Prejudice, privilege and face masks

Just over two weeks ago, a 16-year-old was verbally abused on a train for seeking to communicate with her deaf sister.

Saule Pakenaite was travelling from Liverpool to Stockport with her sister Karolina on 16th July when she briefly lifted her face mask from her mouth so that Karolina could lip-read. She was then loudly denounced by another passenger, who refused to believe her explanation about Karolina’s deafness.

This vile incident has made the news partly because it was filmed. It’s horrifying to think how many similar incidents are going unrecorded, undiscussed and unnoticed by all except those affected by them.

It is sometimes said that crises bring out the best and the worst in people. The Covid 19 pandemic has seen many people demonstrating kindness and a sense of community, coming together to tackle common problems. As well as the judgemental woman who insulted the Pakenaite sisters on the train, let’s not forget the passenger who intervened and challenged her. But in England this solidarity and compassion has appeared despite, and not because of, the government’s patronising messages.

While many people on the ground have gone out of their way to help their neighbours, the government has paid only limited attention to people facing unemployment and poverty and has completely neglected the mental health services that should have been a priority for attention and funding as the UK went into lockdown and mental ill-health shot up.

Sadly, the crisis seems also to be seen by petty-minded and judgemental people as a licence to make assumptions about other people’s behaviour and to blame individuals and marginalised communities for a global problem exacerbated by economic unfairness and handled appallingly badly by Boris Johnson’s government.

Only yesterday, Tory MP Craig Whittaker abandoned any attempt to mask his racism and simply asserted that the “vast majority” of people not taking Covid 19 regulations seriously enough in his constituency were in BAME communities.

In a similar vein to the disabilism encountered by Saule and Karolina Pakenaite, social media commentators have mocked the exemption to compulsory face coverings for people who would experience “extreme distress” if their face were covered. These include people with PTSD and various other mental health problems. If, to take an example, you have a traumatic memory of someone trying to suffocate you, it is entirely reasonable that you should be exempt from wearing a mask that would trigger a panic attack.

On the other side of the coin from those who mock exemptions are those privileged people who mock the idea of wearing a mask when they have no grounds for exemption themselves. Certain Tory backbenchers object to masks on the grounds of a concern for civil liberties that they have never previously demonstrated. Most of these people are never seen speaking up about real threats to civil liberties, such as the rise in facial recognition technology, the massive amount of data gathered by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon or the government’s threat to restrict jury trials.

The right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens has somehow managed to combine the self-importance of the anti-makers with the contempt for disabled people shown by verbally abusive people on trains.

Hitchens claims that face masks turn people into “voiceless submissives” – but his rants on the subject fail even to mention the existence of exemptions. Hitchens has in reality been encouraging submission to capitalist authority for decades. On the one occasion when I met him, he said, with a straight face and apparent sincerity, that there is literally no poverty in Britain. He regularly attacks campaigning movements and trades unions that stand up to authority. The only right with which he seems concerned is the supposed right of privileged people not to wear something that might protect more vulnerable people from harm.

I am reminded of the people who objected in 2007 when the ban on smoking in pubs came in, complaining that it infringed their civil liberties. Such arguments completely miss the point of civil liberties, which are about equal freedom for all, not about allowing some people to make other people ill, or letting the privileged use their power to harm people less powerful than themselves.

There are people who are really frightened about going to a place where lots of people are not wearing masks. Other people are equally frightened of being judged and insulted by people who don’t recognise their legitimate exemptions.

There are two important principles that are surely pretty straightforward: wear a mask unless you’re exempt and don’t judge people who are exempt.

I know that most people are following both these principles: judgemental disabilists and entitled Tory toffs are thankfully a fairly small part of the population. Supporting and respecting each other really shouldn’t be this difficult.

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