The Scarlet Letter of Covid19

By Todd Hayen

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By Todd Hayen – Originally at OffGuardian – Published Jul 20, 2020 FRN

“Wearing a mask is an act of love.” I have about a dozen similar little snippets of wisdom collected over the recent weeks, as I am sure most of you have also witnessed if you are a frequent visitor of Facebook. If wearing a mask is an act of love, what would not wearing a mask be an act of? I have often heard it directly referred to as an act of extreme selfishness, among other equally shaming descriptions.

Early on mask wearers described those they encountered who do not wear masks as “dismaying, confusing,” or “selfish” these descriptions have now evolved to “hateful, moronic, disgusting,” or “unconscionable.”

Wearing, or its reverse, not wearing, a mask no longer seems to be a medical choice—something to ward off Covid-19 transmission, but it has become more of a social, or political, statement—a device to indicate “who is with us” and “who is against us.”

In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter was published. The story is set in mid 17th Century puritanical Massachusetts and presents what is possibly one of the first tales of public shaming to come out of the Americas. A young woman in Boston has given birth to a child with no identified father. She is brought before the public and, through a decree brought down by the community authorities, is required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently displayed on her clothing whenever in public.

The Scarlet Letter is meant to mark her as an adulteress, carrying all the shame and humiliation the designation “adulteress” would connote during that particular period of religious fundamentalism.

Humans, probably since the earliest of times, have always gravitated toward the identification of “other” in their culture — in primitive, less civilized times, certainly due to the potential danger of warring, or conflicting, tribes in close proximity.

A fear of “other” has been etched in the collective unconscious, and we certainly have seen examples of this in our recent, and not so recent, history. However, differing from ancient times where close contact with a group of people who could very well hurt you in a variety of ways. Generally today such a great threat does not exist; therefore there is no real purpose behind identifying those who “don’t fit in,” yet we still are anxious to know.

This defining element of “not fitting in” has become rather irrelevant to its initial purpose, which predicated if you didn’t fit in you could be the source of serious trouble. Today that typically is no longer the case. Today, “not fitting in” at its best could simply mean “different” or unfamiliar. Yes, we have developed a keen sensitivity to “unsafe” people, and our internal radar often is given the task to identify danger by how people dress, by the way they present their bodies (hair, lack of hygiene, etc.) their mannerisms, even their language and use of it.

However, much of this “profiling” is again unnecessary, and largely inaccurate, in our modern day, and it seems that more often than not a negative designation must be placed on those who are different in order to see them as a threat and attempt to control them through hate, vilification, and/or shame — this designation must be artificially produced, or irrationally applied, yet it must seem rational at the moment of its application.

In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the story, must be perceived as the enemy before she can be publically shamed. Birthing an illegitimate child, or more precisely, engaging in the sexual act with a man she isn’t married to, goes against the religious mores of Prynne’s culture. There is, then, a weak appearance of “reason” to fear her otherness, and thus to then shame her, or to even hate her. She is marked due to her violation of a cultural, in this case also religious, standard of the time. She herself, however, is not shameful. Her shame is placed upon her due to an external doctrine.

The reason to shame her becomes secondary to the idea that the people who are shaming are searching for “other,” compelled by a collective unconscious and archaic need to establish safety and control through the identification of the “unsafe”—the “other.” If you can identify them, then you can project hate and disgust on that individual or group, and thus feel a modicum of control—your immediate environment is a bit safer if you feel you have some control over it.

When applying this idea to the problem of wearing masks, and the identification of “unsafe other” to those who don’t wear masks, don’t mask wearers have a valid point in castigating that nonconforming group? If it is so clear, according to the mainstream narrative, that Covid-19 is spread predominately by people who do not wear masks, why in the world would people choose to not wear a mask, and thus selfishly spread their disease to everyone they come in contact with?

This supposition does not stand up to scrutiny for several reasons; the first and foremost is that not everyone has disease to spread. In order to transmit a disease, sans or avec mask, you must first have it. This first problem is easily solved by the mainstream narrative’s efforts to make sure we understand that you don’t have to have symptoms to be a carrier of virus (some reports I have read say 45% of all disease is acquired by asymptomatic people, how they came to that conclusion is beyond my logic reasoning, but most people seem to believe this), thus everyone is then a potential carrier.

Regardless of what the mainstream media has to say, there certainly are people who don’t buy into their rhetoric, and quite possibly many non-conforming no-mask-wearers are among these people. Therefore a no-mask-wearer very likely may not be selfish at all. If they don’t believe they have the virus, then not wearing a mask won’t hurt anyone. But this question is never asked (why the noncompliant choose not to wear a mask) and thus the noncompliant become identified as “unsafe other” — evil, selfish, moronic, idiotic, (fill in the blank) maybe even as bad as a “Trump supporter.”

Thus they are a person who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. They wear the scarlet letter “No Mask” and are then designated as the one to hate, the group to disown, the ones not for, but against. The group to, eventually, be destroyed. For good reason. Never mind the disease, the good reason to destroy them is that they are in the group to hate, to fear, and they are easily marked—they are “other.”

Needless to say this compulsion of the collective unconscious to “seek out other and destroy” has been demonstrated in history too often to even begin to comprehend its prevalence. However, some prominent illustrations come immediately to mind — the Star of David required by Jews to wear during the Nazi regime in Germany, and not a mark to necessarily shame its wearer (although certainly it did) but clearly an identifier of “other.”

Obviously the color of a person’s skin, or a person’s religion, or sexual orientation is a mark of “other” to fear. We have been a species of mistrust, and our efforts to identify “other” as having cultural differences, ethnic differences, sexual differences, or even ideological differences, have found a variety of clever devices.

Some of these marks are obvious marks that are forcibly enacted by decree or law (such as wearing the Star of David in Nazi Germany, and possibly the mandate of wearing masks), other marks are simply physiological attributes such as skin color and physical differences, others, such as religion or sexual orientation are a bit more difficult to identify.

But we typically have found clever ways to make this identification as easy on us as possible, thus a quick and facile action can ensue—hate, persecution, violence, the list goes on. “The reason to take action” is often flimsy and ultimately irrational. Very often the reason is so obscure, and historically irrelevant (such as tribal differences that go back many generations), that if perpetrators are confronted with “why” they can give no logical explanation—for them “other” just is a threat needing attention.

The mask-wearing phenomena is interesting on several counts; one is that it seems to be a completely artificial concoction. Another is the opposing idea that there is good logical argument for wearing one.

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It does look as if there is a conscious manipulation of an archaic psychological complex (the innate fear of “different” deeply seated in a very old truth about neighboring tribes), i.e., “taking advantage of a psychological, although illogical, propensity” in order to push along the agenda of the manipulators — but who or what is the manipulator? I leave that question up to the reader, and other authors, to contemplate.

We again have seen historically the manipulation of a populace to hate “other” that is fabricated by the state. The most obvious in recent years is the Nazi vilification of the Jews. Even more recently Muslim’s have been similarly targeted as “other to be feared” by the US Government. Mexicans and immigrants in general have been as well.

Many people believe that other marginalized peoples, races, people of certain sexual orientations, other religious groups as well as women, have been purposely and maliciously marked as “other” by the state. The rationalization for this action generally comes under the insistence that it is for the “good of the people.” Therefore the groups identified as dangerous are to be avoided, chastised, abused, shamed and even violently harmed for being the “enemy.”

This all may seem like a stretch to some people, and yes, it can be subtle—at least a conscious and nefarious intention or agenda behind it can be subtle. With regard to the mask-wearing/not wearing phenomena the process has happened so quickly it is relatively easy to follow its progress. In the beginning, mask-wearing was considered unnecessary in the effort to minimize disease transmission.

In fact, several official reports were clear that masks simply could not prevent the tiny virus particles to reach the inner sanctum of the human body where it would wreak havoc—a popular analogy was the dubious efficacy of throwing dirt at a chain-link fence in order to reach the other side. Then the tables begin to turn, as “case” numbers began to escalate during the horrid spectre of “the second wave” — mask-wearing became a new focus.

However, an interesting thing happened with the public. They began to take it all very personally.

Seeing someone not wearing a mask did not translate to a logical response such as avoiding that mask-less person to lessen the possibility of infection, but rather the response was to mark that person as the selfish enemy who was purposefully trying to spread disease, or at least didn’t care about that possibility. Again, it didn’t seem that people even considered the person a physical threat, but more an emotional one, as someone that isn’t decent.

Vilification became the weapon to attack this marked enemy with, that and shaming, as well as denigration. “They are out to destroy us, the decent people who care about life, grandma, community and what is good in the world.” That is what marking “other” is all about—identification of the enemy, either moral enemy, or physical enemy.

The eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung made popular a phrase, “participation mystique,” which had already been invented by Lévy-Brühl, a French scholar and philosopher who lived in the early part of the 20th Century.

Roughly, and simply speaking, “participation mystique” refers to a collective human compulsion to project an identity on to a group of people that is largely imaginative or symbolic. This is probably where a concept like “herd mentality” originates, or even a more common phrase we are hearing these days, “sheeple” — people who seem to follow blindly an official narrative.

It also applies to “conspiracy theorists,” “tin foil hat wearers,” and in the context of this article, “selfish no-mask-wearers.” This projection that Jung speaks of is generally unconscious, or at least the impetus for it is. What becomes the basis for fear, hate, disgust, or whatever other derogatory term and emotion that sputters forth when confronting the object of the projection is again unconscious and archaic in origin.

If any group of people can be identified as other, and conscious manipulative propaganda from a controlling entity has always been good at marking groups that are unsympathetic to the entity’s agenda as “other,” then it is easy to conjure up this magic of unconscious projection in a group as they move against another, identified and marked, group.

The hallmark of this projection is its lack of objective reality; however, there is almost invariably a “hook to hang the projection on”, i.e., some sort of “real thing” that inspires the imaginary story to take form. For example, the Japanese did indeed attack Pearl Harbour in 1941, that is the objective reality hook, but the imaginary story that was conjured up through this unconscious projection was that the Japanese were an inferior race, sub-human, and as such deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth. Much of the propaganda of World War II in the Pacific Theatre was to depict the enemy in precisely that light.

The US Government, in its effort to create a group of people to hate and fear presented to the American people every manner of propaganda imaginable that depicted the Japanese enemy in ways that were easily identified as offensive, dangerous, treacherous, and ugly. The Japanese were more easily identified as “other” than the Germans due to their physical features being Asian and not European, their culture essentially being more foreign than the Eurocentric Germans. Therefore it was deemed, through this negative projection, more justifiable to destroy them completely as the US attempted to do with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With regard to mask-wearing there seems to be such a concerted effort to create this “objective truth” hook to hang this “participation mystique” projection onto. So many sensationalized reports of masks being the saviour that will pull us out of this nightmare we have gotten ourselves into proliferate the mainstream media. These “objective truths” are flimsy at best.

So many contradictions have arisen, the controversy regarding mask’s efficacy continues to oscillate back and forth from one scientific camp to the other. One thing is certain though, the projection of “undesirable, unsafe, other” has been firmly established. The objective, scientific, “hook” itself has become a backstory.

We know this because if the hook, the supposed truth regarding the possible spread of disease, was really the reason for the hatred of no-mask-wearers then there would be much less socially denigrating ways to manage it as we would realize there was nothing to hate. We would truly all be in this together. We would be more amenable to healthy dialogue and discussion without fear or anger. We would be more willing to look at all possible scientific explanation and remedies in an effort to resolve our predicament without needing to decide that any of our fellow humans are a danger, are selfish, or deficient in basic human compassion and empathy.

I am not insisting that this projection of the “unsafe other” on to no-maskers is a result of the nefarious agenda of the “powers that be,” although if history is any indication of this possibility we certainly have many examples to support the idea. However, the projection due to “participation mystique” is a collective human trait that really requires no external encouragement, although it is very easy for those in power to manipulate to their benefit. It is human nature and is a common function of the “herd.”

Since it is human nature, it certainly is controllable. We must all strive to be more conscious, more aware of the powers that internally, or externally, propel us into behaviour that is not only consciously irrational, but unproductive and ultimately quite dangerous.

Todd Hayen is a registered psychotherapist practicing in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He holds a PhD in depth psychotherapy and an MA in Consciousness Studies. He specializes in Jungian, archetypal, psychology.

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