As I mentioned last week our family went to the Grand Canyon. Despite being located in the great state of Arizona it is considered federal lands. All of the site, centers, and museums are federal property, Big American Brother runs the show. As a result, despite being located in a state that has outlawed mask mandates, stood against vaccine passports and mandates, and generally displayed its own special we-do-what-we-want attitude, all of the facilities within Grand Canyon National Park have signage posted that regardless of your vaccination status masks are required indoors.
I have a number of reasons for finding this nonsensical at this point in our pandemic history (we’ll get to some of that later, maybe), and as such, while I myself wore a mask in compliance with the signage and the authority it represented, I did not make my children do so. We entered exactly two buildings: the restrooms and the Yavapai Point geological museum. The specifics of the geological history of the canyon were of special interest to my son, a real rock hound, and I always believe that every excursion into the world is a learning opportunity. So to the place with the information we went.
While reading about the various rock layers, the tectonic history, and the erosion patterns I was approached by a diminutive woman in a puffy NorthFace vest.
Let me be clear before I go further, this woman was polite. She did not raise her voice or use vulgarity. She was pretty decent throughout the whole interaction. This is part of what made this conversation so terrifying. She was a nice lady. A nice lady who had internalized a dangerous belief. The kind of nice lady who might call the police on her neighbors for standing unmasked on their own lawn or attending church in a place like Canada or Australia, believing that she was doing the right thing.
I won’t try to recount the whole conversation as adrenaline and the days in between have made the details fuzzy at the edges, but I can put a few key pieces in direct quotes.
“I’m sorry, but you seem like very respectful, good people and I’m just curious, it seems to be a contradiction, why you are letting your children in here without masks?”
Do you see it? The bit that sent my spidey-sense into overdrive?
In her mind, and she did seem genuinely confused by the prospect, good people would never be in non-compliance. Good people wear their masks when told to. Team educated-middle-class wears their masks because they have been told to and they follow the rules. But here before her was a family, parents masked, children not, reading through the placards and explaining the glorious topography before them.
How could this be? And how could she let such a thing pass by without comment, despite the fact that the rangers in the building weren’t saying a word?
Our conversation ranged all over from the differing risk profile between children and adults, the need to get them the information while on the site being a more powerful learning experience, and eventually came upon the narrative that is being pushed that anyone who is not in compliance is a bad person. When I said that this view is dehumanizing, that it refuses to acknowledge that many people, given the information they have, might not agree to constant masking and taking shots that have no longterm data associated with them, might not agree on what the best practices are going forward, she was stuck for a moment.
Then she changed tactics, with a little sputtering, saying that “the sign says” and “you’re breaking the rules.”
Anyone who knows me, knows my penchant for sarcasm. It took a Herculean effort for me not to respond with, “The RULES?! Not the rules!! Whatever would we do without government rules? Why we would be babes lost in the world, utterly unable to care for ourselves. Oh, thank you so much for reminding of the all important rules!!”
But by the grace of God and the fact that my teeth are excellent at holding my tongue in place, I didn’t. However, I could not control my eyebrows. I gave her a silent eyebrow raise that may well have communicated something like, “Really? You’re going with an appeal to authority?” Because she filled the silence by telling me that she was a flight attendant (ah, a rule loving, rule follower if ever there was one), and she asked if we were to get on a flight…
TO the which I responded that that would be a very different circumstance: tight space, same people huffing in and out for at least a couple of hours together, recycled air. Not to mention the tight sphinctered approach to airport security that has been adopted since 9/11/2001 in the United States. The Patriot Act is no joke. I have no desire to end up on the no fly list. So no, when getting on a plane with all my children, I would of course make the effort to streamline the process as much as possible. I’m not going to rock that boat.
My daughter popped into the conversation at that moment to exclaim that we wouldn’t be flying anywhere as a family anytime soon. I hugged her. It made me laugh.
My puffy vested friend circled back to her original statement that she was just curious as to why decent seeming people would not be enforcing mask wearing on their children in a federal building, as that seemed very contradictory. Having said all I felt I had to say on the subject, and seeing that this woman was not about to stop gnawing on this bone, I ended the conversation with, “Being a good a person and wearing a mask are not the same thing. I disagree that there is a contradiction there.”
And I ushered my children on for more learning. We vacated the building soon thereafter, and did our best to enjoy the rest of the day in the autumn sun and cool air. It really was a glorious place to be.
I will confess though that I retained nothing of what I read about the contents of the rocks that form this monument after my conversation.
It frightened me. I wasn’t angry, like my husband was on my behalf. I understood exactly where she was coming from. In her line of work, the kind of people who refuse to do as their told cause all kinds of problems. They are probably doing it, in part, to cause a disruption so as to bring attention to an issue or because their mental faculties aren’t calibrated to full social functionality.
So for her to come across a quiet act of civil disobedience on federal ground probably felt like an affront to her efforts to get everyone’s seatbelts on and their tray tables in the upright position. We were makers of chaos. I get it. The fact that this decision was based on data that children are less likely to suffer adverse effects of CoVid, they are not transmission vectors, and children should not be made afraid of the world for the sake of a fractional bit of safety brought on by the kind of “Safety Theater” we have had to endure over the last 18 months, was totally irrelevant to her.
We were the bad guys. We had to be confronted.
I will say that I am grateful that in the moment I was able to take her at face value. She really did seem genuinely confused at first. I’m glad that our conversation remained civil and that my children witnessed me responding to criticism with a level head and a confident manner. And without sarcasm. (Seriously you guys, it was so hard)
But I am not naive enough to reject the possibility that she was, in the most passive-aggressive way imaginable, telling me that I am a bad person. I am team bad guy. I and my kids with their unrestricted respiration were endangering her and everyone around us.
I spent the next several hours engaged in all of the mindfulness techniques I know to bring my physiology out of fight or flight.
This woman is just one of so many in our country that think our opinions dictate our humanity. That our morality is manifested solely in compliance to authority and acceptance of current policy. This kind of thinking is the precursor to new policies demanding that such individuals, because they are dangerously out of step, must be penalized, persecuted, and finally eradicated.
No war, no conflict, no genocide of any stripe ever starts with the obvious brutality. It starts with finger pointing, blame, and slow dehumanization of those with whom we disagree.
So let me say this without equivocation:
Whether you take the vaccine or not does not determine your humanity.
Whether you mask or not does not determine your humanity.
Whether you agree with the Lab Leak Hypothesis or not does not determine your humanity.
I could go on.
We are all human beings first and foremost. We deserve to be treated with respect and civility, even when we find ourselves hotly disagreeing on a topic du jour.
I hope that our interaction, perhaps, helped this woman reframe what she saw as a contradiction where there was none. She interacted with someone who took her query sincerely, had a conversation with her about it, displayed an understanding of context and nuance, and perhaps even showed signs of being a good mom. And all while this person disagreed with her assumptions. Perhaps she will question those assumptions. Perhaps she will look a little more closely at her conflation between good people and obedient people. Maybe, despite her lived experience, she will take a second to examine how effective the rules she clings to for job safety really are.
The cynic in me says probably not. But part of me holds out hope, because the only way we come out of this trying time as a nation of states united under principles of freedom, autonomy, and accountability is for everyone to see each other as a human being. To recognize that we are all complex, more than a “good person” or “bad person.” That our “teams” don’t have to be locked in zero sum games.
That we can move forward together, even when we aren’t sure how to go about it.
Be good to each other.