Sometimes culture shock doesn't require a trip to a foreign country. Culture shock can and does happen right at home. In the political realm, we have been served up enough shock over the past few years to last us a lifetime.
During the recent holidays, I accepted an invitation to attend a special Christmas service in the next county over in Southern California. I knew ahead of time that the church putting on this service was broadly within the Evangelical tradition, and, as expected, the Christmas hymns were all familiar to me, as were the prayers and other expressions of Christian worship and praise. What shocked me, however, is what I saw upon entering the church.
I have lived and worked in seven different countries on three different continents in my lifetime, so navigating cultural change and adaptation is part of my life experience, even if I am not a cultural anthropologist. The worst shock I ever experienced was moving to Texas during my college years. I was totally unprepared to fathom the differences between my Pacific Northwest world and the unique mix of customs, values, and downright oddities that would hit me full on when arriving in the Lone Star State. My problem was that I had assumed I was moving to another part of the United States; instead, I had gone to "Texas."
What I was not prepared for in this church visit was the 100% mask use by the congregants. It was the first thing that hit me as I entered, and it seemed surreal. The only face that was seen, twice, was that of the pastor who welcomed everyone and explained the mask rule. I was the only one needing the explanation; all the rest were obediently covered, noses down. He did give his message unmasked, which I guess was wise because communication was probably high on his priorities list.
As if that weren't enough, the worship team (four singers) were fully masked as they enthusiastically led the singing of the hymns. I'm somewhat hard of hearing, and my hearing aids are not the best for receiving clear musical signals, but I suspect that part of my inability to capture clearly what the team was indistinctly enunciating had to do with the cloth over their mouths. Fortunately for me, the text was displayed on a screen that crossed the front of the hall.
Being a Christmas celebration, the congregants had welcomed everyone with sweets and cupcakes, and coffee was served before the service began. Thus, quite a few entered with snacks and coffee for the beginning of the celebration (including myself). Across the aisle from me, I couldn't miss the convolutions that a 40-something guy went through trying to imbibe his coffee; he was double-masked and insisted on pulling down the whole apparatus to take a sip of the beverage, only then to return the protecting layers to their place over nose and mouth, lest he imbibe an unwanted virus or two.
My observations are not scientific, but I have frequently noticed that the most religiously masked part of the population comprises the younger folk. These are not teenagers or children, but rather, mostly, the 20-40 crowd, looking like young professionals. I've often wondered how the part of the population that is least at risk has also become the most concerned about catching the horrid virus.
I seriously doubt that simple fear of the virus is the overriding motive for masked existence. Everything I've heard from those who insist on living behind the cloth points to a complex set of cultural and political values that existed previously and segued into the mandate madness over the past two years. One of the characteristics of this group has been an almost ingenuous need to believe that government agencies and experts consistently tell the truth and have a sincere desire to take care of them.
Today's particular "mask" culture seems, in my judgment, to be an almost religious token of conformity and identification - much like the Jewish man with his kippah or some Muslim women with their burkas. The mask, which scientifically has been shown to do almost nothing to reduce the transmission of the feared virus (or any virus), has a much more useful purpose in identifying those who accept the philosophy of the guidelines as well as negatively stigmatizing those who are morally and politically inferior - we who supposedly believe we can wantonly put other people's lives at risk.
Such a religion can function only in upper-middle-class societies like we have in the U.S. or in Europe. This "faith" certainly does not function in the poorest and most populous countries around the world, where the lockdowns have spread death and destruction. The use of the now-ubiquitous fabric aerosolizing implements will one day wane as public hypocrisy and private ineffectiveness bring reality into greater focus. But at the same time, I suspect that we have already invented a new subculture of self-righteous maskedness that will stubbornly persist.
Image via Pxfuel.