One thing we have yet to reckon with, simply because not enough time has passed, is the cost and the trends that masking and social isolation has cost larger society, and in particular, our young people. You don’t have to look far to see the educational toll of remote learning. Who honestly believes that an 8 year old can stare at an iPad all day in a coercive fashion and absorb anything?
While there are tons of articles now coming out about this subject (Google away!) I’ll tell you some observations from my own perspective. Having a 22 and a 24 year old myself, as well as teaching F2F for almost all of the pandemic, the cost will be significant. Young people indeed are resilient — I’ve seen some pretty amazing snap-back in my classes as far as general affect and mood. But the deeper problem I’ve witnessed is that students in my 18-22 year old cohort, regardless of how they feel, are looking at a future with huge social capital debt. I emerged from both undergrad and graduate school with large networks of people who were deeply loyal to me, and with whom I still stay in touch with today. My own kids profoundly do not have this. And even in my classes, though there is a natural tendency for students to congregate in small groups of 4-6 individuals, there is little cross-talk. Even the students in classes are coming out with far fewer connections than pre-COVID.
Why does that matter? I’ve found that the large benefit to a university education is the social network you emerge with. As time (and life) march on, we tend to draw down that social capital account with profound, long-term friendships that simply aren’t able to be created later in life. I think part of this is developmental — there’s some kind of sweet spot in emotional bonding that occurs between 16-24 that one just doesn’t see in later years. And I know my own sons will be suffering that deficit, even though that by conventional benchmarks they’ve been very successful, for the rest of their lives. Case in point — even my picture at the top of this post is of a couple of large macaws, it was taken with dear old friend Pedro Litsek in Brazil in 2006. I still correspond with Pedro, and plan on visiting him in a year or two. But for my sons, there is nothing but a void.
Masking has driven this social isolation more than any one factor. I say this from the perspective of a professor running a highly interactive classroom environment across three masked semesters. Students simply didn’t step out of their immediate, familiar work groups to talk to other students. Even me, who masters students’ names in the first week, couldn’t hang on to those names, nor read various students’ affects.
While masking was widely mandated, all the effects I talk about in this piece were manifested. It’s very different in a mandated mask environment than our current situation. When everyone is masked, then you have a combination of trauma, with an assortment of pathologies, as well as broad-scale degradation across everyone’s development. And while it slowly makes the more healthy crazy, it really bolsters the various social phobia pathologies for those that crave them, or are imbued with the fear that they will die if they get COVID. None of this good.
But it IS interesting. Where we started with a broad-based developmental loss, fundamentally emergent in nature (the mandates were obviously deliberately championed in some cases, but also reactive in others) when the mask mandates were dropped, the larger emergent effects also had to start dying down. I was sitting in Sea-Tac airport not too long ago, and the fact that 10% of the population was still masked might have been a bit irritating, it was nothing like my own aggravation and induced paranoia of that time a year ago, nursing a beer at the bar so I wouldn’t have to mix with the larger population and be accused of NOT wearing a mask.
What that means is that now masking is almost complete badging of the different memetic tribes. If you want to find out who the true believers are, or who is most affected, well, they’re wearing a mask. I hesitate to generalize that there are more Asians wearing masks (I can almost hear some of those Asian moms of my students badgering them to mask up) but outside the obvious American cultural alignments, there are more young people in that social capital-deprived cohort wearing masks. Healthy young people, many who likely have already had COVID, are still masked up. And likely because they have lost the social opportunity to develop the skills to build that social capital in the first place. Masks have become a ‘safe space’. But worse — before, you couldn’t identify your neighbors’ politics without some level of engagement. And that engagement might lead to an independent empathetic connection that might transcend the tribal forces extant in larger society. Now you know which of your neighbors to avoid — or hate.
I’m still speaking out against masking, mainly because I fear deeply (which might be my own PTSD) that there will be a resurgence of demand for all the ineffective NPIs when cold season actually hits in North America, for our young, and youngest people — those least affected by COVID. This will be a tragedy. One can only lose so many developmental years before one’s life course is irremediably altered. Whole Western countries (like Germany) still are demanding rigid and worthless protocols. And that doesn’t even get close to the Zero COVID panic in Asia. As I type this, my wife is sitting in quarantine in a Taiwanese hotel room. They’re demanding seven days of isolation before she can be released. And it is enforced with cell phone tracking.
And even that’s nothing compared to the terror the CCP is inflicting across China with regards to COVID. You don’t have to look far to see the terror of people fleeing from being locked in a building if someone has a positive COVID tests. And it’s no consolation to see a nation as large as China literally tear itself apart for a scourge they likely created and released. There will be large-scale consequences.
What’s the short take? During the pandemic, with masking, we saw both the effects of trauma, and broad-scale devolutionary effects across populations, dependent on the v-Meme stage that people occupied, as well as large scale social capital depletion as people were turned against each other. Now, we’re witnessing the end-game. Only the afflicted and the psychopathic are masking, or enforcing it. Psychopaths exist in their natural state in Tribal/Magical v-Meme social organizations, and manifest a function of rabidly and ferociously attacking those outside their masked tribe.
I’ll close with this letter written by one of my older-aged critics to a column I wrote in my local paper, The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, as a testament to their mental state. COVID has been particularly hard on the elderly — those that have refused to grow and develop during their lives (mostly men, at least in the US) had to spend 2.5 years fermenting in a collapsed egocentric state of paranoia of instant death. It has not aged well.
Ah, life in The Matrix.
3 thoughts on “Masks, Memetic Devolution, and the Price Our Young People Will Pay”
Thanks for sharing that letter, I lol’d at the oral fixation (I might sort of agree there), but the wierd attempt at conflation with ‘Trump’…hard fail. One of the worst part of politics that seems to pollute everything COVID is the terrible false dichotomies delineating typically binary positions. Can’t we be nuanced?
“Only the afflicted and the psychopathic are masking” Consider that this is itself arguably a psychopathic v-meme take if you got some of the details on masking effectiveness and who is doing it and why wrong (and you very well might). I think we can talk about damaging mandates without swerving hard into the opposite lane of v-memery and prejudice of the same kind you seem to be condemning, ie donning an opposing, loud v-meme badge. Some people I know just got used to wearing a mask and make the risk determination that it’s worth keeping up the behavior (surgical or better) in places where people often seem to contract respiratory crud, like airports and public transit and even dusty yardwork. These are not CDC/Fauci fanbois who want everyone to follow their example and so this does not strike me as a v-meme badge, at least not the one to which you seem to be defaulting. Referring to that behavior as ‘psychopathic’ seems no more accurate than caricaturing people wearing safety glasses while mowing their lawn as psychos. Again, nuance?
Although I agree missing the opportunity for university peer bonding is somewhat tragic, in my experience most/all professionals I know (which is mainly engineering/environmental) have completely replaced that within five to ten years of hitting the real world due to evolving life circumstances and geographies. Social media has made it easier to maintain the connections, but the significance of them still seems to get replaced within that timeline. And I wonder how anyone that didn’t go to college probably feels about that concern.
Despite my detractive comments, I agree we should be concerned about collateral damage caused by NPIs and I do enjoy reading your thoughts on the matter (I don’t come here just to be a contrarian a-hole). The photos are always nice too.
Well, we’re running a very large experiment. FWIW — my students held up fine for the first year, but started unspooling toward the end of Fall 2021.
I’ve had some experience volunteering in a summer program with blind youth. It seems they’ve been running this experiment for a long time, albeit smaller scale. I’m not an expert, but it might be worth checking out how they’ve done with most of them having never seen any part of a face their whole lives. Not trying to be snarky, I think there may be some real insight there to the larger experiment.