Theater of the Absurd

Those viral videos of anti-mask outbursts and protests are distracting clickbait that obscure larger, more important issues.

On Monday, a video clip from a local news station in Utah elicited widespread mockery,  condemnation and disbelief. The segment actually aired locally several weeks ago, but after someone posted the clip on Twitter, it quickly went “super viral,” as Buzzfeed put it.   

In a nutshell, the clip is a montage of astounding sound bites from an anti-mask protest in Utah. Some demonstrators spouted conspiracies and compared themselves to George Floyd, who, let’s remember, was killed earlier this year after one officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

“George Floyd was saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and then he died,” one woman said at the Utah protest. “Now we’re wearing a mask and we say, ‘I can’t breathe’, but we’re being forced to wear them.”

To which Jimmy Kimmel cracked:

Others were dumbfounded by what they heard in the clip.

My immediate response after watching it was similar to Claire Lampen’s at New York Magazine:

It is upsetting, the rate with which I find myself squinting at my computer screen and muttering, Is this real life?

Perhaps that’s what prompted me to post a vacuous take on Twitter and then share my sentiment (and a link to the video) with friends and family. Fortunately, I am a gnat in the social media universe, so my impulsive reactions to such content does not contribute to its spread. This is a good thing. The seemingly endless episodes of videotaped grievance, outrage, and lunacy that titillate us on Twitter (before being repurposed as news) are, in sum, a massive distortion field.

I know that a noisy group of protesters saying outlandish things about masks is no more representative of current national attitudes and behavior than the sporadic outbursts that have gone viral on social media. I know better.

True, there are pockets of resistance.  

But the fact is, 85 percent of adult Americans are now regularly wearing masks, according to a recent Pew survey. (I don’t recall this news going viral or getting much coverage.) And yet, after watching the video of that Utah anti-mask protest, I kinda thought that NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen had a point here.

Yes, the soundbites chosen for the newscast are beyond parody. The use of a child was irresponsible. Most of all, though, the lack of context was egregious. At the very least, the reporter should have mentioned that health experts advise wearing masks to help prevent the spread of covid-19.  Viewers should also have been reminded how many positive cases of coronavirus (and related deaths) were recorded in Utah, particularly in the county the protest was taking place.

But beyond this, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect local broadcast and newspaper media to not report such events. After all, similar anti-mask protests have occurred in other parts of Utah and around the country. Like this one in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And this one, led by conspiracy monger Alex Jones, in Austin, Texas. (Local media has covered previous anti-lockdown and anti-mask protests that were promoted by Jones.) And this July 4th “Shed the Mask” protest, also in Austin, Texas. 

Such “toxic stupidity” is not limited to America, either.

Here’s local coverage of thousands of anti-mask protesters marching in downtown Montreal. Here’s the BBC on a massive anti-mask protest in Madrid. (It turns out that similarly angry people have taken to the streets all over the world to shake their fists at mandatory face-mask decrees.)

But as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this summer, Europeans have been “broadly compliant amid shifting rules and guidelines.”

The point being: Most people are now doing their part to keep the virus from spreading. Perhaps a lot of us chafed after masks became mandatory, just as many did after car seat belts became obligatory. Indeed, as the Washington Post noted in a recent piece, the battle for seat belt laws in the 1980s “inspired the sort of rhetoric and division America is seeing today over government mandates to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.” Hard to imagine, right? Now, of course, we don’t think twice about strapping on a seat belt as soon we enter a car.

Similarly, there are parallels between anecdotal reports of mask-less airplane passengers causing a ruckus and the angry smokers in the 1980s who insisted on lighting up in planes after non-smoking bans went into effect.

There’s always going to be a vocal group of people who object to new health measures or technologies, be it wind turbines, GMOs, 5G, face masks.

What’s different today is that oppositional (and sometimes dopey) behavior can be captured easily on video and spread instantaneously.

So I shouldn’t have been quick to despair (or extrapolate) after listening to a few batty soundbites from anti-mask protesters. They are not indicative of a larger trend.

Nonetheless, I am worried.

It’s one thing for a vocal minority to be standoffish about masks, but a large percentage of people being reluctant to take a coronavirus vaccine is another. The reasons for this can be gleaned from a recent nonpartisan survey, which STAT boiled down into this terrifying, September 10 headline: “Public Trust in CDC, Fauci, and Other Top Health Officials is Evaporating, Poll Finds.”

And that was right before Politico reported this disturbing news of the Trump Administration’s interference with the CDC, which was followed up, days later, by this even more disturbing news:

Now that we’re in the homestretch of a Presidential campaign, this is all going to get uglier. You ought to buckle up from now until Election Day (and please wear your face mask). At the same time, let’s not get too caught up in theatrics that go viral on social media. Or confuse them with the larger, aforementioned trends that will have to be addressed head-on if we want to end this pandemic sooner than later.