What does 'mask shaming' say about human nature....and does it work?

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, a new behavior known as "mask shaming" has popped up as people politicize the debate over face coverings.

North Carolina State University anthropology professor Nora Haenn said the argument is part of human nature.

"When I see people kind of moving to two different sides, what I see them trying to do is make sense of the confusion, impose order on the chaos," Haenn said.

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President Donald Trump has largely refused to wear a face mask in public, telling White House aides he believes it makes him look weak. During a Tuesday press conference, Trump asked a reporter to remove his face mask while asking a question, saying he couldn't hear the journalist. The reporter refused.

Previously, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said that wearing a face mask signals compassion for others.

Those who study social interactions say "mask shaming" comes in both forms--those who opt to wear masks heaping scorn on those who don't, and those who refuse to cover their face calling those who do weak.

"That's what we do as human beings," Haenn said. "These are informal ways we try to keep each other in line. Even in the best of times, we certainly shame each other."

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While the shaming sometimes happens in person, Haenn said it is most prominent on social media. And while shaming can sometimes change behavior, Haenn said it's less effective when done in anger.

"There's usually something brewing under the anger," Haenn said. "And under that is often fear--a refusal to be vulnerable or just, it's hard to be vulnerable. It's really painful. But if we can stay with that and recognize that the other person is also being vulnerable and scared underneath all that shaming, then there's a space for a connection. And it's also a space where we can get beyond conflicting values."

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Haenn said it's human nature to personify an invisible force, such as a virus, by lashing out at other humans with opposing views.

"It's unfortunate," Haenn said. "We're better than that because it isn't people that are making us sick, it's a virus. It isn't people who are ruining our economy, it's a virus. And if we keep that front and center, then we can reach out to one another and do the right thing."

Whether or not you agree with some mask-shaming tactics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public, especially those in areas with significant community-based transmission.
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