Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Cultural resistance to wearing masks?

Covid19 has once again led to new restrictions in Denmark and elsewhere – and to new discussions of these restrictions. There seems to be a special resistance to the demand to wear masks in all public places. This blog post suggests that cultural and religious heritage might be part of the explanation for this resistance – even though we are not aware of our cultural and religious heritage. This heritage is not necessarily in itself part of the solution, but thinking about it might be.

27.10.2020 | Nina J. Koefoed

I have made a few masks featuring Luther roses like the ones in the picture. In many ways, this is a contradiction in terms. In other ways, they might be necessary

From ban on masks to demand for masks

I believe many Danes, like myself, appreciate the absurdity of introducing masks in public spaces as a demand, only a few years after legislation against masks in public spaces was introduced. This legislation was also surrounded by an intense debate about covering your face in public spaces. The rule against masks was, in reality, a rule against religious clothing, against the burka. One of the strong arguments supporting the legislation was the need to see the faces of people with whom we interact.

Resistance to wearing masks in public

The resistance to wearing masks in public space because of Covid19 has many similarities with the urge to prohibit the burka. We want to be able to read people’s faces to ensure a good and trusting interaction. We are not convinced about the effect of masks, and thus not sure that they are worth the inconvenience. But even if masks only have a small effect, why hesitate to use them if there is a chance that wearing a mask can help our society to continue and help us keep as much open as possible? Personally, I prefer wearing a mask to working from home. 

Rational or irrational?

When resistance to something is not rational, the reason is often cultural and religious heritage – rendering resistance rational within the cultural logic in question. Cultural and religious heritage does not have to be obvious or something we are aware of. Cultural norms can be very strong and effective even though we have lost track of their background or roots. However, it may also be very useful to discuss these roots and background now and then with a view to understanding their influence on our lives and worldview. 

The importance of visible faces

So why is it so important for us to see the faces of the people we communicate with? I argue that the reason is based, at least in part, on an imbedded belief that people are more trustworthy when you can see their faces. We connect trustworthiness with the willingness to show our faces. In the debate about the burka, this cultural belief prevented us from accepting that hiding your face could be connected with honour and trust in other cultures. In this current situation, there is a risk that this same belief might prevent us from supporting what could be a useful way to keep our society a bit more open during Covid19.

The ‘thief-mark’

Norwegian historian Erling Sandmo has shown that only honest people could be trusted to tell the truth in the early-modern courtroom. The truth of a witness depended on his or her honour. If you had lost your honour, nobody believed that you would speak the truth any longer. You could use your honour in several ways in early-modern society. Thieves were, for instance, regarded as dishonest. The third time a thief stole something, he or she was branded in the forehead. But they could still hide this with a hat if they wanted to. The fourth time they stole something, they were given a thief-mark (a hole burned through the cheek into the teeth). This could only be hidden by wearing a mask – which is why honest people were expected to show their faces.

The Eighth Commandment and trustworthiness

For Luther, there also seems to have been a connection between being trustworthy and showing your face. In the Large Catechism, in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, Luther underlines the obligation given by this commandment to protect your neighbour, to be trustworthy. The Eighth Commandment is about honour, the social need for honour and the need to protect the honour of your neighbour too. This means that courts have to be fair and protect the poor; that gossip is not allowed; that we should believe the best in what we hear about our neighbour. Honour is connected to our body:  

“No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth, for they, being in themselves the most honourable members which we have, do not require it.”

An honest face

This legal and religious tradition might have established a cultural understanding of the connection between showing your face and being honest – between being able to see people’s faces and being able to trust them. In this perspective, resistance to wearing a mask in public places is very rational. Our cultural heritage tells us that wearing a mask makes other people suspect that we have a thief-mark. It tells us to be suspicious of people if we cannot see their faces to confirm that they are people of honour.

The LUMEN approach

The possible influence of hidden cultural and religious heritage on our approach to masks and face coverings in public places and interactions with other people is a small example of the path dependencies and traces of confessional culture that we investigate in LUMEN. Our studies of Lutheran theology and confessional societies seek to establish an approach to exploring the connections between confessions and societal development in general. In more specific terms, we aim to enlarge our understanding of how Lutheran theology has influenced societal development in Denmark as an important element in understanding present-day society. The secular norms and values of our current society often have a religious heritage of which we are no longer aware, and which we do not understand or acknowledge. Social imaginaries stemming from theology sometimes form our expectations of each other, society or the state, and thereby also the rules in our social interaction.    

Forskning