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Behind the mask: uncovering symbols of hope in uncertain times

16 Oct 2020

Matthew Barber-Rowell examines how the practice of mask-wearing might reveal precisely the sort of attitudes we need to shape society for the better over the coming years.

Last week, Boris Johnson used his conservative party conference speech to set out his ten year vision for the country saying, ‘after all we have been through, it isn’t enough to go back to normal… we have been through too much frustration and hardship just to settle for the status quo ante, to think that life can go on as before the plague’. Johnson said that events of this magnitude—war, famine, pandemics of the past—are triggers for much wider social and economic change. The kind of change that we need will respond, not only to the ruptures created by COVID-19, but also to the 2008 recession, Brexit, and the environmental crisis.

In my forthcoming Temple Tract, I argue that the building blocks for the change we need can be found in our day to day lives. Unearthing differing and creative potential informs both local leadership and emergent shared values that shape communities, social policy and economic growth. Rishi Sunak paints a bleak picture for our creative economy, but this is not to say that we cannot or should not rely on our gifts and creativity to shape our environments. Far from it. The recent report by Conservative MP Danny Kruger, looking at levelling up communities, has highlighted the need for greater engagement at a local level, greater power-sharing, and greater emphasis on people and organisations that are embedded in their communities and the networks and institutions that support them.

In this blog, though, I want to hone in on one of the symbols of our times—the face mask—and the way that it exemplifies the kind of personal responses and shared resources that we will need to manage social and economic change over the next ten years.

Wearing a face mask symbolises our response to the uncertain times we are living in. For some it is a symbol of the extent to which we care about others. Yet, whilst stepping out of hospital and into the White House, Donald Trump removed his mask as an act of defiance, seemingly ignoring the deaths of more than 200,000 US citizens. Face masks are not there to protect the wearer; they are there to protect the other. As part of his Late Late Show monologue last week, James Cordon criticised Trump’s act of defiance, singing ‘maybe I don’t wear a mask because I don’t care about others?’.

An emerging theory even suggests that face masks can reduce the severity of the virus and increase immunity. ‘Variolation’, as this effect is known, sets the foundations for hope in the period before answers are clear, opening up spaces from which responses to the ills of an uncertain world might be emerge. In this sense face masks can be symbols of hope.

So, to wear a mask is to consider others, to express values which are rooted in relationship, and to recognise that we have a shared existence and responsibility for the common good. The mask economy is also thriving. I recently bought masks from a charity that supports a children’s home in the Congo. Our purchasing power can make a huge difference as we seek a ‘new normal’ post-COVID-19.

The face mask provides us with a means of reducing the spread of the virus as part of a mixture of measures including social distancing and hand hygiene. But mask wearing can also express something deeper about our creativity, our values and our resourcefulness. Mask wearing creates spaces of health and connection with others in vulnerability and recognition that we cannot overcome the virus on our own. In which case, how else can our lives open up public expressions of service to the other? It might be that we simply wear a mask. But it might also be that there are other significant things we can do too.

In my forthcoming Temple Tract, I will be picking up this conversation about how our different and creative potential can shape local leadership and emergent shared values as part of a post-COVID-19 ‘new normal’. I draw on the inspiration of William Temple’s social principles of freedom, fellowship and service to encourage these spaces of hope in uncertain times. The Tract will set out how simple acts such as mask wearing, and other elements of our personality within the context of a mixed local economy can be expressed through local leadership and can help us to discern emergent shared values that shape the social and economic change we need in the future.

More blogs on religion and public life…

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Reflecting on emotions as the music returns by Ben Thompson

Is XR undergoing a just transition? by Matthew Stemp

Review of ‘Christian hospitality and Muslim immigration in an age of fear’ by Matthew Kaemingk by Greg Smith

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