With deaths and infection rates spiralling up each day in different parts of the world, one can hardly ignore the systematic political dysfunctionality and a misplaced human rights debate that has catalysed the entire process. I was speaking to my friend, Micheal, the other day who has been living in a remote beach town in the Mediterranean for the last thirty years.
A strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter rallies over the last one month, he finds himself in a peculiar predicament today. Ever since masks have evolved to become a powerful tool to express dissent for racial inequality, a lot of his colleagues have been wearing them to work demonstrating slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and ” Proud to be Black”. One part of him wants to join them and humanize the outcry, the other half of him rejects the mask as an instrument which challenges his individual freedom and civil liberties. He is not sure what to do. He feels strongly for both the campaigns, but he is fearful that in his preference of one, he might just be trivialising the other.
More than half of protestors across the world find themselves in Michael’s shoes today, where they are being forced to choose their battles. With George Floyd’s death bringing back the spotlight on a highly-legacied demon, this time around the human rights dispute for people of color seems to have much more potential. Over the years, from social media hashtags to the creation of forums, from protests in streets to rallies outside judicial establishments, from subtle sentences to violent demonstrations, the Black Lives Matter movement has tried all platforms for inclusion in mainstream dialogues. Every time it felt like a change was coming. Every time it felt different. Just like now.
With an additional layer of international support, the campaign does again reflect strong capabilities to shift the status quo, if not eliminate it completely. And the results have already started coming in. I have been reading about how with the switching of narratives around police brutalities, racial profiling, and the overall justice system, victims of erstwhile racial abuse are now feeling more confident. They are now opening up their living room for such conversations with their children, something they would usually push off to only those times when they felt violated.
This is good. They are receiving mass reciprocity to their struggle. For once, the cry for human rights is being heard by the right ears, the sufferings aren’t going unnoticed and society is standing united and strong in both conscience and action. Therefore, it feels like this time it’s not just a fleeting discussion. A change is brewing.
That being appreciated, there is another side to the fight for human rights where the world finds itself disproportionately divided. One half of the population, those who act with public safety into consideration, are seen respecting the cause of wearing masks. They believe that true freedom can only be achieved when everyone is masked up thus allowing for people to open up economies and also feel safe at the same.
The other half is strongly reckoning masks or face coverings to be symbols of submission, vulnerability, and surprisingly ‘effeminate’. For them, this simple piece of cloth is a political and cultural weapon, emblematizing their definition of personal freedom and human rights. By being policed into masking, they say, you become a conformist and accept the hierarchies of a dictatorial society. You are no more free.
To the point of the pandemic, their belief is that masks cannot save anyone from the infection, it’s just designed to convey weakness and a false sense of security.
Therefore, in protest, on Twitter they write- ‘I will not be muzzled’.
Both these arguments are running parallelly in the world today. While one side of the street parades with slogans like My skin is not a crime, the other side releases images of torn masks with privileged statements like My body, my choice. The questions, therefore, which comes to my mind are: Are we even fighting the right debate? In prioritising the second, are we somehow trivialising a more critical one? Will Micheal ever be able to join his colleagues in their silent movement? Or will he only find himself shouting slogans on the streets?
Well, my guess here is as good as yours. We might just have to wait for things to play out. Until then, all we can do is go back to reading those innovative hashtags and muse over their hopeful consequences.