Friday, February 19, 2021

The Affinity Group, the Mask, and the Counter-Progressive Politics of Suffering Alone (Some Reminders from Harry Stack Sullivan)

Totalitarian movements are simply "mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals." Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.


The confined affinity group and the mask should be left behind if we desire a vibrant cosmopolitan society. With the advent of successful vaccines, coronavirus should become a problem requiring medical management and not a public health emergency.  We'll eventually leave the confinement of our bubble and pod affinity groups, but if masking remains an ordinary part of life, I fear 'same-as-us' identity politics will intensify, inadvertently inviting a dystopian future. Perhaps I'm overstating, but I suspect Fauci and his adherents would like us to remain masked into the foreseeable future. The personal and social costs of the pandemic should not be borne when the crisis is past.

By now we should be familiar with the tragic condition of the quarantined elderly and the hidden agony of the isolated and lonely. We are less familiar with the counter-progressive consequence of segregating the otherwise healthy, maskless only under a shared roof of kin and friends. What happens when they venture out masked and encounter others behind theirs? 

Trump encouraged a virulent populism. But after the crisis passes, will virtue-driven normalization of masking facilitate another version of tribal hostility? From the start of the pandemic to the present, the masked versus the unmasked has triggered rancor.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Masks, pods and bubbles are vital components for managing a pandemic. But donning the mask and disdain for those who refuse has become, apart from actual health concerns, a badge of the progressive and anti-Trump. I am both.  There are problems lurking here. To the extent masks become a cultural norm, liberal cosmopolitan democracy can be undermined by life less informed by inclusiveness and diversity. When I wonder aloud about this, my well-traveled peers mention the extensive masking in Japan and the alien status of the gaijin

The liberal and progressive ideal of tolerant cosmopolitan community requires understanding and getting along with those different from one’s friends and kin. The liberal ideal requires loosening the natural tribalism of ‘us and them’ and resisting the tendency of ‘us versus them’. Facilitating engagement with people different from ourselves allows this to happen. But when huddled together, without mask only within home and pod –– avoiding the other as contagion –– tribal pathologies of blood and soil, of purity and danger, too easily come out of hiding; are too easily projected onto the mask of the stranger. It doesn’t take a sociologist to point out that our households and pods are generally inhabited by people very similar to ourselves. Folks with our complexion. 

Here’s a darker worry. For many of the financially secure and socially well connected, the lockdowns offered a cozy respite, marred by the annoyance of titrating a comfortable distance from those too much around. In contrast, the lockdowns have been awful for the isolated and lonely. We don’t hear much from them. Today, 35.7 million Americans live alone.   How do you think they are doing? Although we might like to believe adversity brings out the best in us, mostly it makes us mean.

For many people who live alone, the loneliness manageable during ordinary times is now intolerable. When they leave their homes, masked faces make it worse. Harry Stack Sullivan’s observations from 1940’s and 50’s are relevant. In the seminal volume, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, he wrote, “There are good many situations in which lonely people literally lack any experience with things they encounter…. loneliness in itself is more terrible than anxiety.” 

We rely on the acknowledgment of others, from the beloved to the stranger, to cure an otherwise empty heart. Without empathic responsiveness, we become aliens in a world without compassion.  Some need a responsive face more frequently than others. But we all need it. When significantly absent, when hope is replaced by demoralization, our demons and pathologies erupt. The prolonged demoralization of knowing there is no one nearby who truly cares, no one who has your back or understands how you feel can foment depression, rage, and suicide.  In such a world, the most terrible thoughts are not intimately expressed, soothed, or corrected.

Severe loneliness, Sullivan observed, deprived people of the companions needed to “integrate experience” creating defects in the ability to adequately appraise situations apart from wanting relief. It is unsurprising this breeds resentment toward whomever or whatever is held as cause. The masked face is a blank screen where resentment, fear, and anger are easily projected. 

Public masking has gone on for a very long time. When the pandemic began my socially conscious neighbors and most everyone else in my neighborhood wore masks and zigzagged as we crossed paths. We feared contact and avoided lingering and gesturing. I was lonely walking the dogs. But then something happened. A few weeks in, late March early April, I noticed I was deliberately smiling with my eyes, nodding when my sunglasses covered them, and saw my neighbors do the same.  We expressed solidarity as best we could.  But by late October, with the fall and no end in sight, these gestures mostly faded except among those already committed to each other. The sidewalk, crowded or not, became empty. 

I want to be clear.  I have little sympathy for those who feel the mask is a violation of their self-entitlement, an insult provoking “don’t tread on me”, an expression of indifference to the concern of others.  But ask, how do people eventually behave when they’ve been secluded, uncertain, anxious, and nursing whatever prejudice is consistent with what they blame for being locked out of life? And when the time comes, how do they vote?

3 comments:

  1. This is an interesting and complicated issue. As I think about and do a little research on Japanese mask wearing, I find myself going back and forth on whether our possible 18 months of mask wearing will be in the long run detrimental and whether a tendency to don the mask with the threat of the common cold will lead to more interpersonal isolation, suspicion of the other, and social splintering.

    While covering our faces no doubt reduces reasons for interpersonal connection and satisfaction , one of the things we have seen has been an individuation of masks; masks as fashion statements also tell one another about each other and can be attractive or aversive (Marjorie Taylor Greene's "Trump Won" mask). My guess is that masks will not limit sexual encounters so that propagation of the species and the variability of genetic material in the population will probably not become less. What we know about people is that when limited in one way, we will find ways to expand our potential in other ways. In fact a paper discussing mask wearing in Japan concludes that many Japanese wear masks as a counter to a sense of disempowerment. It's the mask wearing itself that enhances their behavior potential.

    I don't dismiss the possibility that increased mask wearing could have deleterious effects on our worlds, our moods, our sense of satisfaction with life, but I withhold judgment given the flexibility of persons and communities to evolve new practices to compensate for old practices that have been constrained.

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  2. We Wear the Mask
    BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

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