The Power of Social Pressure to Do Good


What We Are Beginning to Do with Masks Can Turn the Corner

Some Brief History Lessons – Starting with Tobacco

I grew up in the South, in a state that was largely agricultural at the time. That agriculture sector was dominated by tobacco, as was much of the state legislature. Smoking was thoroughly integrated into popular culture in dozens of ways. Even in later years, as a young Army officer, my C rations came with a small pack of cigarettes, because so many people smoked, and getting shot at from time to time inclined one to light up to relax a bit.

The idea that smoking, especially smoking in public, would ever be outside the mainstream seemed an impossible idea. But slowly, over time, science and yes, common sense, held sway. As such things often go, the effort to effect change seemed undoable, but a tipping point was reached and suddenly (suddenly in historic terms) the balance shifted completely. Airplanes and restaurants went from smoking sections to no smoking. Offices and campuses followed suit. Before long we were all looking in sad amazement at people who packed into a single closed room in an airport to smoke a cigarette. Sometimes the smoke is so thick in those rooms they appear fogged in.

We have long since reached a point where smoking was outside the mainstream almost across the board. The industry never gives up trying – think vaping – but it appears that overall, this battle is won. Social expectations carry the weight of law.

Gay Rights and Racial Justice

This is not unique to social trends. The same thing has been happening on gay rights. As gays and lesbians courageously came out in droves, people began to realize this is not some theoretical, theological discussions. We were talking about the basic right to live one’s life, being sought by people we knew and loved. This is work that is not done yet, but for the most part, America has changed for the better.

Now, this same information/transformation cycle is happening around racial justice issues. We have some tough days ahead, but the connective tissue is starting to form. We have a chance to finally start becoming the nation we aspire to be.

Which Brings Us to Masks

That anyone would still doubt the value of masks or would resist wearing them is amazing. This requires only the simplest of medical and scientific understanding. It asks only that we take the health of others into consideration. It is so little to ask with so much at stake. We now have incontrovertible proof that the countries who beat this thing so well, did so largely on the basis of near universal masking. Those who are burning to the ground, including the United States, are those who only sporadically adapted a masking strategy.

And so, finally, even the governor of Texas is mandating masks. It’s too late in places like Texas, Florida, Arizona, South Caroline, and Georgia to turn the corner via masking, although this will help a lot. Anything short of statewide/regional shutdowns (as in Phase I in most other places) will come up short. Once equilibrium is established, masking will be key to progress. Hopefully laws and directives will recognize that.

This is Where We Come In

Mandates, fines and other tools of governmental enforcement are essential in a fight like this, but they are not enough. What makes the system work is social pressure. Ordinary people employing social stares. Politely but firmly engaging those who do not mask and saying that if this is their choice, they need to do it home. They do not have any right to put others at risk. Merchants who care enough about their staff and clients to politely but firmly insist “No Mask, No Service.”

Like the other examples cited earlier in this post, change really takes root when we accept that we are free and independent individuals, but we are also members of society. That combination carries with it responsibilities to each other.

There is a difference between individual liberty and selfish disregard. We should not be shy about protecting the former and calling out the latter. The sooner more of us display a little courage in calling it out, the sooner we start to get well as a country.

“Suck it up, buttercup. Man up, put on the damn mask, do the right thing, and stop sniveling.” OK, maybe a bit more politely than that, but you get the idea.

Happy Bastille Day, tout le monde.

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason        Bill Clontz

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2 replies to The Power of Social Pressure to Do Good

  1. The change in attitude toward cigarettes is impressive, but for me the most amazing change in social behavior has to do with pet dogs. When I was a kid, stepping in dog crap, and messing up your sneakers or even your bare feet, was just something that happened. The idea that people, no matter how well dressed, would walk their dogs carrying thin plastic bags and then use the bags to pick up the dog crap and carry it for the rest of the walk or until they found a trashcan, was completely unbelievable. If that behavior had appeared in a science fiction novel in the 1960s it would have been comical. And yet, here we are.

    People who won’t wear masks are so in love with being angry with liberals that they will risk their lives just to be able to keep shouting.

    • You are correct. I had forgotten about that change, and it does seem pretty universal now.

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