August 12th, 2020

ASUCD

Philosophical Explanations for Anti-mask Behavior.

   So I've been thinking a lot lately about conspiracy theorists and covidia deniers and how their actions can be explained by either philosophical theory or psychology. I've come up with two main explanations for the outbreak of conspiracies and denialism, which probably are both in effect to some degree.

1. Equilibrium, Cognitive Dissonance, and Tranquility - One does not enjoy to be stressed or anxious. One's mind seeks an equilibrium in which they feel just engaged and challenged enough to not be bored, but aren't stressed out of their mind. Because the scale of the coronavirus disaster is literally "too horrible to contemplate," after an initial unsustainable level of stress about it, they seek to regain a stress level they can handle. Presently their mind hits on denial -- "it's really not that bad!" the fact that prominent people such as the president are saying this makes it easier to swallow, and so they do. Once they've swallowed it they no longer feel stressed, they feel more tranquil. They have good feelings once again about life and their glorious president. Cognitive dissonance, the desire to bring their thoughts and beliefs into cohesion, causes them to fiercely defend this belief that makes them feel alright.


2. Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Social Contract - Most of us will vaguely recall these concepts from high school civics or intro to poli sci. I probably remember them better than average because I'm a huge nerd and admit even I did some quick refresher googling. Thomas Hobbes believed people were basically selfish, and then government was divinely ordained because it was necessary to keep people in check. Rousseau believed people were born good but corrupted by society, and that they organized amongst themselves government as a "social contract" to arrange a life well-ordered for mutual well-being. I rather hash between them and believe people are basically selfish ogres amongst whom the social contract is necessary to maintain order.
   Sovereign Citizens, a Tangent - both the US and Australia and probably all places have these self styled "sovereign citizens" who of late have taken to filming themselves here driving through police checkpoints insisting their rights to not wear a mask and go whereever they want are above the law, innate and inalienable, and the police somehow have no authority over them. Interestingly here in Australia the police seem content to say "yeah okay fine go ahead ::eyeroll::" and then later send them a fine in the mail or even come arrest them at the officer's convenience. (Some comments have reminded me that non-Australians won't know the context of the checkpoints -- no they're not enforcing an irrational requirement to wear masks while alone in the car, it's a travel ban on unnecessary travel and in particular unnecessary travel out of the hotspot of Melbourne or the hot state of Victoria. Yes it feels a bit dystopian (we need travel passes signed by our employers if its for work!), but seems reasonable to me given efforts to control this outbreak, and anyway this essay isn't about whether rules are objectively good but people's attitude towards adherence, so anyway now you know the context of this). It seems to me these sovereign citizens have more in common with Hobbes than Rousseau, thinking their rights come not from any social contract (which would after all make allowances for the well being of persons other than themselves), but somehow come down from on high as divinely gifted and objectively existing rights. They do at least have that they are innately selfish right.

   But bringing this back to the larger issue of why we're seeing more people exhibiting this behavior during the pandemic, I posit it pertains the the social contract in a more informal sense. These people, whom I believe are no more civilized than feral and slightly rabid dogs at heart, learned through their rowdy teenage and early adult years where the lines of acceptable social norms are. Having learned where it's appropriate to throw a fit and where they must behave, they have proceeded down the bowling lane of life without going into the gutters, and would happily proceed along to the bowling pins of life without serious mishap. But suddenly the coronavirus has changed the rules! What is and is not appropriate behavior has suddenly significantly changed and things they've always done are no longer acceptable! These people are suddenly back to their feral state, and any concept that they were actually guided by concern for others is shown for the illusion it always was, they've always only proceeded along the path of what they could get away with without running afoul of social norms.

   You may note that the social contract in this sense is no longer "the law" or government but social norms. I think, basically, people only follow the law to the degree that it is the social norm to do so amongst the people they really care about: their family and close friends. You have to keep in mind that for most of human history, for most of the 100,000+ years of history, people's society was the village/band/tribe of a few dozen people in which they existed, and by and large they were not innately opposed to trying to kill everyone in the next tribe over and take all their stuff if the mood suited them; ie, people lack a great deal of empathy for people they don't know and are not innately constrained by views outside those held by their immediate social group. What that means for modern society is that people are primarily concerned with the social norms embraced by their immediate family and close friends. If their immediate family and close friends are all saying "don't be an idiot, wear a mask" they're going to be heavily inclined to do so. If their immediate family and close friends are all "woo yeah Trump woo!!" they're going to look at him as an acceptable moral authority and be all side-eyeing eachother like "does this mean it's okay to be racist again? are we all on board with this? yeah? you in too? alright yeah woooo let's not recognize the social contract as applying to people different from us! yeah woo I always hated that woo!!!"

   Which also explains why, to retain moral cohesion, what I might term here by parallel as "moral dissonance," they may start blocking and unfriending close friends or family members who are subscribing to a different set of moral values as regards to all this.

   That being said, I think this really only applies to about 70-80% of everyone. I optimistically think 20-30% of people are not feral beasts but possess the moral integrity to stand up for what they philosophically feel is right and guide those around them.

   A friend I was discussing this with asked "well, yes, but is there a practical application to all this?" And I think understanding this can effect the communications strategies used to influence these people.
(1) In the first case, the "too horrible to contemplate" cognitive dissonance, while we're inclined to emphasize the dangerousness of the pandemic and usually it is they who are trying to downplay the danger, the most effective strategy might actually be to focus solely on how _safe_ it would be if everyone was wearing masks.
(2) The second case is more difficult (and remember they are probably overlapping as dual causes of antisocial behavior), but the key might be trying to get figures they actually look up to as moral authorities to actually endorse taking masks and social distancing seriously. Also remember that people don't respond well to negative feelings (ie, shaming them), but do respond to measures that make them feel good about themselves,so if you find yourself surrounded by a majority of family members or friends who are anti mask, if you can contrive to cajole them positively in a pro mask direction as a group ("I'm glad we're all taking it seriously, as are our uncles and [name a bunch of family members to give the impression of a majority]") rather than shaming or berating them, it will be more effective.


   Anyway, I'm admittedly a bit rusty on the philosophical concepts herein mentioned and would love to further discuss the ideas so let me know what you think (: