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Mask bullies don’t want to persuade you — but to humiliate and rule you

Mask bullies don’t want to persuade you — but to humiliate
and rule you 1

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rather confused masking advice is thinly supported by science. And by now, everyone who wants a COVID jab can get one. Yet elite shaming of ordinary people keeps ratcheting up. It’s, well, shameful.

Law professor Ann Althouse recently reproduced two memes she saw on Facebook. One read: “It took ‘click it or ticket’ to get people to wear a seatbelt. I wonder if ‘mask it or casket’ might work.” The other said: “It’s a face mask, not a Star of David or pink triangle, you whiny, privileged dolt. You’re not being shoved into a cattle car and taken to camp. You’re going to Walmart for twinkies and Diet Coke. Grow up.”

They’re both poor efforts at persuasion, of course: Generally, calling people names, threatening them and saying they’re stupid are ineffective ways of winning them over.

Yet we’re seeing more and more of this sort of thing. (And note the casual classism of invoking Walmart, Twinkies and Diet Coke. Poor white people aren’t, in fact, the least-vaccinated group — that would actually be blacks and Hispanics — but bashing working-class whites is considered perfectly decent, almost mandatory.)

Maybe the mask fanatics are just poor persuaders. But it seems just as likely that they are engaging in poor persuasion because they aren’t trying to persuade.

As with so much that goes on in today’s society, and especially on social media, this sort of thing isn’t aimed at convincing those who disagree, but rather at garnering high-fives from people who agree and, ultimately, creating an ideological veneer for unquestioned elite rule.  

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Much of it is aimed at elites and would-be elites themselves. Lots of people want to feel that they’re important, and that they make a bigger impact on the world than the average person. (Spoiler: On average, they don’t). And lots of people — especially a particular sort of upper-middle-class person who thinks of himself as educated — want to believe that they’re smarter than most other people.

Well, making a big impact on the world is hard. It generally requires special gifts and a lot of very hard work. Elon Musk makes a big impact on the world, but most people don’t want to work as hard as Musk.

Feeling like you’re making a big impact on the world is much easier. Posit some sort of social threat — it doesn’t really matter what it is, from climate change to the coronavirus — and then speak against it. Voila! Suddenly you’re doing something important. Or more accurately, suddenly you feel like you’re doing something important.

Likewise, being smarter than other people is hard, because it requires you to actually be smarter than other people. Being smarter and more knowledgeable than other people is harder still, since you have to combine both raw intelligence and actual learning, which takes effort.

But you can feel smarter than other people by simply reciting views you and your crowd have decided are smart. It doesn’t matter if you’re just parroting things you don’t actually understand: If you’re saying smart things, then you, too, must be smart. Or at least, you can feel that way. (Spoiler: The easier it is to convince yourself that parroting other people’s views without understanding them makes you smart, the less smart you probably are.)

At any rate, all the blaming and shaming on social media and elsewhere is less about persuasion than about the emotional needs of those doing the blaming and shaming. It makes them feel better about themselves, and in today’s society, feeling better about oneself is the greatest of achievements. It’s helpful if the feeling suffices to legitimate the right of laptop-class “meritocrats” to bully the oiks on things like masks and lockdowns — when their actual performance casts serious doubts on their merits.

It’s also easy for politicians to capitalize on. They thrive on division, and on passions that distract people from what they’re actually doing. But if you’re making the country worse to feel good about yourself, maybe you’re not such a good person after all. And if you’re falling for politicians’ tricks, maybe you’re not as smart as you think.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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