The Moral High Ground
After Texas Governor Greg Abbott blocked mask mandates in Texas, these kinds of reactions were all the rage on Twitter:
Certain school districts and mayors defied the EO, the Supreme Court of Texas backed Abbott, and that spawned things like this:
I try not to get into the slugfest about masks on this blog, but the common responses like the ones above demonstrate a common rhetorical tactic used by activist types against the rank and file, so this is a good opportunity to examine this tactic so that you can sidestep it. Like other manipulative tactics, it can be intimidating, but once you can spot it, it loses all its punch and stops being so unnerving. The tactic is to de-legitimize those that disagree and don’t go along by characterizing them as ipso facto character deficient. The simple act of taking an alternative stance is enough to brand you wicked.
For these folks, it is all about social power to them: that is what they are after, so the aim of their tactics is to assert their social power over you. They will impugn and attack the motives of those who oppose them so that they don’t have to actually engage the substance of their opponent’s view. You can easily see it in the tweets above. The GOP “hates children.” The Supreme Court of Texas is trying to “kill children to own the libs.” They “like to kill children.” This is pure Kabuki theater, performative politics. The fact that children are being invoked in this instance makes the charge that much more electric and visceral. The basic idea is that they want to poison the well and make their opposition so toxic that no one even wants to vaguely think about the other position and the reasons why people hold to it. If they can do that, it makes their job so much easier. It is much easier to just brand your opponents as disgusting than it is to actually engage in good faith persuasion. When this tactic shows up, they are simply trying to emotionally push you around so that you feel like a bad person for not agreeing. In this instance, if you doubt the absolute necessity of mask mandates, and/or if you think the benefits are not worth the costs (both individually and collectively), then they will attack your motives in the strongest terms and insist your position is just a cover for deep and abiding animus. They can discredit you without a fight. This is the equivalent of scoring a knock-out before the first bell even rings. Like I pointed out here, they do not want to defeat you intellectually. They want to defeat you socially and tear you down with high school lunchroom shaming. It melts credibility, and is an incredibly cynical tactic. Insisting that you are coming from a good place, even when true and therefore good to argue, is an incomplete response. That keeps the focus right where they want it: on your character and (supposedly) bad motives, so more is needed. Better to simply point out what they are doing. Don’t let them take the moral high ground. Point out that they are using rhetoric to jockey socially, and that it won’t work on you. Greg Koukl’s classic “name calling is not an argument” is a great response. Don’t respond in kind, don’t respond with anger, and don’t plead that you are a good guy deep down. The thing is, the usual tactic of addressing their argument charitably--which all else being equal is the way to go--won’t work either. When tactics like these are used, the social playing field is not level. The whole point is the asymmetry, so if you engage by charitably addressing their argument, that’s the social equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Niceness will not be effective. While hitting back harder with a more spicy insult isn’t the way to go--you don’t need to stoop to their level and be nasty--showing that they are using a smear tactic to illegitimately discredit you will go a long way to diffusing their strategy.
In this specific instance regarding mask mandates in schools, I see the above all the time, especially on social media. Maybe, just maybe, opponents of mask mandates are not motivated by sinister intentions or a callousness about the well being of children. Maybe, just maybe, they are motivated by the exact opposite: care for kids. Maybe they have weighed the trade-offs, and for them, the benefits are not worth the costs. Some might respond, “what could possibly be the cost? Putting on a mask is such a small gesture!” Is it possible that it’s not, afterall, a “small gesture”? If looked at in isolation, yes its small, but looked at in context--the last 18 months of craziness, including school shutdowns and all the concomitant losses to human flourishing and well being the lockdowns and shutdowns entailed (I’m not primarily talking economic here, but social, emotional, intellectual, and mental), and the distinct possibility that the mandate *wouldn’t* be temporary and would drag on endlessly--it’s not so small. At least that’s how mandate opponents see it. Let me explain: the other day I heard a story second hand about a principal who, after watching his students play maskless during an outdoor field day at the very end of the 2021 school year, remarked “this is the first time I’ve seen my students smile this school year.” That comment stuck with me--the students in that school had gone a whole school year without seeing each other smile, and without seeing their teachers smile at them. That--a smile-less school--was the norm for untold numbers of students from March 2020 to summer break 2021--over a year. It’s no wonder their mental health is crumbling. Folks, that is no small thing. So many students are incredibly hurting right now. That hurt is not small, and can be softened, though not cured entirely, by injecting “the human touch” back into their lives as much as possible. Our COVID policies this last school year has bleached a lot of that out of the day in, day out. We talk a big game about compassion in school. We talk all the time about how things like saying hi, saying their name, smiling at them, showing we are glad to see them with our facial expressions, a handshake, a fistbump, a pat on the back, etc, are all small gestures that go a long way in making students feel at home and welcome. The vast majority of communication is nonverbal, much of it coming from the face. Covering up two thirds of the face with a cloth mask removes one of the usual ways of showing happiness, compassion, care--in other words, the human. It’s *one* way...but it’s a big one, perhaps the biggest one. What’s more, if they are masked for such a long period of time during their most socially formative years, when they are figuring out the nuances of said nonverbal communication, how’s that going to play out in their relational skills down the road (for example, with a future spouse or boss or coworker)? These are all negative trade-offs worth chewing on. Mandating masks means that in the place where they spend the overwhelming majority of their day, they miss countless opportunities to see a smile, and therefore, countless opportunities to benefit from “the human touch.” That is just one of the many deprivations they must shoulder in the name of risk avoidance. Someone could say “it’s such a small thing to give up in return for avoiding COVID.” There might be some benefit to masks, but I’m not so sure that it’s as large as the mask mandate crowd insists. All the same, opponents of mask mandates have weighed the benefits with the costs, and have come to a different conclusion, in good faith most of the time. A smile is something small, but incredibly meaningful. When you combine that with the unintended negative consequences of teaching kids that they should fear normal, everyday interactions for an extended period of time, for some people it has simply jumped the shark. As National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty says, “Besides the normal social and learning problems that come from this kind of masking, a young child who is being told to mask up at school to avoid a deadly disease is being habituated to view her school, and the world around her, as more perilous than it is. That child is being habituated to viewing her parents as ejecting her from the safety of the home into something that is a threat to her.” The point here isn’t that pro-mandate people are callous or motivated by a desire to see kids flounder emotionally and socially, nor is my point here necessarily that masks are, in fact, not worth it. I get why someone would want to wear one, I can understand where they are coming from, and it is hard to tell exactly what the “science says.” I’m also aware that Gov. Abbott has contracted COVID. While there is a certain irony in that, it is beside the point. It does not follow from that that shaming ad hominems are legit and that we should cower before them. They make coming to any actual solid conclusions impossible. Nor does it follow that because Abbott contracted COVID, the benefits to a mask mandate outweigh the costs in schools. This is not March 2020; it is 18 months later, after a long slog of mandates, yet here we are.
My point is that there is another side to the potential benefits of mask mandates. For some people, the risk avoidance that masks offer is just not worth it when all the trade offs are evaluated. Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but it does no good to pretend the other side doesn’t exist, to not even be willing to countenance the possibility, and to castigate the other side as backwards devils. It’d be nice to at least have that other side of the trade-off ledger acknowledged, rather than belittled.
They don’t get to take the moral high ground. Not without a fight, anyway.