How does a mask mean?
A mask should be an incredibly simple thing – a piece of fabric covering the nose and mouth, tied behind the ears, ideally to stop the transmission of infectious disease. But we all know it’s not as simple as that. At the beginning of the pandemic, while zooming my students (zooming is a verb now, right?), I was surprised to hear how their opinions about masks varied. One thought it was irresponsible to wear a mask at that time – masks were scarce, and it was important to save them for health professionals. Another thought it was responsible to wear a mask: a sign of concern for someone else’s health. Or a sign of anxiety. Or just ridiculous. And so it went on…
US president Donald Trump initially made a strong stance of not wearing a mask in public, despite the advice of his own close advisors and health professionals. At the time, Democratic rival Joe Biden said that this was a sign of ‘false masculinity’. Now, Trump does wear a mask, one with the presidential seal on it, adding yet more layers of meaning.
For me, the more interesting question is not what a mask is, but how something so basic can come to mean so many different things. The internet is awash with examples of this: from the news, those who are berated for not wearing masks, and those who are berated for wearing them. The health and science explanations of their pros and cons. The funny memes and videos using masks to convey a serious message. Masks on statues. On avatars and emojis. As museum souvenirs. So clearly, masks mean something more like the following:
But behind the chaos of examples, systematic choices emerge. As Michael Halliday said in “How do you mean?”, the instances (the examples) point to the system – the fundamental choices at stake. To wear or not to wear? Always or only sometimes? One that is disposable, or reusable? One that is made of floral fabric, or plain black? Made by myself, by a social enterprise, or by a fashion designer? One that is neutral, or which signals allegiance to another cause? One that is serious and serves its intended purpose, or one that is an ironic joke?
The meaning of all these choices is further shaped by context: social, economic, cultural, political. The social role we play by wearing a mask; whether we are a surgeon or a shopper. Economic access – are they available? Can I afford one? As Al Jazeera and others have documented, the multitude of choices surrounding masks is simply not available to the most vulnerable in society, who more likely have to choose between a mask, and food. Cultural attitudes also shape meaning: have we used masks before? In protests, perhaps? Or to avoid the choking smoke of bushfires? Politically, do I signal that I believe scientific experts by wearing a mask, or that I am somehow asserting a ‘democratic right‘ by refusing to be told to what to do? As Rodney Jones says, masks are ‘heavy with these histories’.
Context is the baggage of meaning. It makes meaning elastic, sometimes unpredictable. But while it seems that this makes meaning infinitely variable, almost chaotic, there are in fact underlying principles behind it all. It’s about who we are and how we position ourselves in relation to others. And whether those around us share these meanings, or not. And whether particular meanings have been communicated clearly or strongly enough. The lack of consensus about what a mask means points us to the more important question: how does a mask mean so many things, to so many people? How is a particular message conveyed?
Knowledge of and about communication is not going to produce a vaccine or a cure for this pandemic. But communication about the pandemic is fundamental to saving lives. Through investigating and understanding how we make meaning, we can better understand differences that otherwise divide us – differences in what something means, how and why, and to whom.
And how all this can change in an instant.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1992). How do you mean? In M. Davies and L. Ravelli (Eds.). Advances in Systemic Linguistics: Recent theory and practice, London: Pinter, 20-35.