Thursday, July 28, 2022

What Does a Mask Communicate?

a medical face mask on the floor

I started writing this post two years ago and left it unfinished. I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make with it, and then I got distracted from blogging by, well, let's blame it on the pandemic and the general craziness of 2020, which for me and my wife included downsizing and moving from our home of 30 years in Boulder, Colorado, to a condo in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (It was a happy move for us, but the timing during a pandemic was awkward.) Then there was the general craziness of 2021, and now, ta-da!, the general craziness of 2022. Through it all, some of the craziness has involved tensions around masks and mask-wearing, and I've been wanting to get back to reflecting on masks as a communication problem. So, two years later and for what it's worth, here we go. 

One way to state the problem (maybe not the best way, but I'm going with it for purposes of this post) is: "What does a mask communicate?" In communication theory, this question can be approached from the tradition of semiotics, the theory of signs and meaning. From a semiotic point of view, a mask communicates when it it means something to someone—that is, when it functions as a sign. Semiotic theory gives us concepts that are useful for breaking down the complex ways that a sign can have meaning. 

In this post I'm going to explore a little of that complexity of meaning, but first I'd like to open a tiny time capsule from 2020, found in my first draft of this post, a vignette of mask-wearing and meaning in the early months of the pandemic, which I then bring up to date with a brief note on the present:

Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 2020:  As I run to the barbershop, the heavy rain lets up and I pull back my jacket hood, revealing three months growth of shaggy gray hair. Just reopened under new public health rules after weeks of lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the shop has announced that customers must wait outside and in order to be admitted must use hand sanitizer and wear a... OH, SHIT! I FORGOT MY MASK! "Sorry," I say to the casual young guy behind a small table that partially blocks the shop entrance, "I left my mask in the car. I guess I was distracted by the thunderstorm. I can run back and get it..." No problem," he says while spraying sanitizer on my outstretched hands, "we'll lend you a mask." 

Half hour later: Looking good on top and grateful for it, I add a big tip to the bill, drop my borrowed cloth mask in the hamper by the door, and step into the bright sunshine and fresh air of a spring afternoon in my Colorado town. As I walk the two blocks to my car I'm self-conscious of not wearing a mask, which we're now officially required to do in public. I pass people on the sidewalk, some with masks and some not, and exchange glances with several. One man (also not wearing a mask, I notice) veers briskly into the street to avoid me. Safely back in my car, I say to myself, "Okay, this is what we are dealing with now. Don't forget that mask again!"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2022: On my daily walk through the city and along the Schuylkill River, I see maybe 1 out of 25 people wearing a mask, plus a few carrying one hanging from an arm, at the ready. I still carry a mask in my back pocket, just in case. Masks are no longer required in public, even indoors. However, with Covid-19 recently surging yet again (the sixth wave?) I've been thinking I should wear the mask more often in crowded indoor places. 

Through the last couple of years, wearing a mask has communicated a lot of different things to different people in different contexts, yet with some core of meaning that remains much the same. Ironically, the basic function of wearing a mask these days is mostly about not communicating something, namely the "communicable" disease of Covid-19!  But, while we may avoid communicating a virus by wearing a  mask, we cannot avoid communicating some meaning, however vague or unknowable it may be. It's an axiom of communication theory that "you cannot not communicate." That is, when you are in the presence of others, anything noticeable about you or your actions potentially "says" something to somebody, regardless of your intentions. Efforts to avoid communication, for example by avoiding eye contact, merely communicate that you are trying not to communicate. Wearing a mask is no exception. It's very noticeable, especially so because because it hides the face, which is normally a main focus of attention when we interact. So, wearing a mask in the presence of others (or not wearing one when others do) is definitely communicating, but what exactly it is communicating in a given situation can be hard to know. Yet there is, as I said, a core of meaning that remains much the same.  

A couple of recent academic articles by semiotic theorists are helpful for thinking about this problem. The Italian semiotician Massimo Leone (2021) points out that in any situation the meaning of wearing a mask "is threefold, like the meaning of any communicative device: (1) what I mean by wearing a mask; (2) what is meant to people by wearing a mask; and (3) what is meant by the mask itself."    

Not wearing a mask can communicate just as well as wearing one, and just as unintentionally. On that spring afternoon in Boulder in 2020, I was clearly nervous about not wearing a mask, I think for at least two reasons: (1) I was worried about disease transmission; and (2) I was worried that other people, not knowing I was mask-less by mistake, would assume I was cavalierly putting them in danger by resisting the public health order to wear masks. That was not the person I wanted to be or the message I wanted to be sending in that situation. I may have tried to correct the misimpression by screwing up my face in frustration, to what effect will never be known.  

Leone argues that the core meaning of the mask itself is inseparable from its essential protective function. These are medical masks, quite different from the more decorative or symbolic kinds of masks worn around the world for traditional religious rituals or carnivalesque events like Mardi Gras. Prior to the pandemic, protective masks were mainly associated with doctors and nurses in hospital settings or with workers needing protection from contaminated air in places like mines and construction sites. Such masks can be colorful or otherwise decorative, even fashionable, but the primary reason for wearing them is still for protection. In this they differ, says Leone, from hats and sunglasses, which also have a protective function but often are worn primarily for reasons of self expression and style. In the absence of a pandemic, masks are unlikely to persist as a popular fashion accessory. It's possible, however, that the practice of wearing masks for protection from disease or air pollution, which was already common in some Asian countries before the pandemic, will continue to some extent in Western countries.  

Beyond the core meaning derived from the mask's function, what is communicated by wearing a mask depends a lot on context and has shifted over time. Very early in the pandemic, if you saw someone wearing a mask you might have assumed they were sick and should be avoided. Advice from public health authorities in the winter and spring of 2020 was inconsistent and confusing for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effectiveness of masks for preventing it. There was also, initially, a worldwide shortage of masks, and some messaging discouraged us from wearing them unless we were sick, to preserve the existing supply for health care workers who absolutely did need them.  

As the public health case in favor of mask-wearing became clearer in the spring of 2020, efforts to increase the supply of masks multiplied and the meaning of wearing a mask shifted.  Another recent article about the semiotics of mask-wearing by Mickey Vallee (2022), a Canadian media scholar, discusses how a "global mask-making cottage industry," which he associates with the anti-consumerist DIY movement, emerged along with messaging that promoted mask-wearing as "a caring gesture" that we do collectively to protect each other (not just ourselves) and to "flatten the curve" of virus transmission. 

Mask-wearing as a symbol of social solidarity was already common in Asian societies where masking during public health emergencies was an established practice. Interestingly, the now-familiar protective mask was invented in China during an early twentieth century pandemic, and in that cultural context the mask acquired connotations of medical modernity and pride in China as an advanced nation. With the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, masking became a world-wide practice.

Even then, however, public health orders that required masking stirred political controversy in the US, and the meaning of the mask was caught up in some of our cultural contradictions. On the one hand, "we're all in this together" is a slogan that appeals to many Americans. On the other hand, many Americans don't like being told what to do, especially by elite authorities such as public health officers. 
In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic. (
Similarities to the US situation in 2020 and 2021 were not unnoticed by observers. As the pandemic wore on, right-wing populists gathered cultural strands of rugged individualism and anti-intellectualism to create a backlash against masks and public health restrictions on freedom in general. Still our malevolently clownish president through 2020, Donald Trump sowed confusion and sparked conflict in his own party by officially endorsing the public health advice to wear masks while also pandering to the right-wing resistance by mocking mask-wearers and declaring that he himself would not wear one. 

In an increasingly polarized environment, not wearing a mask in some American places clearly communicated that one was loyal conservative Republican, while wearing a mask equally clearly communicated that one was not. As an anti-Trump liberal Democrat, I felt that wearing a mask signaled my solidarity with like-minded others. This semiotic logic would obviously pose a problem for right-wingers who wanted to wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19 yet didn't want to be mistaken for gutless un-American liberals. Masks like the one pictured below offered a solution to this problem. 

Semiotic theory says the mask is polysemic, meaning that it can have a lot of different meanings, some of which are highly contested. As public health orders have receded since 2021, the political heat around masks has gone down, yet differences remain. Searching Twitter a few minutes ago for the phrase "wearing a mask means" turned up numerous comments, including the following;

Kim Burrell should be ashamed of herself for peddling anti-mask and anti-vaxx nonsense when it's Black folks who've been hardest hit by Covid. To imply that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask means you don't "believe enough" is the same backwards mentality that keeps Black folks from seeking therapy. (@FountainPenDiva)

I take a medication that makes me exceptionally scent-sensitive. Wearing a mask means fewer migraines. (@dewsterling)

Wearing a mask means you've died.
Spiritually. (@johnsville14)

In Vietnam, wearing a mask means you love your Country. (@Sinh_MD)

Not wearing a mask means you're a selfish entitled git. (@Margo1hand)

Not wearing a mask means that you choose a stalled, unhealthy, selfish society. (@GalNooks)

At least wearing a mask means that people won't mistake me for a conservative. 🙃 (@salmliam)

We were pummeled with terror for 2 years. For the first year it was QUITE scary for sure! Then we were also told that wearing a mask means you're a good person and showing your face means you're not. The messaging purposefully divided and othered. They don't want to be the other. (@DrJamesOlsson)

Or maybe wearing a mask means he can assess risk? Or maybe he has a health condition? Or maybe a close relative is in a high risk group? I know it's hard for you to believe that someone might wear a mask bc they care about someone other than themself. (@BabblnBostonian)

Lol all that wearing a mask means is that you probably aren’t a little bitch. No need to ascribe grandeur, just means basic courtesy and respect for life. Actual pro-life. (@SullySparks1)

Wearing a mask means you get to inhale your own essence and who doesn’t want that? 🥰 (@_BlurtBobain)

He'll, if I'd have known that wearing a mask means I "don't trust" the Invisible Man in the Sky, I'd be wearing a mask 24/7. (@file_49)

Angry woman asked me why I'm "wearing that piece of garbage on my face" and I said "because I love you and want you to be ok".  It turns out telling angry strangers you love them makes them quiet.  Mental note to self. (@tamalama67)

At what point did people start assuming wearing a mask means you're sick, as opposed to wanting to prevent sickness lol  (@StrewthQueen)

Further Reading

Leone, M. (2021). The semiotics of the anti-COVID-19 mask. Social Semiotics, 1-7. 

Vallee, M. (2022). A mask between you and me. Media, Culture & Society, 44(5), 903-921. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement" by Amardo Rodriguez (Public Square Press, 2022)

Book cover
Image source:

A new book by Amardo Rodriguez, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, is well worth reading for the outside-the-ideological-boxes, communication-based argument that it makes against campus speech codes that ban the use of certain words, such as the N-word (his prime example). 

In the history of American education, conservatives have traditionally been the most vociferous advocates for banning things -- books, ideas, words, or people -- that they regarded as indecent, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or otherwise dangerous to society. The tradition continues with current efforts to ban teaching that promotes what is misleadingly called "Critical Race Theory" or that normalizes nontraditional sexual and gender identities. (A law recently enacted in Florida was dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.)

However, the impulse to ban things has never been a monopoly of the political right. Ideological censorship, surveillance, and purges of "class enemies" and dissidents have been staple policies of left-authoritarian regimes in other countries, and conservatives have lately complained that something similar has been going on in American universities that are dominated by left-leaning faculty and students. The specific target of these complaints is often campus speech codes that ban "hate speech" or language regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise injurious to traditionally oppressed and underrepresented groups. 

Conservatives ironically find themselves opposing campus speech codes with the same "freedom of speech" arguments that liberals traditionally used against conservative bans. Now it is political progressives who defend restrictions on the freedom to speak in socially harmful ways. 

Conservative polemics on the subject bristle with horror stories about speakers being shouted down on campuses and professors being investigated, "cancelled" or disciplined for using banned language in the classroom. In one case, a professor was fired when he insisted on quoting the N-word as it appeared in appellate court opinions covered in a law class that he taught. He clearly was not using the N-word either casually or hostilely as a racial epithet. He was reading it from legal opinions in which it was used factually by judges ruling on legal cases about the word's use. Nevertheless, students in the professor's class were outraged and demanded action against him for racist speech. Campus administrators sided with the students, and he was ultimately fired. 

Rodriguez cites this and similar examples in his book, "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement," but his argument against banning words on campus escapes the polarized ideological dynamics of conservative versus progressive. Instead, he uses communication theory to argue that banning words relies on false assumptions about language and communication that can only serve to stunt our development as human beings. 

"At the foundation of this new trend of banning words on college campuses," he argues, "is the assumption that words and symbols form the foundation of communication" (p. 97), that words have certain definite meanings regardless of context or intent, and that "because words can allegedly inflict harm, just like how a weapon can harm, restrictions are necessary" (p. 13). In contrast to this "transmission model of communication," Rodriguez explains,

Communication theory has long rejected the notion that human beings are empty receptacles who can be filled up with messages. It now uses a model that stresses transaction rather than transmission... that human beings are always filtering and processing everything. Consequently, how one person perceives, experiences, and makes sense of something can be very different from how another person does. Communication is about recognizing, navigating, and transacting our different meanings of things. (p. 73)

Speech bans are intended to support campus "diversity" policies, but "for advocates of hate speech laws and codes, diversity resides in boxes and groupings" (p. 93). For Rodriguez, these policies actually deny and repress diversity, rather than support it:    

No doubt, human diversity is about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. But human diversity is also about our different temperaments, backgrounds, circumstances, sentiments, ambitions, resources, prejudices, values, beliefs, fears, ethics, politics, and tribulations. It is also about our different rationalities, sensibilities, spiritualities, modalities, pedagogies, ideologies, and epistemologies. (p. 87)

And human diversity in this fuller sense is essentially related to dialogical forms of communication:

Diversity makes communication possible and valuable. Communication has meaning only to the extent that speaker and listener have different thoughts. Communication is about recognizing and engaging another perspective. In other words, in limiting and diminishing communication, these new bans limit and diminish diversity. The flourishing of diversity is bound with the flourishing of communication. Only through communication can our full diversity appear in all its fecundity and possibility. Rules and regulations will always diminish diversity. Both do so by strangling communication. For with rules and regulations, nothing is open for negotiation and deliberation. There is only submission. Finally, that diversity is bound up with communication means that communication demands vulnerability—owning the limits of what we can understand. That we are physically incapable of understanding most things completely and absolutely means that we must always allow for the possibility of a view or position that is different to our own. These new bans end this possibility. We are to assume that there is only one correct course of action when dealing with certain words. Communication is unnecessary. In this way, these bans make for less diversity by making for less communication. (p. 93)

Rodriguez acknowledges the essential place of power in communication, which is important because the rationale for campus speech codes relies on the idea that they are needed to counteract the power to dominate and demean others that has traditionally accrued to whiteness, maleness, and other socially privileged identities. But instead of empowering members of traditionally oppressed groups, he argues, speech bans actually disempower them by casting them as helpless victims who are unable to control and negotiate the meaning of their own experience, and who therefore require institutional protection from harmful speech. 

Indeed, he argues, speech bans only serve to strengthen the institutional power of "the neoliberal 'all-administrative university'" (p. 80), which is inherently hostile to diversity despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "The reality," he writes, "is that no institution can genuinely promote diversity and remain an institution" (p. 129). What institutions require is not diversity but conformity to rules. As an exercise of institutional power, speech bans ultimately depend on violence to enforce conformity:

Hate speech laws and codes represent an order that impedes human development. By imposing this order under the threat of sanction, communication becomes impossible. We must submit and conform, or else face the consequences. (p. 82)

Here Rodriguez emphasizes how institutional power stifles communication, but elsewhere he is clear that communication always has a political dimension:

Then I discuss how language is political. We are always fighting over language, as in who can use what language, what language is appropriate in what context, what language belongs to whom, what language should govern the public square, what language best describes a situation, and so forth. Because language is always political, it is always about power—as in, who decides whether to call a person a terrorist or a freedom fighter? (p. 134)

In this light, speech bans are more than an expression of institutional power. They express the rising power of historically oppressed groups to control language via institutional rules:
[The N-word] is about power. It is about Black folks, after 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, finally having any power to impact how White folks use language. For this reason, many Black folks have no intention of giving up this newfound power. (p. 134)
I think the author's point is that this power comes at a cost because it produces mere outward conformity in speech that fails to express what people actually think and feel. Thus it prevents "the kind of honest and difficult communication" (p. 67), the genuine dialogue about race, that is arguably needed to produce social change. 

The power that Rodriguez refers to is real and reflects clearly recognizable norms of language use. As a notable example, Rodriquez, a Black man, uses the N-word in his book freely and without apology, whereas I, a white man, have avoided it in this review, substituting the euphemistic "N-word" even when quoting his book. You could say this is merely performative on my part, or you could say it follows a rule of etiquette, and, as such, counts as an expression of respect. I have no problem with following a formal rule that requires me to show respect for people who have always deserved it but have long been denied it. 

The communication theory of genuine dialogue teaches that the "honest and difficult communication" that is the gold standard of human relationship, if we achieve it at all, is only possible in brief moments and cannot be expected all the time. For the most part we have no choice but to rely on routine communication practices, including formal etiquette, to get along. But social routines are always about power, as Rodriguez points out, and the struggle for social change plays out in ongoing fights about what is appropriate. 

Institutional rules, such as bans on words, are not the same as social norms, but they are justified in terms of social norms, they influence social norms, and in some ways they are easier to fight about than social norms, just because they are clearly explicit and enforceable. In that regard, they may have the potential to serve as instruments of social change, even granting the strong, thought-provoking case that Rodriguez makes against them.