In her 1946 book on Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict distinguished between cultures of shame and cultures of guilt. In guilt cultures, which are typically characterised by individualism, people are nudged towards prosocial behaviour by their consciences. In shame cultures, which are generally more collectivist, people are motivated by the desire to avoid public humiliation and preserve honour. Benedict’s association of US culture with guilt, and Japanese culture with shame, has since been criticised for its oversimplification and for its implications of Western moral superiority. It is more accurate to say that guilt and shame are often context-dependent and may co-exist as moral motivations.
Across 16th and 17th-century Europe, masks of shame were a common form of misogynist punishment. The ‘scold’s bridle’ was a heavy iron helmet attached to the head of a woman charged with ‘nagging’, ‘gossiping’ or other forms of unruly speech, often at the urging of her husband. Part of the bridle was a sharp gag that clamped the wearer’s tongue, physically silencing her and causing uncontrollable salivation. Thus muzzled, she’d be exhibited in public.
The Covid-19 lockdown has seen the public shaming of those thought to be breaking the rules. Neighbours who clap together on Thursdays have been overzealously reporting one another’s contraventions of the lockdown rules, and posting incriminating pictures and videos on social media. Other cases are more clear-cut: the most prominent target of corona-shaming is Dominic Cummings, whose egregious violation of the guidelines has been met with widespread contempt.
Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.
Gendered refusals of face masks aren’t new. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, mask-wearing was linked to femininity, and a lot of men rejected the public health advice. In the US, ad campaigns were designed to contrive associations between hygiene measures and masculinity. ‘We appeal to your civic patriotism,’ an announcement in the Sunday Oregonian said, ‘to co-operate with us in our effort to stamp out the Spanish Influenza … by wearing a mask.’
Wearing a face covering is mostly a matter of ‘source control’ – containing virus particles in the mask to keep them out of wider circulation. Addressing the cause is a tidier and more effective public health measure than managing its many, dispersed downstream effects. A sneeze behind a mask is a moist mess; a sneeze in the wild is a rapidly diffusing hazard. Mask refusal is the latest and most dangerous incarnation of the phenomenon of manspreading: not only are men without masks more likely to spread the virus, but their repudiation of a visible protective measure compels others to give them a wider berth in the supermarket or street, so they take up a larger share of public space.
It isn’t just face masks. Despite their proven benefits, many men are reluctant to use sunscreen or wear cycle helmets. They are also less likely to recycle, believing it to be at odds with both masculinity and heterosexuality, and many won’t order vegetarian food in the company of other men for fear of ridicule.
Mask refusal has another interesting parallel in condom refusal. A 2002 study found that ‘higher endorsement of masculinity ideology was related to more negative condom attitudes’. (More often than not condom use is also a matter of source control.) Norman Mailer interviewed Madonna for Esquire in 1994. ‘As you know,’ he said at one point, ‘I’m not in love with your book, Sex.’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ she replied. One of the things he objected to was her writing that ‘condoms are not only necessary but mandatory.’ ‘The only thing you can depend on with condoms,’ Mailer scoffed, ‘is that they will take 20 to 50 per cent off your fuck.’ He went on to suggest that using a condom ‘aggravates one’s need for power’ and that ‘condoms are one element in a vast, unconscious conspiracy to make everyone part of the social machine.’
Masculinity is the most glaring shame culture of our age. Those who feel awkward about wearing masks put the avoidance of discomfort or embarrassment ahead of protecting themselves and others. States whose leaders seem most concerned about their masculinity have failed catastrophically in their response to the pandemic. Their fixation on saving face has cost tens of thousands of lives.