I’m here to tell you that you should wear a mask that looks like this:
It’s a P100 respirator; it filters >99.97% of aerosols, seals tightly with your face, and is comfortable to wear for an extended period of time. It’ll make traveling on planes and trains much safer and generally give you lots of newfound freedom. They’re also virtually infinitely reusable and easily available for purchase online.
And yet when I enthusiastically tell people about this in real life, they mostly demur. They tell me about its strange appearance and how others would give them leery looks.
But the leery looks are part of the point. This post is about why.
I. Consider the Mormons
In his excellent piece on Mormonism for The Atlantic, McKay Coppins writes:
After Romney voted to remove Trump from office—standing alone among Republican senators—he told me his life in the [Mormon] Church had steeled him for this lonely political moment, in which neither the right nor the left is ever happy with him for long. “One of the advantages of growing up in my faith outside of Utah is that you are different in ways that are important to you,” he said. In high school, he was the only Mormon on campus; during his stint at Stanford, he would go to bars with his friends and drink soda. Small moments like those pile up over a lifetime, he told me, so that when a true test of conscience arrives, “you’re not in a position where you don’t know how to stand for something that’s hard.”
The courage to stand up for what is right does not come from nowhere. For most humans hate being different, hate standing out, hate being disapproved of by others. We feel intense shame when we don’t fit in. All we want to be is normal.
Just like anything else that is hard, the ability to tolerate being different from the crowd—your crowd—requires practice. To run a marathon, you don’t start by running a marathon; you start by running very short and then ever-longer distances in your everyday routine. And initially, when you first pick up running, it can be really painful. So it goes for tolerating social opprobrium. Others’ disapproval stings terribly at first, but you can get used to it over time with practice. And it is only through habitual smaller-scale practice that you are able to resist the overwhelming pressures for conformity on the big things, when it really matters.
Mormons living outside Utah are blessed in this regard (or cursed, depending on how you look at it). They are forced to be different. For example, Mormonism commands sobriety; amid our bacchanalian youth culture, sticking to sobriety means being a continual outsider. Over time, resisting conformity becomes a habit.
Similarly, others are neurodivergent; they are just born different. Being like this can be miserable, but it’s also liberating. Your nature forces you to stick out again and again; you come to accept not being normal, and the pressures of conformity can’t exert the same control over you.
But especially for those born without such blessing, the courage to go your own way requires deliberate, everyday practice. You might tell yourself, why waste your energy resisting conformity on the small things—better save your energy to resist conformity when it really matters. But courage is not an exhaustible resource; rather, it is a muscle that can be trained.
This practice can take many forms. If you hate high heels—well just don’t wear them. Conversely, if you love dressing up, go for it even in everyday circumstances. If you disagree with someone, speak your mind (respectfully and charitably, of course). Try a less-prestigious but more interesting and enjoyable career path. Don’t let social norms pressure you into having kids if you don’t want them—or have unreasonable numbers of kids if you do want them.
Or: wear a weird-looking but higher-quality mask.
II. Cancel Culture And Its Discontents
It’s become fashionable to decry the evils of “cancel culture,” to despair at how it’s destroying liberalism and the country with it. And to some extent, there are sinister things going on, like people losing jobs for misunderstood tweets.
But in the grand scheme of things, actual “cancellations”—losing a job or similar sanctions for controversial speech—are quite rare. It can seem like it’s more common than it is, since every such “cancellation” brews up a storm on Twitter. But compared to the large universe of people voicing opinions online nowadays, it’s a tiny fraction.
What’s more, the people truly at risk of “cancellation” are usually people who are already extremely well-known—and they can usually land on their feet. The targets of the mob are typically not random bloggers or Twitterers.
Still, people of all stripes are becoming more hesitant to voice their opinions. Social opprobrium doesn’t have to manifest in a lost job to be painful—and to deter future speech. As the internet multiplies every random person’s potential reach, so it multiplies the potential censure for an unfortunate remark. Combined with increasing polarization and radicalization making political debates ever-more bitter, this creates a perfect storm.
Say a wrong thing—and everybody from internet randos to your friends and your boss will see it, condemn you, and think less of you. If you don’t like being different, if you don’t like being disliked—well, you’ll just keep your mouth shut.
People like to decry the decline of free speech on college campuses, for instance. And it’s true, there are a few high profile and unfortunate incidents on campuses in which speakers were forcefully silenced. But the real threat to robust debate is both more subtle and more insidious. Classroom discussions are just … boring. You’ll have a bunch of people go on and on how “the West isn’t a real thing” (and also, somewhat contradictorily, on how “the West” is bad)—and nobody will attempt a rebuttal. It’s not that many people don’t hold dissenting opinions; believe me, it’s amazing what comes out in private. And it’s not that people fear literal sanctions, like losing a job. It’s just that others will give you weird looks, maybe gossip about you, maybe even post about you online.
And it’s not clear to me that the anti-cancel culture warriors and their predictions of doom are helping. Rather than creating a culture more tolerant of dissent, they help inflate the menacing specter of cancellation—and it is exactly this specter that deters others from speaking their mind.
We need to tell people that being different is alright: “I said a controversial thing, some people didn’t like it, but you know what, it was totally fine” rather than “I said a controversial thing, some people didn’t like it, and now I’m a victim and traumatized for life.”
The internet, polarization, radicalization are not going away anytime soon. The intensity of the potential social opprobrium has increased, but that likely won’t change. The only thing we can change is how much we care about it.
I say: liberate yourself! So what if a few people give you weird looks. For most, this will be intolerable at first—but as noted, it gets better with practice. Make it a habit, and, over time, you will be inured to the narrow-minded bullies and conformist enforcers.
III. The Surprising Ease of Mass Delusion
This matters—because societal mass delusion is surprisingly common.
Heck, we went from the glory of Rome to a thousand years of stagnation when everyone started believing this strange thing called Christianity. It took the iconoclasm of Martin Luther to break free.
For a more recent example, The Experts™ were adamant that masks didn’t work throughout the early months of covid—even though it seems like common sense that masks would be useful in a respiratory pandemic. The only ones who seemed to get this early on were Twitter weirdos—and their obliviousness to authority figures’ condemnations were what ultimately led to the abrupt shift in the official stance on masks in late March.
Or consider slavery. Slavery seems so obviously wrong to us now—but it was an accepted practice for nearly all of human history, from Egypt and Rome to the British Empire. In fact, it seems plausible that abolition was historically contingent on the Quakers and their then-quixotic stance against slavery.
To be sure, most of the time when there is a widespread consensus on something, it’s because the consensus is correct. It’s rational to update your priors toward the consensus view. Otherwise we’d all be crazy conspiracy theorists. Don’t be a knee-jerk contrarian who reflexively rejects the mainstream.
But sometimes the consensus is just mass delusion. This happens so often exactly because of the power of conformism. When your society is organized around a literal list of dogmas (as my friend likes to put it), you fall in line. When the CDC says masks don’t work, The Experts don’t dare contradict; that would be Science Denial. When everyone around you accepts slavery, then you (subconsciously) suppress that nagging feeling that something is wrong.
IV. In Praise of Pluralism
Madison once wrote in Federalist No. 51 that the Constitutional order would pit ambition against ambition—the different branches of government would check each other. That hasn’t quite worked out: partisans in each branch are loathe to be too zealous of a check on their co-partisans in the other branches.
Perhaps the updated version of Madison’s creed would be pitting mass delusion against mass delusion. It is too hard to go against your own political tribe. Even the “contrarians”—whose whole shtick is supposed to be going against the grain—are usually just aligning themselves with their “contrarian” ingroup. But it is easy, enjoyable even, to go against the other side, the outgroup. Being a part of a like-minded delusion makes it easier to criticize an opposing delusion. One mass delusion can counteract another mass delusion.
I mention the Mormons as paragons of courage and conviction earlier—but Mormonism is itself a mass delusion, of course. It is the very fact that they are a minority, that they are deeply committed to something radically opposed to the mainstream, that makes them effective dissenters. Similarly, Republicans are crazy, Democrats are crazy—but it’s ok because they counter and balance one another. With a diversity of delusions, in the long run, we can get the best of each while avoiding their excesses. We can get Romney’s courage and Mormonism’s valuable impetuses without having to literally believe in the parable of Joseph Smith.
Indeed, this is part of the strength and resilience of America. America allows different people to live out their delusions to the fullest, to experiment with different ways of life—unlike more conformist Europe—as Bruno Maçães describes in his excellent book. This is what keeps America dynamic and lively and drives progress in the long run.
The danger is when one delusion takes over. When all subscribe to the same mass delusion, the pressures of conformity become too strong for dissent. Take Nazi Germany; it’s always astounding to me just how little resistance there was. The Germans grasp at straws to find examples of “resistance” so they don’t have to confront just how much everyone went along. When the mass delusion becomes uniform and the pressures of conformity become overwhelming, we lose our error correction mechanism; the delusion becomes a stable equilibrium and society becomes trapped.
V. Cultivating the Habits of Liberalism
To some extent, I worry that we are on a course of ever-greater homogeneity: our scientific, journalistic, educational institutions becoming a one-party state, our culture ever-more repetitive, and people ever-more scared of sticking out.
One thing that makes me hopeful is how the internet enables niche groups to find each other. Having a community of like-minded weirdos makes it that much easier to be weird. For example, I think Twitter helped the pro-mask renegades find each other in February and early March; they were able to reinforce and encourage each other, ultimately snowballing into ever-wider acceptance of masks.
To be sure, there is another side of this coin. Another niche group of weirdos that is finding each other online is QAnon. Nonconformism and resistance to public shame has given us anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.
It is the most natural impulse to want to crack down on these people. And in the static optimization problem—if all we cared about was improving society as it exists today—then we might want to strengthen, not weaken, the norms of conformity. That way, we’d get less QAnon, fewer anti-maskers, and higher vaccine uptake.
But we should take the long view—we should solve the dynamic optimization problem. The same irreverence that gives us anti-maskers is what gave us masks in the first place; it’s the irreverence that led the Twitter weirdos to post in February that everyone is wrong and masks are actually good. Let people have their delusions; focus instead on ensuring we have a pluralism of delusions. That's how we ultimately make progress.
Still, the degree of conformity in society is a delicate balance. The internet and cultural homogenization have upset that balance, increasing the social opprobrium directed at those that stand out. That won't change anytime soon. On the margin then, we should try to become more resistant to social opprobrium. As the virulence of public shame intensifies, so too must our efforts to develop immunity against it.
Endless whining about the terribleness of the social censure for dissent might end up being counterproductive in this regard; it inflates a specter that only makes people more afraid.
Rather, what we can do is cultivate the ability to tolerate sticking out. That requires deliberate practice; that requires making being independent a habit. It is this habit that undergirds liberalism. And this habit matters not just for the political sphere—it's that same chutzpah that allows people like Elon Musk to achieve extraordinary technological innovation.
So there you have it. Wear a weird-looking mask. You’ll get some looks, but you’ll be better for it: it’ll steel you for the moments when having the courage to stand out really matters.
I am grateful to Stephen Malina and Anonymous for their invaluable feedback.
On pluralism and the role of time, enjoy this glorious quote by Justice Holmes from his dissent in Abrams (1919). Holmes served in the Civil War in his youth; his grandmother used to tell him about her experience during the American Revolution; now, he was sitting on the Court after WWI (see Blasi). He appreciated the long view.
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care whole heartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.