“Whimsy” columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS muses about face masks and their place in history.
“Virtue has a veil, vice a mask” –Victor Hugo
MASKS are commonly worn for protection, disguise or entertainment and have been worn since ancient times. But before COVID-19 most of us probably only occasionally wore them – health workers and AMC occupants excepted.
Now most of us wear them daily. Someone recently complained: “Andrew Barr told us to wear a mask to go to the supermarket. I did, but everyone else wore clothes.”
Older Australians will be familiar with the masked Lone Ranger and his faithful native American sidekick Tonto. Not a PC arrangement these days. Anyway, for those who came in late, the Lone Ranger was a former Texas Ranger who wore a mask to conceal his identity as he travelled through the Wild West fighting for law and order.
That seems a fairly flimsy excuse for wearing a mask – after all, Clark Kent managed to conceal his Superman identity by just wearing spectacles, but perhaps Lois Lane was a bit slow on the uptake. Batman’s disguise was a bit more convincing with his more extensive masking that made him harder to pick as wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne.
Others who have reason to disguise their identity include those accused of sex crimes and court witnesses who need protection.
In America, the “perp” walk is part of the custodial naming and shaming process – the accused has no way of concealing his or her identity as they are paraded through a public area with their hands cuffed behind their back.
Masks are also worn by violent demonstrators to conceal their identity – such as anarchists whose face masks also provide protection against riot-control agents.
Masks are sometimes worn by penitents in religious ceremonies to make the act of penitence more selfless. Masks are also worn by vigilante groups. The cone-shaped mask used by the Ku Klux Klan is intended to hide the clansmen’s personal identity and project a powerful and intimidating image.
Members of the group Anonymous frequently wear Guy Fawkes masks, adopted from V for Vendetta when they attend protests (V for Vendetta in DC Comics is an anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who conducts a one-man campaign to kill his former captors, bring down the fascist state, and convince people to abandon fascism in favour of anarchy).
Muslim face coverings are not intended to disguise the wearer’s identity but fall foul of some laws introduced to prevent people from disguising their identity – such as the French ban on face coverings.
There is some justification for the French measure. France has had many deadly terrorist attacks and terrorists have been known to use burqas to conceal weapons and suicide vests.
Some UK SAS members reportedly wore burqas in Afghanistan to hide their identity.
No doubt many have welcomed the anonymity provided by COVID-19 masks.
For women it means less time on make-up and men less time shaving. Also, if you’re feeling antisocial you don’t have to stop and talk to people you know.
Most people in Canberra have opted for plain masks but online there are lots of interesting options. However, some consider it offensive to have the national flag as a facemask.
Masks can be disconcerting for pets. Dogs in particular rely on their owner’s facial cues to know how to respond. Cats are unaffected as they’ve yet to notice their owners.
Looking to the future, perhaps in 30 years our children will be saying: “You know kids, back in our day we had to wear facemasks everywhere we went – we didn’t have those fancy hazmat suits you all wear today.”
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