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Further Consideration: Courtesy clashes with freedom in the debate over COVID-19 masks

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Liberty. Freedom. Choice.

A lot of people are playing fast and loose with terms like these nowadays and, at first glance, it seems baffling why that might be.

On the surface, it’s simple. You go about your business, doing your thing, slapping whatever bad decision bumper sticker on your car that you want, and I’ll do the same. One of us can laugh at the other on Nov. 4, if we so choose.

That’s what freedom is all about, right? Not necessarily.

As much as many of us might agree on what symbolizes American freedom — the flag and the bald eagle, for example — the exactness of what these icons represent is nuanced. And nuance is everything.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of American high schoolers write essays about what freedom means to them. Entire university courses are designed around ferreting out the specifics of freedom, and political parties have been built around particular interpretations of the idea formed by folks in smoky back rooms.

It’s been a while since I revisited what some of the great minds have had to say about freedom, but it was good to remember that not only do many of us have differing definitions of the notion, but we share a planet with experts who have devoted their lives to thoroughly understanding the concept and trying to help the rest of us have a better idea of what we’re talking about.

And, boy oh boy, do we love to talk about it.

Our currently trending debate on the shades and gradations of freedom centers around whether we are compelled to wear masks in public to protect ourselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.

As a glasses-wearing claustrophobe, I can attest to the discomfort of wearing a mask for extended periods of time. I don’t like discomfort, hence my sensible shoes and refusal to glue someone else’s lashes to my eyelids, so I am not a good candidate for wearing masks without some degree of whining.

Luckily, my mother taught me that I am not the sun.

In fact, I am reminded of my small place in the universe every day when my husband drives two hours to work as an ER doc in a rural area of South Carolina. I’ve seen the get-up he wears to protect himself and his patients from the deadly virus that has, during its first wave, been confirmed to have infected 8,816 South Carolinians as of May 18, and let’s just say he looks like something between a welder and a stormtrooper, whether his patients have a busted toe or symptoms of the plague. Every day he works, for 12 hours a day, he wears this gear, discomfort or not.

The drone of my whining sounds pretty petty then.

When you think about it, wearing a protective mask during a global pandemic is a pretty small acquiescence to the social contract we agree to when we agree to share public spaces, and it’s hard to understand how liberty is any more compromised by this act than it is by common courtesies like yielding to a passer-by on the sidewalk.

No one forces us to say, “God bless you,” when a person in our shared space sneezes, but bless them we do.

And how is asking a friend or neighbor to take responsibility for their own germs different from asking them to keep other bodily expulsions to themselves? What about their phlegm or snot? What about their flatulence?

Is flushing the toilet after use suddenly something only sissies do?

Granted, it is difficult to assess the relationship between freedom and respect for our neighbors, and whether to wear a mask to protect them, when the men in our executive offices, the ones we should be able to count on to model humanity’s best behavior, refuse to wear masks themselves while requiring the public servants around them to do that very thing.

I also find it strange that so many of the people whose liberty is threatened by the expectation that they wear masks are the first ones to tell me and my daughters what to do with our reproductive organs. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe the best way to meet in the middle on this issue is to embrace the few things about freedom and liberty that we can almost all agree upon. Let’s make some masks with Uncle Sam smiling at us and the simple words, “I Want YOU to do the right thing!”

Cindi Boiter is a writer, editor and arts advocate. She is the founding editor of Jasper magazine and the Fall Lines literary journal and the executive director of The Jasper Project.

Cindi Boiter is a writer, editor and arts advocate. She is the founding editor of Jasper magazine and the Fall Lines literary journal and the executive director of The Jasper Project.

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