Seeing your face and hearing your voice

I want to take a bit of time to respond to a post on the Pastor’s Academy website by Matthew Mason about faces and face masks.  In a moment I’m going to seriously challenge the content of the article so I want to begin by saying that I appreciate London Seminary, The Pastors’ Academy and those involved including Matthew. They’ve provide some really helpful resources and I appreciate them. However, I’m really struggling with this article. I think it gets both tone and content wrong in quite a pastorally unhelpful way.

Let me explain why.  Matthew’s article divides as follows. Matthew begins with an overview, a Biblical theology if you like of faces and face to face encounters showing how face to face relationships are crucial for intimacy, he draws out our longing to see God face to face. If the article had stopped at this point, then I would have commended it as a beautiful and refreshing read, something for all of us, whatever our position on mask mandates.

Matthew then goes on to apply this Biblical Theology to the question of mask mandates in the context of the pandemic.  He asks the questions:

“What kind of society would obscure the faces of its members? And what will become of a society, over time, where effacing its members is deemed acceptable and where faces are routinely lost from public view?”

He then argues that the consequence of mask wearing will be negative, destroying relationships and removing trust.

“To state the matter sharply: when we meet a masked person, to the extent that their face is concealed, what we meet is precisely not a person, but a person effaced, reduced to an object in a world of objects, a body—understood in its most crudely reductive way—in a world of bodies.”

Then he argues that alongside the harmful impact, facemasks have no or negligible benefit in terms of pandemic control.

“First, I must confess to a lack of expertise in statistics and virology. Nevertheless, drawing on the work of experts in the relevant fields, I do not find the evidence adduced in favour of the health benefits of masking to be compelling.5 Rather, it seems that mask mandates make little or no difference to viral transmission. Their use has been dictated by fear rather than accepted through sober reflection on reality.”

In responding to Matthew, it’s this last point that I want to start with because it starts to show where I think he comes unstuck.  If you begin a statement with “I must confess a lack of expertise in…” and then name the very subject areas where expertise is necessary then that should give you just a little pause for thought before following up with a bold claim. All we have now is a very subjective opinion.  The simple rejoinder to the argument is that many people, including plenty who have expertise in statistics and/or in virology would contest his argument that “mask mandates make little or no difference to viral transmission.”

It is perhaps helpful at this point to hear carefully what those people who see evidence for mask wearing benefits are arguing. First, not everyone who can see the benefit of masks based on the evidence would argue that they are effective at all times and in all contexts.  There is little benefit for example to having a classroom of 30 students where the teacher enforces a mask rule before the same kids bundle into the corridor, remove their masks and them cram onto the bus or train.   Secondly, as I’ve mentioned before, Epidemiologist Irene Petersen has helpfully pointed out that we need  to be careful about saying “look country x with y measures still has high and exponentially growing case numbers because we do not, without investigating further, know how much worse the case numbers would have been without the measures.”

Here then I think is the second problem. One of the purposes of reading each others’ faces is to ensure clear communication but such communication also depends on hearing each other well and I think there are a couple of occasions in the article where interlocutors are not heard well.

This also shows up when we are told that:

“We rarely think about what our faces mean, or why it matters what we do with them.”

Is that really true? Is that a fair representation of others.  I feel a little like my thoughts have been somewhat second guessed here.  It is perhaps worth remembering two things here. First of all, that the role of veiling and masking has been frequently discussed in our society over many years. Consider the questions around the use of the Hijab and the Niqab. Consider the way in which conventional cultural norms and sometimes rules require you to remove hoods and crash helmets when going into shops and banks.  Consider even the general perception of “hoodies” in wider society. Then, remember the caution and the reluctance that there was to move towards face mask mandates and note the eagerness to lift them as quickly as possible in England. 

The truth is that we do get that faces matter. We are reluctant wearers of masks. Attempting to draw conclusions about people’s underlying attitudes towards something in the face of perhaps the most significant crisis/danger we’ve faced in most of our lifetimes is fraught with pitfalls.

Context matters.  A society that enforces blackouts and curfews, that calls people up into national service, that requisitions factories, rations food and requires people to carry identity papers sounds sinister and authoritarian. That’s not the kind of society I would want to live in during peace time. Yet, my grandparent’s generation and to some extent my mum’s generation lived in a society exactly like that, not because they lived under authoritarian tyranny but because they lived in the context of a terrible world war.  They made short term sacrifices even to their economic well-being and even to their freedom in order to face off a greater longer-term threat to such things.

Similarly, there are costs that come with pandemic NPIs. I flagged up early on the costs involved in social distancing and lockdowns.  Yet I understood the difficult decisions that governments and health authorities were having to make. So, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the kind of rhetrotic such as

“Over the past two years, we have experienced extraordinary reversals of commonly accepted patterns of social behaviour. This has happened throughout the world, by government compulsion, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The imposition of mask mandates—and the apparent willingness of populations around the world to wear facemasks in a variety of settings—is just one of these changes.”

Such language goes beyond reasonable disagreement and leaves those who disagree feeling accused of sinister motives.

The next problem with the article is that it paints the situation in exclusive/binary terms.  Indeed, the imagery used in the illustrations points to faceless heads.  The choice appears to be between being able to see all of your face or none of your face, all of the time or none of the time. Yet, that is clearly not the case.  The requirement is to cover your mouth and nose in order to reduce the spread of viral droplets in the air.  Eyes remain uncovered. Furthermore, masks mandates are required in specific contexts. If during “plan B” I wished to talk to someone face to face in order to communicate better, I had the option of seeing them at my house, outdoors. I could sit down at a table with a cup of coffee and piece of cake, remove my mask and talk to them as well.  I could identify an exemption to facemask wearing including where that might cause distress. This is important in the context of this quote from the article.

“One striking illustration of this is a study published in September 2021 on the effects of wearing masks on the ability to recognise facial expressions in people wearing facemasks.4 The study indicates that wearing a mask decreases the ability to recognise facial expression of six common emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and neutrality. Further, the emotions were perceived as less expressive when wearing a mask. In addition, participants with autistic traits—those who scored higher on the Autistic Spectrum Quotient—struggled to identify the emotions of people wearing masks.”

There is no doubt that loss of sight of specific facial features does reduce communication. It is important that we are alert to this particularly considering those who have either visual or hearing impairments (I have the former). Yet, we also need to distinguish between the hindering of communication and recognition verses absolute prevention. I can still recognise people and I can still observe facia expressions communicated through the eyes even if there’s a greater risk of mistakes, even if it’s harder and requires greater care.

This absolutism is also seen in the Biblical theology which rightly emphasises the positive reasons for seeing faces but seriously underplays the presence in Scripture of passages that do encourage us to be alert to risks and take precautions around them whether that is covering your face to combat infectious illnesses or putting a parapet around your roof to prevent people falling off. No, we cannot eliminate risk completely and I don’t think anyone is claiming we can. We talk about risk assessment, mitigation and management not elimination!

Matthew asks us to engage with his arguments and think carefully.

“Even if our societies were right to mask, we should never have acquiesced so readily, without careful corporate deliberation, with dissenting voices heard and arguments weighed. And, given the meaning of our faces, Christians and churches—no matter how well-intentioned— were wrong to do so in such an un-theological and pragmatically-driven way. We must now give much closer and more careful attention to what we can do to recover.”

I don’t think this fairly takes into account the extent to which people have been engaging on the very issues he raises. I would therefore ask him to remove this inflammatory accusation.

That others disagreed with you does not mean that they “acquiesced so readily, without careful corporate deliberation” It may mean that others have not always been ready to watch or faces and hear our lips.

If I were to sum up the position of those who have supported wearing facemasks, or indeed the position supporting NPIs generally it would be as follows.

  1. We recognise that there are things that we might describe as good and ideal. We long for a world where face to face contact and gathering happens without limitations or danger.
  2. We live in the now and the not yet, therefore there are things now that are “not good” and nothing is perfect. Decisions have to be made about what is best in our present situation. Those decisions are often not easy.
  3. It is right – indeed Biblical to respond to a specific crisis. Our response to a crisis is not the same as what we would prefer in normal circumstances. Nor indeed, is it anywhere close to the ideal we long for.
  4. Even when we return to “normal” we will still be a long way short from that better day and our experience now should cultivate a longing for that better day.
  5. Circumstances will change.

This is important because I also want to acknowledge that yes there are people out there who have pushed NPIs including face masks, vaccine passports, testing etc as long term things. I don’t think all or even most of them are simply using COVID as a cover for a sinister authoritarian agenda. I’m sure their proposals arise out of genuinely good motives. However, I do think that there is an idolatry in those approaches (just as there is idolatry in the hard line anti vax, anti mask agenda). The problem is that by conflating people have have supported or accepted measures in specific circumstances with that agenda risks misrepresenting the position of many and misunderstanding the root concerns of others.

I have said before but it is worth repeating.  A lot has been said in the heat of the pandemic. We’ve been quick to distrust each other assuming that brothers and sisters who have been more cautious some how lack faith or don’t think about the big issues or alternatively assuming and accusing where people have been wary of pandemic responses seeing a lack of love for others. Perhaps we would do well to stop assuming so much and perhaps look one another in the face and listen carefully.

%d bloggers like this: