July 24, 2020 Masks and Modest Clothing
Facial masks are now ubiquitous among the Brooklyn masses. I am struck by how familiar it all feels, a throwback to my days in the Hasidic community. Everywhere I go amid masses of other zombie-like masked strangers, I am reminded of the Hasidic community’s darker side. The side that makes everyone conform. The side that convinces the public it’s better to just step in line and put on that shmata, pull down that fabric, cover that bare flesh, fix that clothing so that it’s donned just right.
You might not see the similarity if you haven’t once complied to edicts like shaving your head once a month or wearing layers of dress in the brutal city summer. People who see religious clothing as repressive often misunderstand why people comply. For instance, if you’d visit the Hasidic community and see the knee-length skirts with the kick-pleat added in or the beige tights with the lines in the back, you’d probably imagine that there is no logical reason for anyone’s wearing these uncomfortable things. You’d probably assume that the modesty rules come from power hungry rabbis or archaic law. You’d imagine that the wearers are brainwashed, forced by some nefarious heavy handed power, or are too repressed to see that they are mindless drones.
You’d probably think that you would never fall for such oppressive and arbitrary nonsense. I know this because I have asked hundreds (probably thousands) of the tourists who’ve come on my walking tour the following question: If you had been brought up in the Hasidic community, would you have left?
Oh, yes! they say. I would! The hands fly up. I wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense. No thank you on having a rabbi invade on our freedom; feh!
These answers are so interesting to me. Think about it; the number of people who actually leave the Hasidic community is negligible, but the number of my visitors who imagine they would have left is somewhere at about 80%.
Why do secular outsiders believe that they are above conformity? Mostly, it’s because they don’t understand the process. They think it’s all a miserable affair to comply and shiny joy to defy. They see a shmata on the head and say “Feh, so uncomfortable, I’d never!” Yet these same people rushed to buy a printed shmata on Etsy and embraced the discomfort as a sign of the good sacrifice when it came to the pandemic. They eagerly wrapped it around their noses and mouths. And they put it on their little wee babies whose poor sweet faces are now hidden. The mask wearers think their shmata is so different from my Hasidic shmata, but that’s because they misunderstand religious garb.
There are many important similarities that I’ll unpack here:
PARALLEL #1: Masks and modesty both claim to make a far-fetched impact on health.
Masks: According to this comprehensively cited Swiss Policy Research analysis on masks:
So far, most studies found little to no evidence for the effectiveness of cloth face masks in the general population, neither as personal protective equipment nor as a source control.
Yet people wore masks from the start, even as health experts like Fauci insisted that it was not needed. And people started to apply tremendous significance to it, so that it was not worn for self protection but for protection of OTHERS. This was not an assumption of masks as simply creating a barrier. Here other people’s non-compliance cause illness to the public. The core here is the belief that symbolic compliance of all is needed for optimal health outcome. Even if people wear the mask only half the time during a restaurant meal, the symbolic compliance has some far reaching health impact to grandma a few states away.
Modesty: There is a poster that goes up in Hasidic Williamsburg every fall. I’ve read it to countless of my tour groups.
*Update: The posters are up again. Here is this year’s iteration:
The poster translates as:
Dear Jewish Daughter,
is against modesty!
How many widows, orphans, how many young children have sadly recently been torn away? How many young fathers and mothers are in agony in the hospitals?? You of course don’t want a part in that! It is in your hands!
The street sign changes year in and out, but it’s usually mostly filled with “Narrow fitted clothing” in very large letters. The bit about the orphans is only the postscript on the bottom. What’s the message here? Most of the people I read it to are utterly confused.
But to Hasidim who are trained in the gaps, it’s obvious. The sign warns against dressing immodestly, with narrow fitted outfits that show too much and cause temptation. So what’s of the orphans and ill mothers and other various tragedies? It’s connected like this: If you wear immodest clothing, and thereby sin or cause men to sin, you unleash the wrath of the heavens on his people. Tragedies befall the poor victims as punishment from god for the sins of the community. So if you wore sheer panty hose yesterday and were woken by sirens because your neighbor had a stroke, well, it might be connected. Say hello to Jewish guilt.
The idea is that if you go about life just being your natural self, you are liable to cause horrible things. This is very different from wearing gloves when handling raw meat. The direct connection is not there. It’s no longer between the block of meat and you. With masks as with modesty, the claims get very convoluted. Now it’s a long list of your normal harmless behavior somehow setting off a domino effect of karma which ends in you being guilty of manslaughter of an innocent bubbe. All because you were doing something entirely banal.
PARALLEL #2: Both make unfalsifiable claims about causing others harm.
Masks: The media has been running articles of pure hearsay, connecting a medical crisis with the mask defiance of other family members. But there are a great number of variables that might land one in the hospital, yet the authors pick the actions of one peripheral character and imply tremendous conclusions. Imagine if I decided all cancers are caused by jumping jacks, and if someone was diagnosed with cancer, I’d find jumping jackers and blame them. That’s about where we are at now, and somehow, this leaves the burden of proof on us.
Modesty: If your neighbor passed away last night in the hospital and meanwhile you have been wearing NARROW FITTED CLOTHING, then there might be a case for asking if you had a role in the death! These claims are impossible to refute. After all, we have proof that you went out dressed like that. And we have proof that the neighbor died. The link that connects the two is faith.
This is very different from, say, a drunk driving death. Because the murder is not linked by faith but by evidence.
PARALLEL #3: “Your actions affect others, therefore, you must act-as-I-say.”
Saying that “your actions affect others” is not a faith statement. It is true. But then what matters is how we all interpret this chain to work. Human interactions are chaotic with an endless number of variables. If we get sick, there are usually a great number of possible origins of our illness, and our own best guesses are often informed by our beliefs and culture. One person might lean on the belief that their diet causes an illness, another might imagine they got it by going somewhere, but oftentimes these are largely guess. Sometimes they are pure faith.
The problem with the tyrannical believer is that he or she has no concept of different views. HIS beliefs and biases are THE CORRECT beliefs and biases. And if he tends to think the origin of a tragedy is in a garment of clothing, then he takes that as fact. And he believes he can then force others to behave as if that is a fact.
The zealot says: “I believe that your skirt causes cancer, so you have to comply because you have no right to alternative views.” There is no room to debate. If you argue; you get drawn into bad faith rhetoric and accused of treating life with callousness.
This is what’s been happening with masks now. If you are to say “I’ve read the science, any proof of helpfulness is truly negligible. And I believe the problems of forcing people to wear something and covering faces is a vital part of this that the mask-proponent is ignoring” then you get nowhere. You have no right to your own values, priorities or interpretation in a faith based system. Say a word and you’ll be shamed and called a murder.
PARALLEL #4: False comparisons
Another element of this religiosity is to use one issue to prove another. With masks, seatbelt laws have been pulled out to do this work. Now I am not against using comparisons to illustrate a point. But comparisons have their limitations, and no two issues are exactly alike.
A very common religious thing is to make false comparisons. Or to conflate a bad thing with a good thing and describe them as equal. The problem with using the seatbelt comparison is that simply, there are huge differences in the psychological impact of wearing a mask and the psychological impact of wearing a seatbelt. We should never say “shall we apply this rule?” And answer it by saying “ah, we should, because that other rule was applied.”
Usually, when one rule is pulled out to justify the other, it’s done as a rhetorical device. And its limitations and exploitability must be completely clear to everyone in the dialog in order for the conversation to be honest and useful.
A problem of dialogs driven by faith is that they don’t want to bother with these hiccups. Comparisons are there to justify an a priori belief, not to illuminate anything. This is the problem with the mask and seatbelt comparison. No one wants to talk about the ways in which the two are different because this conversation is inherently dogmatic.
PARALLEL #5: Asymmetries in Empathy
For me, this is always an important indicator. Having empathy for several sides at once is the foundation of being able to accept that not everyone will interpret the world as you do.
Not surprisingly, the covid situation has been so moralized that experts find that people regard some kinds of human suffering as important while they are dismissive of others. As they write:
“results suggest reducing or eliminating C19 have become moralized, generating asymmetries in evaluations of human suffering.”
Modesty: In the religious community, people will completely harden their hearts to some kinds of suffering. In fact, they will have a learned response that will make them feel like they should blame and point fingers at the sufferers. Other sufferings illicit of them an excess of empathy that is similarly routed in the people’s over-dramatizing this type of suffering. A woman who goes around with a tight skirt and then gets sick will generally illicit I-told-you-sos, without people even being able to get past that wall to realize how utterly cruel they are.
Masks: How did it come to this that people say I-told-you-so because young adults were out socializing and doing what humans have a right and need to do? I despair, truly.
PARALLEL #6: A lot of shaming
A really healthy society celebrates a diversity of views.
In a repressive world, there’s only one acceptable view. The people in positions of prestige and power caricaturize those who deviate. People who tell me they think they would have left the Hasidic community imagine themselves escaping triumphantly and to popular applause; they have no idea how brutally shamed they would feel for believing stupid things, for being vain, and for being in THAT category of losers. In the Hasidic community, dropouts are framed as bums, druggies, losers who can never stop running after the next high. In the secular world, those who don’t think locking down a population or muzzling children is cool are conspiracy theory Trumpsters who are ”anti-science.” Who would want to be part of this?
The power of shaming is tremendous. The power of belonging and prestige if you step in line is just as great. I know a lot of people who are critical of the mask mandate and say that they keep their views to themselves. They are embarrassed to admit it. They are even surprised to find themselves so pushed to the fringe. But of course they are silent! I feel for them, these newbies to dystopia. I was silent too, and I’m silent too half the time. Most of us will avoid being shamed, because we are not a quarter the hero we imagine.
Shaming creates a cycle. When people are shamed, they fall silent. Those who continue to speak up become fodder for humor. The ones that are off, funny. The other skeptics see the low regard held for the “idiot” and how isolated he is. They learn that it’s futile to express themselves. So they hide their views. Without expressing their views, they cannot develop them or explore different ideas, so their views remain raw and unformed and uncertain. The deviant opinions become very weak. The people who have doubts come to believe that they are freakish anomalies. They doubt their judgement. After all, everyone else agrees with the main opinion, right?
And so, shaming suffocates the intellectual life of a society. There is only one way of thinking, and that’s all you’ll learn about. It’s a cognitive anesthetic.
PARALLEL #7: Appeal to authority
Of course, this is the basic ingredient to every dogmatic stew: the appeal to authority. It’s been especially heartbreaking to me to find myself in this place again, where I am told that a layman is not entitled to an interpretation. Whatever happened to being critical of the words of the power hungry, often corrupt, often biased people on top?
When I was Hasidic, if I was to say “I don’t see how our friend’s illness is caused by the red polka dots in my blouse,” I would have been told I didn’t understand. Only many years later did I discover the goldene amerika, where anyone was invited to critically examine what leaders said. It’s hard to believe people are now being told to just follow the science, as if the science leads us about on a long Hasidic belt.
PARALLEL #8: The use of force
When authority, shaming, guilt tripping, and unfalsifiable claims fail, there is forced compliance. Force doesn’t mean guns and gulags. Force means that you are made to comply, often with the threat that you will be barred access to specific things if you don’t comply. You don’t wear the right blouses that hide your collar bone? Fine, but don’t expect for your kids to be accepted into the religious schools, or to be allowed entry into synagogues. You don’t put a piece of fabric around half your face? Fine, but you can’t expect to be allowed entry into the grocery store, the deli, the train, and the two other places that are open.
There is a whole class of people who are citizen volunteers for the enforcement. Ah, the snitches! Terrible people on the whole who make me shudder. These are the women who approach you at a wedding and tell you that your outfit is too tight and is “causing the public to sin.” These are the women who take a picture of you in the street because you are maskless (happened to me). The other day my son, who is 14, got kicked out of the dog park by a busybody. She stood there with a little group of agitated do-gooders and reprimanded him for putting everyone at risk and told him to leave right away. He left, of course. He’s 14. All I could think was “Mrs. Barzesky from my childhood was reincarnated as a hipster with a pink top. This surreal dream just keeps getting stranger.”
PARALLEL #9 Most of the population don’t mind
On the whole, when dissent is suppressed and punished, most people accept the official line. People want to live life and busy themselves with family, community, work, life events, Netflix and chill, and twitter. A majority just don’t think about the imposition. Many believe what they’re told; that’ll be that. If you believe in it then it makes sense to act on your belief. Some people love it; they get a thrill from undemocratic control measures, the snitches and virtue signalers and piety queens (yuck!). Then there are the people for whom the official reason doesn’t “click,” but they rationalize it in a way that does click. For instance with the masks, some people don’t believe it helps mitigate the virus, but rationalize that it’s necessary to make others feel safe. (I used to be a big rationalizer of Hasidic customs, because it made it all bearable). Then there are the people who think it’s nonsense but who don’t buy into it but also don’t see why they should make a fuss.
All of these people would just obey rules. The rules become a background part of their lives. It’s not a big deal. They might live in a culture of fear but they are not feeling its effects. They shrug. Meh.
They are protected from the consequences, and in turn they protect the status quo. But if they ever find themselves in the out-group, they find out how traumatic intolerance is.
PARALLEL #10: Tiny expressions of individuality
When everyone complies because of the many ways they are compelled to, little bits of personality start to come through in new ways. Say, how you wear the garment and what you do with it itself becomes important. As with modesty trends, so with masks. If you wear the mask with your nose out or not, on your chin or from one ear, a cute vintage one or a disposable haphazard one, one you wear to take the trash to the chute inside your apartment building or one you pull on outside of the grocery with a sigh…
This is the part that I love to people-watch. Small acts of piety or rebellion or carelessness or fashion. I see in it that humans are never an army of zombies. I’ll keep believing in us.
SO WOULD YOU COMPLY?
Probably. You’d comply with masks or with modesty if the above process makes you.
Most people don’t rebel. They think they would. They don’t realize how much there is to lose by rebellion and how much to gain by just nodding and getting along. They don’t recognize the warm and fuzzy feeling of being part of the in-group. They don’t realize when this leads them to become zealots, because they think zealots are miserable monsters that resemble nothing of the real thing.
Zealotry is the good feeling of being right, righteous, and respected. It’s hard to resist it and even harder to fight those who become it. In a repressive environment, we pick our tiny comforts over our higher needs of tolerance, freedom, diversity, acceptance, a voice.
I don’t rebel. I wear a mask and try not to mind all the bugged eyes popping out of the paranoid faces. I try not to freak out with the overnight change to a city that looks like some dystopian fantasy. I don’t want to invite the wrath of the intolerant. I want to pick my battles, I tell myself. But it’s never lost on me that totalitarian demands are not just a piece of clothing, not just a moral sacrifice. This is societal ill health with far reaching consequences on the human spirit.