Wearing masks in public spaces

Editor’s note: this is a cross-post of the original SpacingToronto.ca post by Dylan Reid published last week.

Wearing a mask has power, especially if it’s in public and as part of a group. Humans have known this for a long time, which is why masking the face, effectively or symbolically, features in many rituals, traditions and festivities around the world, and is often regulated by laws or customs.

Last year, I was working on an academic article that included looking at the evolution of regulations about wearing masks during carnival celebrations in the French city of Rouen during the sixteenth century. As I worked on it, I kept noticing that this subject was a lot more relevant to the modern world that one might imagine. In several nations, including Canada, governments were moving to regulate wearking masks in public. The motivations came from two very disparate issues — protesters wearing masks at demonstrations, and reactions to the face-covering niqab worn by some Muslim women — but there seemed to be some underlying common themes to this reaction by authorities.

At the same time, I noticed recent psychological studies, based in part at the University of Toronto, that showed that wearing a mask, even one that is essentially symbolic rather than real, has a measurable psychological effect on people — it reduces their inhibitions, in ways both positive and negative.

So I proposed an article for the Toronto Review of Books to bring all of these threads about wearing masks in public together. If you are interested in reading more about this issue, the article has just been published online in the new issue of the TRB, under the title “Mask Panic: Past and Present.”

Photo by Bahman A-Mahmoodi

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