It took a little while for us here to start wearing masks. While we were locked away at home, it wasn’t really an issue – but we now have them and hopefully wear them intelligently – i.e. when in enclosed public spaces or where proximity with others is likely. It has become apparent that wearing one also works quite effectively to remind others to keep a distance. It is not a major imposition, apart from the problem of foggy glasses.
So quite what is one supposed to make of reports that fewer than 25% of the British population is wearing masks? Experience here suggests that it may well be much less than that, and comments from friends suggest that even the legal requirement to wear one on public transport is being widely flouted.
By comparison, it is reported that around 84% of Italians and 65% of Spanish and (even) Americans are routinely wearing them.
Assuming the figures are correct, in my eyes this comes close to the indefensible. Even if there is disagreement over the impact of masks (which seems in any case to be diminishing) the precautionary principle surely applies. And the degree of difference in these figures is surely big enough to be significant about something. The question is what.
It is easy to put the hat of indignation back on; I do it easily – but then, I am a teacher. Teachers are paid by society to stick their noses into other people’s lives and behaviours and try to improve them – and I have been a teacher for a long time. Besides, when that behaviour potentially affects my well being, I believe it becomes my legitimate concern. That notwithstanding, it is still an objective fact that different societies in different places and times exhibit differing behaviours, and it is hard not to conclude that there must – somewhere – be reasons for this, given that human beings are in biological terms fundamentally the same everywhere.
Indignant or otherwise, it is easy to read this as an explicit statement of how a lot of individuals in Britain regard the wider society of which they (fail to see they) are a part. The purpose of wearing a mask is primarily to protect other people, and when widely observed, the situation becomes mutual. The impact on infection rates is becoming much clearer. There may well be widespread misunderstanding about this fact – but that raises questions of its own, both about how much attention people are paying, and the effectiveness of official communications.
Equally, it may be an expression of very low levels of concern that people have in what is left of civil society in Britain, for each other: so low that even a trivial but important obligation is too much of a personal infringement to be seen as worth making. This in turn might cause one to wonder at how it came to be like this here, when it is clearly not a universal habit.
The difficulty is, it is almost impossible to pin such things down objectively – and therefore one is left scrabbling for explanations that are all too easily distorted by confirmation bias.
As I said, the most charitable explanation is a low level of understanding – though this still does not reflect well on the country. Worse is low levels of concern, which fly in the face of much of this country’s self-image as a place of civilised values and courteous behaviours.
Somewhere in the mix this may reflect on the nation’s seeming inability to organise itself properly. Even arch-patriots seem to accept that good organisation is at best touch-and-go in this country, even if they turn the regular muddles and short-sightedness into a strange kind of virtue even as others (including me) are tearing their hair.
I suspect another facet is an in-bred tendency to look backwards: in general the British are not good as early adopters, since that involves looking positively at the future, and as a nation we are still far more in love with our past.
It seems to be true at both an individual and collective level: I saw a first-hand report yesterday from a British woman flying in from Germany, of sanitising facilities at Heathrow that had not been replenished, and of people milling around in the airport without any observance whatsoever of suitable distancing. Surely it is not beyond us to get these very practical things right? At very least, this is not the image we as a nation – and certainly not the present government – like to have of ourselves – and yet ironically such débacles are depressingly common. They are not everywhere – as many Brits seem to assume. As one commentator put it some weeks ago: “Even when all we need to do is copy the Germans, how come we still get it wrong?”
Still trying to be charitable, the only other conclusion that I can see for the traditional British cock-up (which seems to be more common than the alternative) is that there is something in the British culture or mindset that is so ingrained that we cannot collectively overcome it – even when we know we need to. It seems to be something that afflicts our ability to construct effective institutions and guide individual behaviour almost equally. I hesitate to call it a blind spot because some of us at least are aware it is there, though trying to overcome it is by no means as easy as might be thought.
What is the common trait that leads British planning law to be impenetrable, that causes so many mega cost-overruns on projects that end up being abandoned, that leaves us dithering over high-speed rail half a century after our neighbours started build theirs; that leads us to persist with outdated forms of government even though there are many examples of how they are dysfunctional – and which leads so many to neglect or even fight against basic individual responsibilities in the face of a resolutely apolitical virus? That makes it so difficult for people in this country to “do the right thing” even when they know they should, to take the easy way out even when we know it is doing us all harm?
Education might be a likely culprit. And in some ways plausibly so – but I think that any failings in that respect are more a symptom than a cause. Why is it that this country has taken such a myopic, market-driven view of education when many other countries seem to see perfectly clearly that developing minds and societies does not and cannot work in that way? That education needs to be about far more than just preparation for the workplace; that “qualifications” are meaningless if not backed by real knowledge and understanding? Arguably it is a shortsightedness that fails to cause it to be otherwise.
“The Market” might be another culprit – again reasonably so, because in reality, free markets like nothing more than large numbers of docile, compliant, identikit producer-consumers. And it is certainly not averse to trying to shape people’s behaviour (not least through flattery and the deception that people are freer than they actually are) to make them so. It seems to me that those countries that exhibit the kind of aggressive/defensive behavioural complexes that perhaps explain people’s unwillingness to take part in collective actions are more likely to have aggressively neoliberal governments and deregulated commercial sectors. But it is still not easy to say which is the cause and which the effect: in a sense people choose their economic models through the ballot box.
But I suspect that the real shapers of national mindsets are actually deeper and less obvious. For a start, I doubt that very many non-mask-wearers are actively going out to cause harm to others. The failure to make the right decision is probably less conscious than that: something that simply causes insufficient awareness of such issues in the first place, though a retail-indulged “all about me” is no doubt part of it.
Another common factor in self-harming libertarian cultures seems to be strong hierarchies. In the case of the UK this was, and in part still is, down to ancestry and social status. In the USA it is linked more directly with wealth – though the UK is treading that path too. I suspect that the resultant inequalities do not only do physical harm but also considerably wider psychological damage. The whole notion of a pecking order informs one’s sense of self; the restrictions imposed by one’s (many) superiors can be limiting and denigrating – and may well lead to a sense of powerlessness and an aggressive defence of what little remains of one’s autonomy and self-respect. Could this explain the shows of aggression seen when non-conformers were asked to comply with lock-down, sanitising or now mask-wearing?
I sense that something is different in those countries where mask-wearing rates seem to be higher (the US seems to be an anomaly here, though it reported varies massively between states – and correlates with their political allegiances). Lengthy acquaintance with some people in continental Europe suggests to me that on the one hand they are more assertively individualistic as citizens – and their socio-politico-economic systems reflect that – but perhaps as a result, they are also less aggressive when challenged or required to pool their sovereignty with others. Compared with places where there is a more overt or overbearing elite, there is perhaps a greater sense of real individual sovereignty – but also more respect for the same of others: in other words a greater sense of commonality.
It’s not an easy thing to describe – but a useful analogy might be driving styles. The UK has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Europe; this might correlate with its self-image as a polite and rather cautious nation. But it also has plenty of overt, daily aggression, often originating from those who drive the most expensive and powerful vehicles. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy, by contrast, experience suggests that driving is often more assertive – you will certainly know if a faster driver wants to pass – but there is somehow less overt aggression behind it; that assertive driver will still normally wait without hassling until you choose to pull over. Behind that, there is an implied acceptance that both have equal right to be on the road – something that road-rage denies.
I increasingly suspect that the supposed modesty that underpins the British self-image is actually nothing of the sort; it is actually harmful passivity: a kind of indifference or complacency born of the fact that in this country all the important decisions are made, and responsibility born, by Someone Else; that for many, their little lives are not felt to be as consequential as those of Important People. Such places often seem to have a strong culture of celebrity veneration, a kind of vicarious living, as though ordinary lives are not good enough.
I think it is symptomatic that here, the perceived solution to the mask problem is for the government to tell people to do it; it should not need to: they have minds of their own. And the failure of our government to do so is in any case part of the problem since governments elsewhere have done precisely that, supported by public expectations.
Somewhere in the mix persists the belief that we live in a promised land in which nothing really bad ever happens – even as it is killing more of our compatriots than almost any comparable nation. And therefore we never need to give any serious attention to our actions, because they are mostly inconsequential. Even when they are not. It is a kind of communal paralysis that is in so many ways perpetuated by the small-mindedness and belief that muddling through is still sufficient, even when we can see that it is not. It is the absence of a profound democratic belief that every life really does matter – not only those of the ruling and economic elites.
But it also allows those in the nation who are alert and ambitious (but not necessarily benign) – and not only viruses – to run rings round the lazy brown dogs of everyone else, thus perpetuating the situation and indeed making it worse.
Another objective truth about societies (as individuals) is that they are quite capable of self-harm, even knowing self-harm. Brexit is one example; the failure of civic duty in the face of the virus is another.
Britain is certainly not the only country where such phenomena exist, or where antisocial behaviours are manifest – but the disparities in mask wearing are surely significant enough to show that it is one of them. In that respect we come close to being objectively inferior to those who are getting it more right. Will we learn from them?
The belief that we are immune to national blind-spots is our national blind-spot. The problem is that the pathology seems so deep that we still simply can’t see it – let alone escape it.