Two days ago I was waiting for the bus. Public transport is free during the pandemic, and even as the outside world lurches back towards normality, the buses, with "please board at the back" signs and yellow tape marking off alternating rows of seats, are an ambulatory reminder that we are not yet back in normal times. These visual cues play on my pandemic-awareness, so I find myself "masking up" to board the bus, even though I know the risk of either contracting or transmitting a virus on a fifteen minute ride down Whyte Avenue is negligible.
So - I was primed for virus-awareness, homemade mask in place and feeling good about it, at the bus stop. A pickup truck pulled to my side of the street and the inhabitants started hollering at me. The content of the holler was unintelligible - presumably, the limited vocabulary of the street hassle - but the gestures, hands waving around their faces and pointing at mine, made it clear that my mask had gotten their attention and they wanted me to know they thought it was stupid. The truck inhabitants were an unfortunate cliche come to life - large young-ish white men with dirty baseball caps and half-beards in mismatched camouflage jackets. I responded with a middle finger; they hollered again and one of them smacked the door panel for emphasis, and then the light changed and they drove off.
I thought about this unwanted encounter. On the one hand, this is generic harassment - any woman or any person of colour existing in public has encountered some version of these yahoos. On another hand, populist rage is the flavour of the times, and maybe that's what I was seeing - Trump-ish resentment and hostility towards the effete city-dwellers who want everyone to play safe and listen to the educated people who tell us to cover our face.
And on the other hand, starting to run out of hands - what did those men think they were doing? I don't mean in a false-consciousness, discursively-determined, political-analytical sense, I mean that if I could have frozen the moment, somehow induced a calming spell to fall over everyone, and asked them: "Why are you doing that? What is the outcome you're aiming towards by hollering at the middle-aged woman in a face mask? What do you see?" - what would they have said?
On the surface (I almost wrote "on the face of it") yelling at people in masks makes no sense. My mask has no impact on the freedom of action or movement available to them. I am not attempting to obstruct them. Nothing is being enforced - if they want to drive around in a pickup truck with bare faces, my mask-wearing presents no obstacle. You do you, and vaya con Dios.
What if I acceded to the anti-mask hollering and taken my own mask off? Would I have gotten applause and thumbs-up? Would any change in my behavior, any acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their views, be a satisfying conclusion to this episode, from their point of view? Or is yelling at women at bus stops an end in itself, and the mask/no mask, safety/liberty argument simply the name of the discharge valve through which this perpetual hostility escapes?
These are empirical questions, not rhetorical ones. I wish that I could step into some sort of discursive neutral zone and ask them. I wish I could ask the protestors in Detroit who tried to block ambulance bays - what is the nature of the thing that you are attempting to achieve? If you were successful and stopped the ER from admitting any new patients, why would that success matter? If we step away from the assumption that behavior like this is purely theatrical and step into the assumption that this is behavior that is meant to be instrumental, what would we learn?
At this point in the pandemic, I am surrounded by abundant evidence of public behavior that seems to me to be completely irrational, much of it now triggered by people's choices about what kind of protective measures to take. I can explain these things by using concepts like patriarchy, neoliberalism, white supremacy and class ressentiment, and I think these explanations work, in the sense that they are both adequately prescriptive and descriptive, but I also want to know what's going in the minds of the people who are blocking the ambulances and harassing the Costco clerks and filling up the Internet with anti-WHO screeds and hollering at bus stops. What are you attempting to achieve? Why the f*ck you yelling at me, buddy?