Graduate School, Issues in Instructional Design

Reflections on an Encounter with an Anti-Masker

A few days ago, I went to the pharmacy to pick up a new inhaler. While there, I found myself in the path of a bare-faced man yelling angrily about how he didn’t need a mask and wasn’t going to wear one, state-wide mask ordinance or no.

Thankfully, the incident didn’t escalate into a viral video-worthy confrontation. Thinking about the encounter as I walked home, I went from stunned to angry. How dare he? How dare he heap abuse on a cashier just trying to follow the rules? How dare he disregard the health and wellbeing of everyone in the store—in a pharmacy no less—just because he didn’t want to cover his mouth and nose for fifteen minutes?

When my anger subsided, my inner educator piped up to wonder whether this incident could be turned into a teachable moment. For someone who creates educational content, the idea raises some interesting questions.

How do you teach when they don’t want to learn?

It’s tempting to believe that this guy was just uninformed, and that if I could just give him information, he’d understand why he should wear a mask. It’s true that public messaging about masks has been confusing, and despite a more recent consensus on the importance on the importance of masks, the impact of those mixed messages remains.

Often, though, there’s nothing you can say that the person hasn’t heard before and rejected. There’s more going on than a lack of information. When the resistance to masks is a defense mechanism in a scary time, or it’s meant to stake out an ideological position, how do you overcome that barrier? How do you overcome the strong emotional reactions that currently permeate what has become a political and ideological debate over wearing face masks?

How do you teach people to care about others?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, wearing a mask isn’t just about protecting yourself from contracting COVID-19—it’s about protecting other people. But that argument only works if you’re concerned about protecting others.

“It shows you have respect for other people and they have respect for you. You wear a mask to protect them and they do the same to you.”

-Dr. Anthony Fauci

I’m sure that the angry guy in the pharmacy would do anything to keep his loved ones safe, but he sure didn’t seem interested keeping me, the asthmatic at the next register, safe. He didn’t display any compassion for the cashier just trying to do his job. He didn’t show any empathy for customers who might be worried about bringing the virus home to their loved ones. How do you teach someone to extend their concern for their own family to strangers? Months into this pandemic that has affected all of us in some way, how do you inspire a sense of solidarity with your community if it’s not already there?

Who do you believe?

I’m clearly making some assumptions here. Chief among them is that I’m right that wearing a mask is important. After all, I’m not an epidemiologist or an infectious disease specialist. I don’t really know that masks are effective. Rather, I choose to listen to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who tell me that wearing a mask can help to mitigate the spread of the virus. But if the guy in the pharmacy chooses to listen to people who say that masks aren’t necessary, or that mask ordinances are tyrannical, or that the virus is hoax, how do I convince him that my sources are more trustworthy than his sources? When someone rejects science, how you convince that person to listen to scientists?

How do you put your own judgment aside?

Along with my own assumptions, I clearly come to this topic with my own judgments. When I encountered the man in the pharmacy refusing to wear a mask, I judged him as arrogant, ignorant, and selfish. I saw someone who put his own comfort ahead of the health of his community, someone who is unwilling to do the bare minimum to potentially save lives. On further reflection, I haven’t changed my mind. No one likes being judged, though, and there’s no way to reach or teach someone and judge them at the same time. So, if I think it’s worth trying to reach this man, how do I put my judgment aside long enough to try?

I have a lot of thoughts about how to answer these questions, but I’m curious to hear what other people think. How do you solve a problem like an anti-masker?

Here’s someplace to start: Lead by example. Wear your mask.

Feature image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash