Evaluating performative morality amidst COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended in March 2020, we all met a new friend—the mask. After a few months of confusion, when we donned everything from bandanas to old t-shirts to ill-fitting leftovers from the hardware store, masks became commonplace. Traveling over faces and in pockets, under chins and on car dashboards, they are the ubiquitous symbols of the pandemic. They have also found themselves at the center of some controversy. Our time of pandemic has made us more religious, but I don’t speak of churches. Rather, we have embraced the moral statement of the mask.

In an increasingly fractured culture, we have found ourselves grasping for moral programs that bring us together amidst our ever-extending isolation. Our COVID-19 response was one such means of bridging that gap. Masks, lockdowns, and distancing became a shared moral mission, especially in the early days of the pandemic when these proposals were broadly accepted due to fear of the unknown. After years of a growing idolatry of independence and individual freedoms, duty towards community became a substantial part of our moral structure.

However, the moral question has quickly become wrapped up in a physical expression.

Masks in and of themselves are a tool proven to reduce the transmission of a sometimes-life-threatening illness. This is to be commended, especially their use in high-risk communities and high-spread environments. But, especially in these late-stage pandemic days, masking has taken on a moral nature outside of its utility as a medical tool. When we bind up our moral life in external practices or “attire,” two things happen. First, morality can become performative. Second, our moral discourse becomes material rather than transcendental.

A material morality is devoid of telos. When the mask is in and of itself the good, as it has become for many, we are not led anywhere by our moral actions. Moral actions may be too strong of a word—moral object feels more fitting. These objects, like the “moral mask,” begin and end at themselves. They have no principle of unity or moral orientation. They are aggregate as opposed to constituent, individual expressions of morality rather than an expression of belief in a unified system. Any moral program reflected by our masks— care for community, caution when faced with the unknown, or preservation of our own lives — is lost in the mask qua mask. This is all to say that material morality prevents challenges for creating a cohesive and unifying moral system because it is naturally bound up in particulars rather than principles.

A performative morality is even more troubling. For many, the mask becomes a means of saying to the world: “I am good. I am engaged in the relevant current events, and I wish others to know this.” Masks become a status symbol: an N-95-wearer cares more than the single-use dude; the cotton mask with a quirky pattern denotes a willingness to make face-coverings a fashion staple.

This sort of moral performance will limit our ability to get back to normal. It is much easier to wear a mask and be seen as “good” rather than to engage in intense discourse and inquiry into the finer facets of the moral life. The goal of this performative morality is not the prevention of disease but the appearance of a moral society. It undercuts exactly the upside of the pandemic: our newfound moral community. By making the mask the moral image rather than a means of protecting oneself or others, it becomes an occasion of judgment. Is that person not masking outside? Why is their mask under their nose? The masked and the maskless ceaselessly criticize one another, not calling into discussion their real moral outlooks but finding all that they need to know about one another in the piece of cloth covering — or not covering — their face.

We can turn to the Oscars (and the commentary thereon) for a recent example of this mask-morality complex. The gala was striking for its large crowd of maskless celebrities. But only on camera — off-camera, the stars regained their masks. The logic was interesting: on movie sets, actors can be unmasked in front of the camera, and so they treated the Oscars as a movie set. The inconsistency is striking, but the real question boils down to the commentary on this choice. On Twitter, praise for artists wearing masks throughout the event was a trending topic. But these comments were focused solely on the act of wearing a mask. No one was particularly worried about the consequences of maskless individuals for the spread of infectious disease; the entire “cast” was vaccinated. Rather, it became a question of the goodness of mask-wearing as a performative moral act.

It is important that we recover moral discourse, and the season of pandemic has provided some opportunities for that. Debates arose between the importance of in-person education and how to best ensure the safety of our most vulnerable. This conversation dominated the summer months as communities decided whether or not to follow through with bringing college students back to university campuses or bringing preschoolers to their formative communities. The dignity of work became a crisis as unemployment skyrocketed. The utility of lockdowns, taken as a function of their health benefits and economic harm, was a topic of heated and important debate as the rights of the worker were put at center stage. These remain important and pointed questions and are ones that we should continue to discuss, even as we put the coronavirus behind us.

But note that none of these issues have boiled down to a material item as much as the mask. Done for the right reasons and in proper context, mask-wearing remains a laudable and moral choice. But wearing the mask for the mask’s sake leads us down a road of performative morality that could have long-term consequences for the way we judge ourselves and others. Masking as a moral statement is much easier than moral discourse. We would do well to let the tool remain a tool, and our moral formation remain the object of our hearts.

Zach Pearson is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies (Book Guy) with a second major in music (Singy Boy). He enjoys fresh air and the sun on his face. Reach out to him at zpearson@nd.edu.