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Mandated Masks: Which Comes First, The Individual Or The Group?

By the time you read this, I’ll be a couple weeks deep into fully-remote learning for at least the first quarter of my senior year of high school. Students across the country are likely experiencing the same, with the mental fatigue that has characterized this drawn-out pandemic. Caught off guard by COVID-19 months ago in March, the home-made sour dough and self-care frenzy wore off rapidly as reality set in: this is not some unexpected getaway from the monotony of our daily lives.

Courtesy of The Try Guys

From the tensions in the political sphere, to a government ill-prepared for a health crisis like this, it’s anything but a getaway. Locally, my peers and I eagerly awaited the day school would resume, anticipating the half-remote, half-in person policy that would allow us socially-distanced contact with each other. Then, people flocked back home from Hilton Head and Florida and other locations. Numbers spiked. My county was designated at alert level 3, the second highest level, and school plans changed.

Our disappointment was palpable, but unsurprised. Still, I couldn’t help the twinge of frustration at seeing those I know — and those I don’t — flaunting their vacations on Instagram, no face masks in sight. Can we not exercise enough self-restraint for one summer? How essential is a beach in Florida, anyway? I was born in Florida, and I can honestly say there’s nothing in that scalding state worth contracting a virus or endangering others for.

“Florida beaches still packed during coronavirus crisis” (Courtesy of NBC News)

This all raised the question of mandated masks, or, rather, the controversy of mandated masks. And it all boils down to the conflict between public safety and our individual liberties. Our Constitution is a vague document, always subject to interpretation. As a result, we are constantly torn, fixated on details such as the archaic diction or the Framers’ intentions.

The balance between public order and our personal rights is an age-old dilemma. See, American culture is what psychologists would term as “individualist”, in that we value diversity and believe that we are each unique. We each contribute rare insights and have distinct stories that weave the special tapestries of who we are. Qualities such as independence, outspokenness, courage and determination are the most impressive to us, because they are geared towards our own journeys. On the other hand, collectivist cultures — which are most prevalent in Asian countries — focus more on the well-being of the group, whether that be a family or a community. Sacrifice, dignity and generosity are valued most, because they require more selflessness on the individual’s part.

Our individualistic values have given way to a natural mistrust of the government and any moves they make. The word “mandate” will instantly put many of us on edge, as it implies lack of choice, which we tend to liken to oppression. It homogenizes us, which clashes with our individuality. Some of us resort to citing the Bill of Rights as a way to preserve it; others recognize the need to relinquish some of our freedoms for the good of everyone. Thus, with the threat of mandated masks, chaos ensues.

Courtesy of United Nations

I see the same discord take place when it comes to the proliferation of fake news. COVID-19 has renewed our efforts against the spread of misinformation, which has become especially life-threatening during this time. Yet, there has also been speculation — if the government intervenes to curb fake news, will that inhibit the openness of social media? Will that open a gateway for them to infringe on free speech? After all, they do have a track record of demanding miles from the inches we give them, blowing their authority way out of proportion.

Courtesy of Anthony Garand

And while I understand everyone’s misgivings regarding regulation of free speech, I cannot resonate with those who refuse to wear masks. Because there is one fault in their reasoning: our fundamental liberties are not absolute. True, they cannot be violated, but nowhere in the Constitution does it say that they cannot be limited.

Take free speech: if it truly decreed that the government cannot pass any law regarding media, then the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would be abolished. After all, the FCC exists for the sole purpose of regulating media, from radio to television, but it’s also for the purpose of protecting consumers. Then, take freedom of religion — one cannot murder or commit a violent crime, then justify it on the grounds of freedom of religion. Polygamy is illegal in the United States, despite it being historically associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The truth is, fundamental liberties stop becoming fundamental liberties once they violate the liberties of others. Our fundamental liberties are guarantees by the government to always have a measure of freedom, but they are not a license to do anything. So, if mandated masks reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and require little sacrifice from the individual, wouldn’t they be constitutional?

Featured Photo Courtesy of Ani Kolleshi

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