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  • Writer's pictureEric Chambers

Citizenship, mask-wearing, and social protest: a quick-and-dirty approach

(originally published on May 28, 2020)

So this blog post is about a month in the making...which is totally my own fault. I had gotten preoccupied with grading and finishing up teaching for the semesters, and I finally have had the time to finish this. So this is not as ‘fresh,’ as timely as it should be. But that’s OK. Sometimes, a little bit of distance helps refocus one’s thoughts, helps to see things that may have remained hidden otherwise. So, here we go.

About a month ago, before states began reopening, stay-at-home protests in many states (most notably Michigan) made the news. Groups of people would gather in front of state government buildings and protest the stay-at-home orders that, they claimed, were infringing on their rights to free speech and assembly. In addition to protesting stay-at-home orders, many protesters used this opportunity to express their opposition to other, related policies, such as the mandatory wearing of masks in public (which led to the image below...)

...if that’s not a prime example of Bakhtin’s double-voicing, I don’t know what is.

So, recently there has been discussion of the linking between personal and public behavior during the coronoavirus pandemic, and what it means to be a proper ‘citizen’ during this time. A few days before publishing this, the National Interest, the magazine of the conservative-leaning Center for National Interest, wrote an article linking the wearing of masks to patriotism. Amitai Etzioni wrote:

we need to go back to the drawing board, and seek to reframe the public discourse about masks, not as a matter between the government and the citizenry, but as a dialogue among the members of local and national communities. Wearing a mask must be considered an act of caring about others, about those you love, your family, friends, community, and yes the nation. Not wearing it must be viewed not as a rebellion against authority, but as a selfish act. Putting a mask on should be seen as a sign that one is a good American.

Here, the sentiment is obviously “wear a mask, show everyone you care.” And what’s interesting about Etzioni’s argument is that there is a clear link spelled out between caring for others and being a ‘good American.’ But what I want to take a look at is, if these discourses and ideologies are discussed by others, outside of an academic environment. Keeping in mind Bucholtz and Hall’s (2004) influential paper on tactics of intersubjectivity, and the idea that individuals define themselves (and are defined by others) through contours of similarity and difference (and also keeping in mind the work of Critical Discourse Analysts like Teun van Dijk, who expound on this by asking such questions as “what makes Us good and Them bad?”), I want to explore how something as simple as a small discussion between a group of participants on an online forum can present multiple opportunities for looking at the following questions:

- How are discourses of citizenship tied into the COVID-19 pandemic, either implicitly or not?

- What contours are salient in the division between groups?

- How do people simultaneously construct themselves (as ‘good’ and ‘proper’ citizens) and others (as ‘bad’ and ‘improper’ citizens)?

In order to gain insight into these questions, I took a look at that wonderful bastion of community discussion, Reddit. I took a look at three threads, all posted at the end of April 2020: Costco to require all shoppers to wear face masks; Thoughts on the counter protest by two nurses in Denver against protestors who want the state to open up?; and What do you think about the lockdown resistance protests, and why do you support/not support them? The first thread was posted on r/coronavirus, a hub for posting articles related to coronavirus, while the other two were posted on r/AskTrumpSupporters, a subreddit designed to ask self-proclaimed Trump supporters their opinions about current events. These three threads were chosen because they give a snapshot, as it were, of events happening quickly, and peoples’ reactions to and thoughts about the event.

So let’s get started!

Let’s start with the discussions of Costco’s (then-recent) decision to require customers to wear masks inside of its stores, which met with a great deal of controversy among some circles. One of the most important things to be aware of (especially within a Critical Discourse Analysis framework), is the idea that in all texts, there is going to be (however subtle) a distinction made between ‘us’ and ‘them’: and this distinction is often going to revolve around how ‘we’ are good and how ‘they’ are bad. Here is a great example of how binary divisions can be set up in event narratives, even (and probably) without the reader’s knowledge, courtesy of user Kanjiklubbin:

Kanjiklubbin: I went to Costco in the US last week and most people were alone and wearing a mask, but in the middle of the line to get in was a family of 4 all without masks and the little kids running around getting close to the people in front and behind them in line. They were acting like this was some family weekend outing and everything was normal. The lack of sense and consideration for others was infuriating

I wanted to start with this post because it provides a great anchor to some of the discussion that follows. Notice first of all how Kanjiklubbin claims that most people were alone and wearing a mask, suggesting that most people were adhering, on some level, to Costco’s guidelines. So here, we already have a mass of people who are doing something unremarkable, that’s not embellished upon. This is important because, to Kanjiklubbin and other posters, the majority of people are following guidelines, and are therefore exempt from the criticism that follows. In the next sentence, Kanjiklubbin introduces a family of 4 all without masks and the little kids running around getting close to the people in front and behind them in line. Here, Kanjiklubbin contrasts the mass of people, ‘alone and wearing a mask’, with the chaotic energy of a family of 4, maskless and with smaller children (who, it’s implied, are reflections of the attitudes of the parents) who do not seem to respect the personal space of others. It is also interesting that Kanjiklubbin follows this up with they were acting like this was some family weekend outing and everything was normal. I want to talk about what is meant by ‘normal’ in a future blog post, but for now just note that Kanjiklubbin’s use of the word to describe the attitudes

It may seem like a lot to go through Kanjiklubbin’s post to highlight the constructions of Self and Other that are occurring, because it will most likely lead readers to a big “so what?”. I think this is really important to do, even with seemingly mundane posts like Kanjiklubbin’s, because the themes that run through this post, however basic or simple or small, are themes that inform future posts on messageboards like Reddit. The best analogy that I can think of, for all you music lovers out there, is a symphony. A symphony starts with a melody, and then parts of that beginning melody – keys, snippets of that tune – are picked up, developed, dropped off, returned to, and eventually combine to create an entire narrative. That’s pretty much what a messageboard like Reddit does – and, like musicologists who deconstruct melodies note-for-note to trace their development throughout a symphony – we can trace individual constructions of Self and Other throughout a messageboard, and demonstrate how they come together (or, in some cases, come apart) to create composites of individuals that reflect larger ideologies of what it means to be a ‘proper’ American citizen.

So back to Kanjiklubbin: they, in their single post, create conceptions of Self and Other that are to be looked upon favorably (or not), and that are available for people to align with (or not). For Kanjiklubbin, the ‘good’ people are those who wear masks and observe social distancing; the ‘bad’ ones, the ones worth commenting on, are those who flaunt such regulations.

So how are some of these threads developed and tied to ideologies of citizenship? One thread that seems to occur quite a lot in this conversation is the idea of choice: individuals can choose to shop in a place that requires masks to enter, or they can choose not to frequent it. Poster kidwonder2394 is one of many posters who make that point in their post:

kidwonder2394: Well then they don’t have to enter a private business if they don’t wanna follow the rules. Do they get just as pissed for having to show their Costco card too? Lol

Because Costco is a private business, kidwonder2394 claims, they can choose to set the rules as to who can frequent their store: if stores feel that patrons who do not wear masks are a potential health risk, then customers who choose not to wear masks do not have to enter those stores. For kidwonder2394, personal choice (a value of anti-mask and anti-stay-at-home protesters, as we’ll see below) extends both ways: if stores have the choice to exclude certain customers, then those customers do not need to shop there.

Indeed, one of the most important contours of identity that supports of Costco’s stay-at-home policy is the idea of the maintenance of public health over individual choice. For many posters, the coronavirus pandemic, with a high fatality rate among older Americans and those with co-occurring health conditions, a long onset between infection and the showing of symptoms, and the high rate of asymptomatic carries, represents a situation where anybody can be a carrier of the virus, and anyone can unknowingly pass it on to others. For these posters, mask-wearing becomes important because it not only mitigates the spread of coronavirus, but it becomes a visible symbol of the preference of protecting the community from further danger. The ‘proper’ citizen, thus, becomes one who demonstrates care for others – especially in such a publicly-recognizable way. Among many other posters, CaptainObvious110 points this out when they claim:

CaptainObvious110: The fact that this is a worldwide pandemic trumps the minority that fit in that category plain and simple. If you honestly are unable to wear a mask then you don't need to be in the store to begin with and frankly you need someone else to go there and get what you need for you.

Trust me there are a myriad of excuses that people can have but that doesn't make it ok to put others lives in danger.

For CaptainObvious110 and many others, public health – the community – supersedes personal choice – the individual.

This point is also echoed by CanuckPanda below:

CanuckPanda: It’s not weird when you realize a lot of people operate under the assumption that “the rules are for those other guys, and my actions are justified”.

In their post, CanuckPanda states that a lot of people operate under the assumption that “the rules are for those other guys, and my actions are justified.” Here, CanuckPanda also contributes to the construction of the anti-mask Other as those who flout rules, and therefore public health. But what is especially interesting about CanuckPanda’s post is the use of quotations to voice the Other. It seems that, for some posters, the use of these kinds of quotations serve to give a direct voice to the Other. Here, I’m reminded of Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of the importance of quotations in the historical development of the novel. For Bakhtin, quotations were important because they provided a new way for authors to give a direct voice to characters, which could then be interpreted by both other characters (in-universe) and readers (out-of-universe). This quoting of the ‘Other’, then, gives the appearance of a direct ‘voice’ to the Other, and can be a tool used to construct the Other. In CanuckPanda’s case, the use of quotations serves to give a particular ‘voice’ to the Other, further constructing them as rule-breaking and selfish.

What’s also interesting about the use of quotations is that, since they give voice to the Other, that voice is subject to manipulation: quotations are used not only to express the (imagined) viewpoint of the Other, but also become a way to inject additional stereotypes through the use of misspellings, orthographic representation of regional accents, etc. Adding these qualities to quotations further serves to create a composite of the Other that is heavily influenced by larger-scale educational/racio-ethnic/class ideologies. Posters mugn3 and PenitentRebel provide examples of this:

mug3n: I think anyone that doesn't know you need a membership to shop at costco by this point (or think they can just skirt the rules because they're super speshul) can just get fucked.

PenitentRebel: Already someone on my Facebook feed screaming about how there's hardly any cases in our state (Washington) and how face masks don't really work.

Granted, this same person has been constantly screeching about 'muh liberties' for days on end and claiming that anyone showing a modicum of caution and care for their neighbor is clearly hysterical.

Although mug3n does not use quotations, his claim that certain people who choose not to follow Costco’s requirements are super speshul also gives a ‘direct’ voice of the Other: the misspelling of special seems to be deliberate here, and links those who are anti-mask to ideologies of unintelligence and rurality. PenitentRebel, similarly, puts ‘muh liberties’ in quotations: the phonological representation of my, ‘muh,’ is meant to evoke a rural (and, by extension, unintelligent) person who is unwilling (or, perhaps, incapable) of following rules.

But these are more subtle ways in which the Other is constructed: many posters are more overt in their negative characterization of anti-mask-wearers as selfish, cruel, and uncaring toward others:

Archer-Saurus: This is what the Karen's and Diabetes Platoon is out protesting. They dont give a fuck that people can't work, they want to go back to being able to demean service workers.

Fat, white men LARPing as Special Forces with their WalMart tacti-cool gear.

Shama_Heartless: The rednecks and Karens in my city are going apeshit over this. Fucking morons.

ForeheadTattoo: We all know Cletus isn’t going to like this, and he’ll make damn sure everyone hears about it on Facebook

Karens (there’s been a lot of discussion about the use of this term, see here, here, and here), Diabetes Platoon, Fat, white men LARPING, rednecks, Cletus: all of these terms have become cultural iconizations of selfishness, White privilege, lack of focus on health, unintelligence, and poverty/non-carefulness with money. And this is how, in essence, many posters who support the wearing of masks in public construct the Other. People who wear masks, if they are to be commented on at all, are concerned about public health and place community well-being over individual selfishness. People who don’t wear masks, on the other hand, are the improper Other: they are fat, lazy, cruel to service workers, and value ‘muh liberties’ over the safety of others. For the pro-mask-wearers on this Reddit thread, they are the unpatriotic ones, the unsafe Others who represent the real danger to society.

So that takes care of one side of the argument: but what about the other side? What about those people who do not support wearing masks? What contours do they use to construct their identity, and how do they voice the Other? This side, admittedly, was a little more difficult to find examples of, because I wanted to essentially find a minimal pair on Reddit with the post above: unfortunately, I was not able to find enough posts from anti-mask-wearers on that particular thread. However, there is another thread on Reddit, r/asktrumpsupporters, in which individuals can ask supporters of Donald Trump how they feel about current political events. What is great about r/asktrumpsupporters is that certain posters can publicly identify themselves as supporters of Donald Trump through the use of ‘flairs,’ small pieces of colored text that identify posters as Trump supporters, non-Trump supporters, and people who are undecided or who do not identify as either. In a similar vein to the above analysis, I decided to look at two threads which discussed the (then-growing) protests occurring around the United States to protest stay-at-home orders, and counter-protests from nurses at local hospitals. I was interested in seeing how they constructed themselves and Others, and if they did so in similar ways to pro-mask wearers in the other thread.

One interesting thing that I found was that, just as posters in the Costco thread constructed the anti-mask-wearer as preferring individual choice over community safety, posters who identified as Trump supporters also highlighted the importance of individual choice. However, for many of these posters, individual choice was framed as a fundamental American right – and that included the right of protesters to assemble, as Scovin claims below:

Scovin: One may not agree with what a group is protesting but regardless of that they still have a right to protest. That’s how freedom works.

For Scovin, who identifies as a Trump supporter, people have a right to disagree with what one is protesting against – but all individuals have a right to protest, and that right is a hallmark of (a particular American) freedom. Indeed, for many posters on this thread, stay-at-home orders were seen as a potential threat to individual freedom, as Ampage86 (another self-identified Trump supporter) argued in their post:

Ampage86: I'm not talking about being worried about the executive branch limiting rights, I'm talking about being worried about t:he government OVERALL limiting rights.

Ampage86 expresses their worry that, through the stay-at-home orders issued by state governments, the government [is] OVERALL limiting rights. For Ampage86, and for many other posters, the potential to limit the rights of individuals is something to be concerned about.

Personal choice is not limited to the expression of freedom:

Proutler: The guy who went out and drank fish cleaner because this was one of the ingredients is an example of natural selection. Trump is enlightening the public on a direction they're going, he didn't give the greenlight to go out and find it, and anyone who did was taking desperate measures unnecessarily

For Proutler, people have the freedom to make decisions that affect their very lives – postively or not. Individuals who make poor decisions have every right to do so: advice that is offered does not necessarily have to be taken (or else one could become a simple example of natural selection), and people who listen to poor advice may simply be taking desperate measures unnecessarily. However, it is implied by Proulter, people still have the right to make these individual decisions: it is a part of freedom.

Related to the idea of preserving ‘freedom’ is the tension between lockdown and the need for economic activity to continue. There has been much discussion on a larger level about the economic consequences of stay-at-home policies, but for the purposes of this thread, for many posters (such as Ryry117 and callmebigpapa below), stay-at-home orders represent a threat to economic development, which (for many of these same posters) is tantamount to a death sentence:

Ryry117: I support the protests in total lockdown states. People need to be able to work and there is data coming out from China that lockdown does not stop the disease spread.

callmebigpapaya: Banning large gatherings or in-restaurant dining makes sense to me. Office workers continuing to work from home is reasonable. Closing all stores unless they sell medicine, food, or construction supplies isnt reasonable. Especially if they can offer curbside service. Things like banning selling car seats and seeds is too far. Nurseries and car dealerships should be open as well

Both Ryry117 and callmebigpapaya note the economic consequences of stay-at-home policy, and link stay-at-home protesters to economic need. Ryry117 flat-out states that people need to be able to work, while callmebigpapaya takes a more measured approach: calling office work from home reasonable, but claiming that closing all stores is not, especially if they can offer curbside service (and, by extension, maintain social distancing.

So, just as posters in the Costco thread construct themselves in a particular way by supporting an ideology that privileges public safety over individual choice, posters on these threads do their own construction of self by supporting people who protest as an exercise of their freedom to do so, against a policy that has had devastating economic consequences for millions of people. But how are Others constructed? How are the people who do support stay-at-home and mask-wearing policies constructed on these threads? I think this is a little more difficult to suss out, because many posters on r/AskTrumpSupporters do seem to support the rights of people to criticize others:

Theplague: Everybody is exercising their 1A rights. That's a good thing; each side is expressing their political beliefs in the public square for all to see.

Sentiments like Theplague’s above are not uncommon: people have the right to complain (and, by extension, to protest) because that right is enshrined in the First Amendment. But some posters do provide some insight as to how certain counter-protesters (those who protest against stay-at-home protesters) can be constructed as potential threats to established social orders:

Gaxxzz:If you're asking my opinion, protests that have the potential to disrupt traffic or other normal processes should require permits, which is generally the case now as I understand it. Protesters should be encouraged to act on weekends and in locations like parks to minimize disruption.

NihilistIconoclast: they are protesting other people who don't want to be forced to stay in their homes. They are protesting against people who want freedom.

NihilistIconoclast: They’re not sitting quietly voicing their opinion. They have to stand in front of individual people and be annoying. You don’t get the idea of the difference of standing on a sidewalk holding a sign for people to see versus standing in front of someone’s car? What if I got them out of my car and then walked up to him and stood face-to-face with him I wonder how he would like it. Probably not at all

Both Gazzxx and NihilistIconoclast are discussing the counter-protests by nurses. Here, in Bucholtz and Hall’s terms, Gazzxx and NihilistIconoclast are illegitimating the counter-protesters by linking their activities to unwanted social disruption. Gazzxx links the counter-protest activities to a (hypothetical) lack of governmental authority to do so, by claiming that protests that have the potential to disrupt traffic or other normal processes should require permits; they also, on a broader level, illegitimate the protests by saying that they should occur on weekends or in locations that minimize disruption (to what, Gazzxx does not make clear). NihilistIconoclast, for their part, illegitimates the counter-protests on a broader level, first by questioning their motive (they are protesting against people who want freedom), and then by accusing them of being annoying and face-to-face.

Notice what is being done here by Gazzxx and NihilistIconoclast: they are not talking about protesting in general, but specifically about the counter-protests. By claiming that the counter-protests are socially-disruptive in negative ways, they (and their lack of discussion about stay-at-home protests) are normalizing and authenticating those stay-at-home protests as those which are legitimate, and should be treated as such. Silence, as they say, is especially golden here.

So where does all of this leave us? Allow me to extrapolate on a broader level: the coronavirus pandemic has left the contemporary United States in an immensely fractured position, where individuals are strongly attracted to poles that highlight different ideologies of what it means to be a current ‘proper’ citizen. This is done not only through actively aligning with particular ideologies (community heath for pro-mask-wearers, individual freedoms for those against wearing masks), but by constructing these ideologies as fundamental and basic ‘sides’ of the argument. Both sides, further, seem to reach out to additional ideologies that construct the ‘Other’ as either selfish, arrogant, and class/educationally-disadvantaged (in the case of pro-mask-wearers), or as annoying, loud, and extremely disruptive to the economic status quo (in the case of supporters of anti-maskers). And all of this is happening on a simple discussion board.

Now, this data set is limited, and obviously could benefit from a larger-scale analysis, taking multiple threads into account. It remains to be seen, for example, whether or not the use of quotations is a tactic used by anti-mask supporters to give voice to the Other (I could not find any examples in my corpus, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist). Nevertheless, analyzing seemingly mundane conversations like this can give immensely important insight into how people construct themselves and Others as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ as ‘proper’ citizens or not.

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