Masks threaten opponents’ core beliefs, scholar says

Fear of changes in society drive some anti-mask protests

PHOTO/RAWPIXEL: Most health officials agree face coverings reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, but some folks don’t want to be told to wear them.

UPDATE:July 9: Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered bar closures in counties with spiking COVID-19 caseloads and is limiting restaurant dining statewide to 50% capacity with parties of no more than six people, whether seated indoors or out. He said the order, which goes into effect 11:59 p.m. July 10, applies to Clark and Washoe counties and others to be announced.

Don’t put all the blame for the backlash against face masks on President Donald Trump or Nevada’s long-time libertarian bent. Something much deeper is afoot, according to an expert in public opinion and media.

David Ryfe, professor and the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, said when people rally against restrictions and rail against masks, they aren’t really trying to influence others or put forth solutions. He said people who passionately oppose the wearing of masks, even though they may be putting their own and other peoples’ health in jeopardy, are doing so because they perceive their core beliefs and sense of self are being threatened.

“It’s an expression of identity, of who they are,” said Ryfe, who is a former professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada. Reno. “It’s primarily symbolic for that reason. Because it’s symbolic they don’t have any particular alternative plan to deal with the virus. They’re more proclaiming the way they think about themselves is under threat and they feel that society is changing in a way that doesn’t allow them to be who they are.”

Partisanship trumping health

Unfortunately, he said, they’re doing it in the context of a public health crisis. That’s “not a rational thing” and it goes against their self interest. Yet it provides psychological comfort, he said, and allows people to express who they are in a community that has been disrupted.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak mandated face coverings be worn in public spaces as of June 26. Some state GOP lawmakers backed the order, but other Republican leaders questioned the value of masks as well as the governor’s authority to require them. A group of GOP operatives in Pahrump formed a political action committee, NoMaskNevada, to fight the mandate and oppose the re-election of any politician who supports it. Sisolak called such developments “disappointing and outright dangerous to see any attempt to turn face coverings into a political issue during a public health crisis.”

“This is a long-term movement that is designed to defeat elected officials who are hostile to our Constitution and our freedom. Masks are a political issue of choice and not one for a governor to mandate with the stroke of a pen… Governor Sisolak is depriving citizens of liberty without any due process or input from the legislative branch.”

– Ian Bayne, Pahrump, vice chairman of No Mask Nevada.

Even before masks were required, protesters took to the streets in Reno, Carson City and other Nevada communities to rally against face coverings and other health-based restrictions. They called the measures unconstitutional and tyrannical. They were egged on by talk radio hosts, social media posts and the rants of some cable TV personalities. As a result, the benefit of protective measures has often been undermined by resistance that often is driven by partisanship.

The opponents of restrictions are apparently a minority in Nevada and elsewhere. Polls show that about two-thirds of Americans favor broad COVID-19 control measures despite infringements on personal freedoms and privacy. Poll results also indicate that partisan loyalties have a lot to do with peoples’ acceptance of the rules. It isn’t just current politics at work, though, Ryfe said. It took us a long time to get here.

“It’s been a decades-long process,” he said. “Everyone has multiple identities. We have religious, racial, geographical, gender, political identities. Today, he said, academic research indicates all those have become nested under our political identities. That tends to be ultimately powerful.” He said people don’t accept information as blank slates; they process information through their social identities. “Increasingly we’re interpreting it through our partisan identities,” Ryfe said.

PHOTO:/UNIVERSITY OF IOWA: Prof. David Ryfe, PhD., director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. Ryfe is the author of “Can Journalism Survive?: An Inside Look at American Newsrooms” and “Journalism and the Public.”

He said in the 20th century, Americans’ multiple “selves” hadn’t been gathered under their political identities as they are today. “It was truer in the 19th century. Then, for instance, if you were Irish and Catholic and lived in Boston you were a Democrat. It was almost like you belonged to a team.” Now it’s happened again. If you are evangelical, white and of a certain age, it’s a good bet you are a Republican, he noted. “It’s happened on the Democratic side as well, but not quite as strongly,” Ryfe said. “The Democrats are more diverse.”

The GOP, he noted, has a base of white working class people and evangelicals, which is getting smaller and smaller over time. “They are not building a bigger tent,” Ryfe said. “New York and California have already become majority-minority states and the country as a whole is predicted to be majority-minority in about 25 years.” Demographers predict by about 2044, the U.S. will have a population in which non-Hispanic white Americans will be a minority group and thus lose the advantage they have had since the nation’s founding.

The specter of that loss, he said, can be frightening. “That’s tied up in an even larger racial issue now in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Ryfe said. “We’re undergoing an amazing transition at the moment where white Americans, in fits and starts, are losing advantages they have had for a long time.”

Media fuels mask revolt

Feeding the process, he said, “you have a whole ecosystem of conservative media, and that information ultimately ends up on Fox News.” Although the channel touts a distinction between news and commentary, research shows that viewers often don’t differentiate between the two. “So for people with those strong Republican identities their information tends to be segregated from the rest of the information stream,” Ryfe said.

He said that’s especially true for older white people who get their news from a single TV channel. “Then you add on to it the digital world, where the algorithms of social media are designed to show you more of what you like.” The process feeds on itself, he said. “You are going to get reinforcement.” That’s especially true for Facebook, which older people tend to use more than Twitter or other kinds of social media like Snapchat. The same thing happens on the Left, he said, but there’s often more vetting of information through other sources and less one-stop shopping for news.

Ryfe said a large percentage of people are receiving information through a narrow band width, through their very strong partisan identity. “So what that means is if President Trump refuses to wear a mask, he is ‘priming,’ that’s the technical term, he is activating that sensibility in these folks. It becomes, to them, that wearing a mask troubles their sense of self.

“When you get in that mode, although it troubles people on the outside, when you are inside, it feels like people are attacking who you are by forcing you to wear a mask,” he said. “And that’s why they don’t. It’s very strange to see a virus become a partisan issue. But that’s what leaders in the Republican Party, particularly President Trump, have made it.”

PHOTO/NEVADA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE: Gov. Pete Sisolak signs proclamation July 7 calling for a special session of the Nevada Legislature to deal with the budget shortfall created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Restrictions may be tightened

About 20 percent of Nevada businesses inspected on July 3 were not complying with the mask directive, according to the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations. Statewide the compliance rate was found to be  76% statewide. The south had a 75% compliance rate as compared with 82% in the northern part of the state. Casino swimming pools had the lowest score, at 40% compliance. Bars and hotel-casino gaming floors were found to be at 80%. Water parks were listed as “not in compliance.”

In inspections a week after the directive went into effect, Southern Nevada sites had a 75% compliance rate, the state said, and Northern Nevada businesses had an 84% compliance rate. The governor promised “swift and decisive actions” if those percentages didn’t greatly improve.

“The noncompliance numbers reported by state officials are disappointing and unacceptable… To the businesses who are complying, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of all Nevada. You’re protecting our businesses, our health, our jobs, our economy and your industry.  To those businesses operating in violation of the directive by not implementing safe social distancing and face covering protocols, you’re not only jeopardizing people’s health but you’re also jeopardizing your fellow businesses, your industry, and our overall economy.”

– Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.

At both the state and national level, resistance among conservative leaders to masks and other precautions seems to be fading. Prominent Nevada Republicans including former Gov. Bryan Sandoval, former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchinson and former Sen. Dean Heller have endorsed Sisolak’s mandate. As COVID-19 cases spiked at the national level over the last two weeks, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence and several GOP governors have suddenly started wearing masks and encouraging others to do so. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who once banned local governments from imposing local restrictions or requiring masks, has now ordered Texans in most counties to wear face coverings in public.

“It will be interesting to see who the ordinary Republican voters will follow,” Ryfe said. He said as the president’s poll numbers continue to plummet and the pandemic rages on, party stalwarts fear that Trump will take the rest of the GOP down with him should he lose the November election.

He said that Sen. Lindsey Graham, who vehemently opposed Trump before the real estate magnate won in 2016 and then became his “best friend” thereafter, is the “bellwether.” He said to “watch Graham because he’s a total political animal. He goes wherever the power is and seems pretty good at it.

“This is a weird moment in time,” Ryfe said. “We’ll see if the fever breaks… If Trump loses in November, I think in a year you won’t find anyone in the party’s leadership who says they voted for Trump.”

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1 Comment

  1. Total BS. Trumpers don’t care about other people’s health. They’re just selfish, entitled brats. Now I truly understand the phrase “the ugly American.” And getting uglier by the minute. I was exposed by a mask less person who knew I was immunocompromised. If I get it from him I’ll see him in court.

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