"Nothing Personal, Kid"

Where is the line between "personal" and "political" choices?

(Since I didn’t say it in the last post, my apologies for being MIA for a while. A transitional period in my professional life has been occurring that I needed to devote my brainpower to. Expect a return to usual programming from now on)

With the "Dreaded Delta variant" on the "rise," a number of states and local government shave reinstated mask mandates and even partial lockdowns. I am, shockingly, bored of discussing Covid AND of discussing The Science. I have discussed them before.

Instead, I would like to discuss the question of the delineation between "personal" and "political" choices.

The Personal is (not always) Political

In some sense, every choice can be defined as a personal one. My decision to wear a yellow shirt instead of a purple one, or to go to one cafe over another. A personal choice is defined by personal preference.

But a political choice is...different...somehow. Truly, a choice becomes political when the choice (or the context surrounding it) aligns with some element within a public order of references. In other words, your choice becomes political when it becomes a socially recognizable symbol for something beyond the brute fact of the choice. Deciding to go to your favorite cafe may be personal, but it may also be political if your favorite cafe is taking a stand for the environment while the other cafe supports the actions of Nestle.

For a choice to become political, it must be symbolic of something bigger. When a choice about X becomes symbolic of something bigger than X, the choice tends to have become political. And this symbolism is only meaningful, only recognized, by Others in a Society. (Insert obligatory "we live in a society" joke here)

So, where's the Boundary?

The unfortunately vague answer to this question is "wherever society decides the boundary is." It is possible to imagine a society in which every decision, down to the paint that you use for the walls in your living room, is symbolic of some allegiance or value rather than just your aesthetic taste. And it is possible to imagine that there is no public order of references, and everything is understood to be determined by the subjective taste of the individual.

Masks: From Personal to Political

So, back to masks. Masks used to be a personal choice, and now they are a political one.

Of course, a skeptic might respond with "those who wore masks before the Covid crisis just understood the importance of public health better than others!" Down this kind of road leads us to a "The Personal is Political" argument. So why does this fail?

As noted above, a choice is political if it is symbolic. It must align with some element of a public order of references. Sure, wearing a mask properly during flu season may protect (ever so slightly) yourself and those around you, but that wasn't a risk calculation in the social consciousness. Not wearing a mask did not mean you cared any less about the health of others. In fact, it didn't mean anything at all. And that's the point. Masks became something more. A way of signaling that you "believed in Science" and wanted to protect others. Somehow a new vulgar "individualist vs collectivist" (for lack of better terms) war emerged, and masks were a chief battlefield.

Magnanimity and Masks

If you still do not agree that masks were ever "not Political", let us take a different approach: the concept of magnanimity. According to the Oxford Dictionary, "magnanimous" comes from the Latin "magnus" (meaning "great") and "animus" (meaning "soul"). Let us distinguish between a "regular" and a "magnanimous" act:

A magnanimous act is one that goes beyond the expected. It is an act that society recognizes as entailing a personal sacrifice far more demanding than a "regular" act requires.

Prior to 2020, wearing a mask (so long as it was for the purpose of public health and not because you think your fellow Americas are nasty) was a kind of "magnanimous" act: it demonstrated you cared about the health of others...but not wearing a mask did not entail you were a selfish brat.

Ironically, even here we see that masks were not in the public order of references because it was effectively impossible to know, prior to talking to the wearer, why they were wearing a mask. Post-2020, it is reasonable to assume why someone is wearing a mask. The Mask has entered the public order of references.

Intention is Irrelevant

Which brings us to another point: once an object or action has entered the public order of references, your usage of the object or partaking of the action will be judged according to that public order, regardless of your private intentions. Bear with me for an odd example, but imagine you have a skin condition and have just put on medication and you are wearing a mask because you feel ashamed of your appearance. While you might be asked "why are you wearing a mask" in 2019 if you showed up to a seminar with it on, in 2021 everyone assumes they know why you are wearing the mask. An intention is ascribed to you, whether or not it is the intention that actually led you to the action.

So, what does this all mean?

The most important takeaway here is that as more and more decisions become political, as they become symbolic of something more than subjective preference, more and more battlelines are drawn between individuals and groups. (Another takeaway is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for magnanimity and greatness in moral choices.)

And so now masks are just yet another battleline in the ever-intensifying culture war that seems to define the background of our day-to-day lives. May God have mercy on us all.


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