This Is Water, the famous speech by the late David Foster Wallace, opens with this joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This joke tells the story of our freedom. Basically, we’ve been swimming in freedom for so long that we no longer know what the hell it is.
The Mask Argument
In the Age of Masks — a mere minute in history — freedom has been stretched thin to fit a sharp and pointy narrative, that a mandate on masks (i.e., a bit of flimsy cloth — vocally muffling but not inhibiting — across one’s mouth) is an erosion of “our more perfect union.” The arguments for freedom go something like this: A) you can’t tell me what to do, or B) if you ask me now, then later, you’ll ask for more.
When it comes to masks, I can understand (though I disagree) the more technical argument — that masks don’t help — or the more personal argument — that one simply doesn’t want to wear a mask. In fact, I’m not arguing for or against masks or masks mandates. I’m simply pointing out that if the argument is about freedom, we no longer know what freedom is.
Freedom Or Anarchy
Freedom stretched thin risks the boy who cried wolf. Everything can be subjected to an “un-precious” freedom, not something earned and valued but something wielded and decayed. To cry “freedom” upon all mandates is to devalue the word; it creates a “patriotic” application that has no boundaries.
Freedom unbounded is not patriotic. Rather, it’s a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority … in layman’s terms, it’s “anarchy.” All authority can be rebutted with the word “freedom.” But “freedom” is more than just a word, something we — the people swimming in freedom — often forget.
When Virtue Becomes Vice
Freedom, the concept, has a core — the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint — but the further you stretch freedom from this core, the more misshapen it becomes. At the core, a free man has rights; stretched thin, a free man has every right he so chooses.
When people plea freedom in rebuttal to masks, I’m left wondering “What the hell is freedom?” Again, I’m not taking a side in science vs. science or us vs. them. I’m simply saying that the act of masking is ill-fitted for the plea.
Masks are neither invasive nor restraining nor silencing … nor threatening nor challenging nor degrading. If it bled into these things, then yes, let “freedom” ring. But if “freedom” rings upon all things — large and small, simple and difficult, cloth and iron — then we tilt dangerously close to — not democracy — but to apostasy. Because when freedom is misapplied — open-ended and weaponized — we transform, as Shakespeare warned, our greatest virtue into our greatest vice.