The times, they are a’changing — and hot holy hell are they changing fast. It seems like only a few months ago, life was stable, predictable to an extent, and even, “normal” (whatever that means).  

Those days are gone, now. Every day is another rollercoaster, every week another wormhole; and people are adjusting to the strangeness, dealing with it and adapting to this new and dystopian way-of-life with surprising (and disconcerting) ease.

Case and point: the medical mask. Not only have these hospital garments become an iconic symbol of this dark-year-of-our-lord, 2020; but they are quickly becoming a fashion statement, too — an accessory of American apparel.  One we all have to wear every day — whenever we go into a public place.

It’s a constant reminder of the disease that has shut our nation down and brought the world to a grinding standstill.

And, even as that standstill begins to move again, masks are going nowhere. They are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Which, raises a lot of strange questions about the psychology of wearing a mask, the morality of it and the sociological effects that it might have on a society, when everybody suddenly becomes faceless.

“The question about face masks is how will they morally change us? To some extent the answer depends on our motivation for wearing them,” Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University, told the Washington Post. “If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear. Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.”

But, she also points out, if you’re wearing one for the opposite reason, to protect others, it might give the wearer a sensation of sacrificing their own freedom for the common good — a sense of self-righteousness. And who doesn’t want some of that?

Since the masks became universal in March, form has met fashion, and now whenever you go outside you’ll see between 50-75% of masks are either customized, brand name or handmade. They match people’s outfits, they say something about the faceless person wearing it, they offer some level of individuality in a world that is losing its identity. Go on etsy right now, and search for face masks, and there are over 250 pages of results, featuring thousands of different patterns, colors and options.

Some designer masks are even going for as much as $1,200 a pop.

Yes, it seems that face masks are becoming a fashion accessory just like hats, or sunglasses and even headphones. But what’s that going to do to people’s psyche? We are social creatures; we express almost as much with our faces as we do with our voices. We've all experienced this at the store or in public, when you smile at someone, but because you’re wearing a face mask you end up just making awkward eye-contact for several seconds. What would have been a silent but friendly interaction between two human beings, becomes a distanced interface between faceless strangers.

Whether or not we acknowledge that, or whether we feel fear or piousness when we dawn our COVID face masks, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that these masks are driving a wedge between every single person in our society. When the only people we’re allowed to take our masks off around are our quarantine buddies, it breaks the community up into cliques and we all go drifting off in different directions, separated and distant from our fellow Americans.

That doesn’t bode well for freedom as we understand it in this country. When people can’t interact with other people, when everyone is a faceless stranger, and when the mask-less become the antagonists, it makes it very easy to divide us as a people. No matter how dope looking your mask is, and no matter how well it matches your outfit, that mask is having an effect on your perception of the world and the people around you. It’s a massive psy-op (whether that was the original intention or not).

That’s not to say, we shouldn’t wear masks. I wear one. And, in fact, I’ve got a pretty sweet one made by a snowboarding company called Wrong Gear. Yeah, I’m on the fashion mask train — I wear it at the grocery store, picking up beer at brewery’s or in the liquor store. I wear it anywhere I could potentially pose a risk to someone I don’t know. Its good etiquette. It’s polite. It sends a message to everyone around you: “Look: I care about your safety, I’m not putting you or your loved ones at risk.”

Personally, I’m going to ditch the mask as soon as it’s socially acceptable. But I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t going to try and kick the habit. Just look at Asian countries: people wear medical masks there all the time, whether there’s a pandemic on the loose or not, and no matter how bad their air quality is.

It’s part of their culture, and it is going to become part of our culture too.