Masks & Masculinity

How much does male privilege explain?
People in Olympia, Wash., protest against the state's extended stay-at-home order April 19, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Lindsey Wasson, Reuters)

I confess to being a liberal (my children often dispute that self-evaluation). I find the refusal to wear a mask in the middle of this pandemic to be incomprehensible and morally obtuse. The more vehement refuseniks claim it is a question of “freedom” and individual rights. But no rights are absolute. We have a right to free speech, but not to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Why? Because doing so endangers the lives of others, and the right to life trumps the right to free speech in most circumstances. One should wear a mask in public, and especially in crowded indoor spaces, because not doing so endangers the health and even the lives of others. Of course, some question the reliability of public health experts who now extoll mask wearing after discouraging it at the beginning of the pandemic. The experts have also changed their view about how likely one is to pick up the coronavirus from touching an infected surface. But the shifting consensus of experts should not shock us. Given that this is indeed a “novel” virus, we should expect scientists and clinicians to be learning more about it all the time, and changing their advice as more information becomes available. That’s how science works.

The most obstreperous opponents of masks tend to be men, a fact that has been chalked up to machismo and male privilege. The latter was the subject of a recent New York Times book review, which I read after completing my daily domestic chores. First, I had prepared and served my wife breakfast, did the dishes and tidied up the kitchen. I repeated those tasks at lunch and dinner. In between, I did grocery shopping and picked up prescriptions at the pharmacy. I also did a few loads of wash, folded the clothes, and brought them up to the bedroom. Finally, I and my male privilege sat down to read the paper.

Now, to be honest, this is not our normal routine. Far from it. But my wife had surgery on her left ankle a month ago, and cannot put any weight on that foot for at least three months. She gets around, as best she can, on a “knee scooter.” Life has changed. Basically my wife is confined to the couch or a chair. As a consequence, I am now in charge of all household duties—under her expert instruction, of course. That was not a prospect that either of us looked forward to with any particular pleasure. But to be honest, it’s only fair. Until now, we have mainly divided up domestic chores in a predictably “traditional” fashion, but also in a way that suits our individual talents or lack thereof. Of course, there has been friction from time to time about our domestic arrangements, but a regime of rigorously and equally defined chores has never seemed possible or desirable to either of us. We have different strengths and temperaments, and have found that a complementary division of labor rather than a strict balancing of the workload is best. My wife is much better organized than I will ever be and far more task-oriented. She takes satisfaction in bringing order to disorder. Frankly, she demands it. I make piles of “important stuff.” She is of the absurd opinion that the New York Review of Books and other magazines (such as Commonweal!) should be recycled, not treated like holy relics. She is scrupulous about the checkbook; I round off the numbers. She is an excellent cook; I can barbecue. We have made peace with this clash of expectations, but it should be noted that our children have opted for more egalitarian domestic arrangements, which I’m sure is for the best.

Relationships between men and women are much more complicated and various than Manne’s account would seem to suggest.

Given the confession above, you can imagine my hesitation when I finally sat down to read the Times review of philosopher Kate Manne’s Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women. The reviewer, Jennifer Szalai, lavishes praise on Manne’s forensic abilities. “She’s like a pathologist wielding a scalpel, methodically dissecting various specimens of muddled argument to reveal the diseased tissue inside,” Szalai writes. An example of such surgical precision, Szalai imagines, is how Manne would have “destroyed” the logic of some men who now refuse to wear masks. Szalai is speculating here because, as she notes, Manne’s book was written before the pandemic. For her part, Szalai is incensed by Trump supporter Charlie Kirk, who justifies not wearing a mask by obnoxiously saying, “I thought it was my body, my choice!”—thus turning the abortion-rights argument back on “mask-wearing feminists.” Szalai finds this embrace of the argument for bodily autonomy by mask deniers like Kirk “half-witted.”

She is half right. But she is oblivious to how the argument for mask wearing undermines her own abortion-rights position. There are, of course, many Americans who both wear masks and reject abortion, and they do so for the same reason. You wear a mask to protect the lives of others, just as you object to abortion because it takes the life of another human being. That fact is as plain as, well, the mask on your face.

As far as Manne’s book goes, it seems to describe with a very broad brush strokes how misogyny characterizes perhaps all male-female relationships. “In Manne’s reckoning,” Szalai writes, “[men] have been conditioned to feel entitled to admiration, sex and consent; a home where someone else uncomplainingly does most of the child care and housekeeping.”

Uncomplainingly? What world is Manne living in? “When a woman fails to give a man what he’s supposedly owed,” Manne contends, “she will often face punishment and reprisal.” I think these claims are highly contestable. No doubt such reprisals happen, but I have rarely observed them in the relationships of my peers. Relationships between men and women are much more complicated and various than Manne’s account would seem to suggest. But I will have to take up that argument some other time. Now I have a load of laundry to do and dinner to prepare.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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