being A Jerk

(This article is designed to follow two others: Masks Don’t Help You Much, and Defying Mask Mandates. If something in here doesn’t make any sense to you, perhaps you missed it in one of the other two.)

As I begin this, it’s quarter past five in the morning. I’m just back from taking out the garbage. I usually do this around three, but today I slept in. I do this in the middle of the night for two reasons: one, it’s much cooler; two, I’m less apt to meet people, so I don’t wear a mask.

The reason I don’t wear a mask while hauling trash is that I tend to hyperventilate. I get panic attacks which induce asthma, and masks set me off for some reason. I’ve read articles and talked with smart people, and on their advice I’ve tried acclimating myself through long use — and with some success. Even so, I find that the only way to be sure I don’t pass out on the (concrete) stairs is to take my mask off while hauling heavy burdens.

I’m not alone in this. I’ve personally spoken to a large number of people for whom the act of wearing a mask while engaged in anything requiring physical strain can cause serious trouble. One group is runners; cloth masks can get so soaked with sweat that they actually block breathing, and a casual jogger can pass out and possibly even suffocate. (It’s rare, but it happens; there are a few dozen documented cases you can find on the Web.)

And I’m one of the lucky ones: I can get away with wearing a mask when I’m not exerting myself. There exist asthmatics who can’t.

This is not to say that all of those who refuse to wear masks in public have some sort of physical incapacity. Some are misinformed on the subject; several are rebellious and contentious by nature, and are choosing this as a way to assert themselves. A few are paranoid or deluded. But some are just people like me who don’t have the luxury of getting up at 4am to take out the trash.

I recently had a conversation with one fellow who goes barefaced so his wife, who has a severe yet invisible health issue, isn’t the target of hatred and condemnation from mask-wearers. This is a telling example of social pressure backfiring, and it’s a good reason for you — yes, you! — to not be a jerk tomorrow.

To find another, let’s look at the paranoid; let’s examine the deluded. These are mental illnesses; the victim can’t help it. They didn’t choose paranoia. And even though their fears are of phantoms and their delusions aren’t real, they’re still very real to them. If you had a friend who was deathly afraid of loud noises, you wouldn’t take them to a fireworks display; someone who panics near water, you wouldn’t drag on a boating excursion.

Now, don’t get me wrong: In this era of fake news, it’s easy to be misinformed about masks. I’ve met people who take it on faith that their mask alone will protect them; it won’t. (Try adding vaccines, goggles, handwashing, and avoiding people.) I’ve met others who figure that, just because masks don’t protect the wearer, they’re no good; this too is untrue… because their purpose is to protect everyone else. So, absolutely, it’s a good thing to help inform.

Just be aware that if you’re doing so while preaching at people, you’re bound to do more harm than good.

Self-righteousness convinces nobody. Try instead being reasonable, kind, even patient. You’d be amazed the difference it can make.


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