Masks and the nation

I have been looking at social media responses to Covid19 masking mandates in Poland. They make a very interesting reading and, in this blog, I want to share one of the posts as representative of one of the narratives.

The post is this – I quote it in the Polish original and offer a translation.

Jebać ciemnotę i te ich nakazy zakazy jestem Polakiem i wolnym człowiekiem nie o taką Polskę walczyli pradziadowie dziadkowie nasi oni walczyli o wolną Polskę o wolność naszą i naszych dzieci pamiętajmy nie dajmy się zniewolić bo jeżeli damy to na próżno oddawali życie na próżno wierzyli że Polska będzie wolna a zwłaszcza że to polski rząd dzieli Polskę i zniewala ludzi a nie najeźdźca innego państwa lub okupat.

Fuck the dimwits and their mandates or bans. I am a Pole and a free man. Not for such a Poland did our great-grandfathers and grandfathers fight when they fought for free Poland, for our freedom and our children. Let’s remember, do not let us be enslaved because if we do they gave their lives in vain. In vain did they believe Poland would be free and in particular that it is the Polish government that divides Poland, enslaves People and not an invader from another country or an occupier.

A note is needed. I have imposed a sentence structure on the translation, I have also inserted some conjunctions to make the text more readable. I have preserved the content and the spirit of original text.

Let me do some analysis. My first point, and what actually has attracted me to such texts is rejection of any healthcare discourse in the account. Despite the fact that the Polish Ministry of Health explains the mask mandate in terms of public and individual health, the author of the comment does not take it up at all. His text is situated in a traditional Polish discourse of the nation and its independence, drawing upon a few cliches from such a discourse.

And so, the commentator uses the phrase ‘za wolność wasza’ (for our freedom), quite obviously referring to a well-worn phrase ‘za wolność naszą i waszą’ (for our freedom and yours) (here a link to an account where the phrase comes from ) which constructed Polish independence movements in the 19th century as fighting against oppressors and not against other nations.  The text here changes the phrase, yet, the reference is very clear.

The patriotic discourses is drawn upon in his use of  “pradziadowie” (great grandfathers), a very formal form of the word, more akin to the English ‘forefathers’ , together with references to fighting for a free Poland, giving lives, invaders and occupiers, all very much part of cliched vocabulary in what could be termed a Polish patriotic discourse. You would therefore be mistaken to think that the initial strong expletive makes the text not as an oik’s scream. No, the text is a ‘proper’ appeal, drawing on proper ‘patriotism’. It’s supported by the identity constructed by the comment author for him. He is not a citizen, rather he redefines himself into a person with a nationality and then as a human being. And the foundation is through being in a descendance line with those who fought ‘for free Poland’.

Masking mandates are constructed as making the fighting in vain, as taking away the freedom, as enslaving the people. There is an interesting contrast between two groups. On the one hand, you have those who fought, gave their lives, and believed. On the other hand, you have the Polish government who divides and enslaves. Grammatically, the two groups are quite similar – both groups are represented as doing things: fighting and believing vs dividing and enslaving. The stark difference is achieved lexically. In the ‘patriotic discourse’, fighting and believing can only be good, while dividing and enslaving only bad. In such a way, the commentator establishes the good in-group (to which he belongs) and the evil out-group (to which people making him wear masks belong). The world is simple, masks are bad, ‘fuck the dimwits’.

And here we come to the main point of this blogpost. The dominant discourse which is used when talking about masks is that of health, illness, healthcare. It’s a public-health discourse. The problem is that such a discourse is not taken up. It’s rejected and the message is recontextualised. And there are thousands and thousands of messages which recast mask mandates in a discourse of the nation, as an assault on freedom and national independence.

To put is somewhat simplistically, as the two groups speak using different discourses, they have no common areas. No amount of evidence, explanation, patient or not, can get through, because there is no space for healthcare evidence in discourses of the nation. The discourse of the nation doesn’t have a way of speaking about social distancing, airborne transmission or anything of the sort.

So, what do we do? Well, you could at least argue the way out of this stalemate is not to provide more evidence. Evidence is irrelevant. To repeat: there is no (space for) evidence narrative in the discourse of the nation. What you do is create it.

When I was writing my book on men and depression, I came across some research which suggested that men found it difficult to take up therapy for depression because depression was seen as emasculating. The strategy researchers took was to open up a space in the masculinity narrative for depression and therapy. And so, a man who took up therapy was a ‘real man’, a fighter etc. The traditional stereotypes of masculinity were used to get men to seek help.

I suggest it’s at least worth considering that it might work in a public-health discourse. We wear masks because our forefathers fought for the free Poland and now masks will help us retain it. So, let’s be certain that King Jan Sobieski (the one who defeated Turks at Vienna) would have worn the mask! Elizabeth I would have been the first to don it, as would Louis XIV, though his mask would have had a sun. Make a mask into a sword defending a nation and you might get the ‘patriots’ to wear it.


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