“You be careful. People in masks cannot be trusted,” warns Andre the Giant’s character Fezzik to his friend Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.” He is, of course, speaking of the Man in Black, whom we later find out is actually the hero of the tale, Westley.
Though it turns out Fezzik’s suspicions about the masked man are not necessary — the true villain is the powerful Prince Humperdinck — he’s not wrong. Humans are social creatures, for the most part, very attuned to the nuances of the face and the tells that indicate an individual’s sincerity. Any barrier to that, such as a mask, reduces people’s trust, not only in the masked messenger, but in whatever message the masked individual is attempting to convey. Whether it be a masked individual entering a bank, or walking the streets of downtown, that mask carries with it a sense of distrust.
That’s not to say that there are not legitimate reasons for masks, chief among them, the protection of the wearer. Throughout American history, people have worn masks and disguises to protect themselves in times of protest. From farmer-tenants clashing with landlords in 1800s New York, to the Sons of Liberty at the Boston Tea Party, masks and disguises have served as a form of protection that secured anonymity for populous movements against those in power. Additionally, masks serve as a barrier from physical attack from things like pepper spray and tear gas.
But masks still erode trust in the message, especially when some of those in masks are spreading a different message or using the anonymity of the mask for purpose of property destruction. The destruction of personal property also has a long history in American protest, i.e. the Sons of Liberty and the tea in the harbor again. However, some of those same patriots who were at the harbor destroying public property were also framers of the Constitution that protected private property rights as well as the right to privacy. It seems to be an American is to be a part of a sort of dichotomy.
Back to the masks. If masks offer protection, then not wearing masks makes the protester vulnerable. And now we approach the protests of the 20th century and the modern media of photos and video. Some of the most moving and effective images of protest are of the completely vulnerable individuals in peaceful protests during the civil rights movement. From the innocent bravery of Ruby Bridges on her first day of school confronted by the angry spiteful faces of full-grown adults, to the passively peaceful leaders standing stoically in the threat of violence, to the grisly images of injury and death that the protesters suffered for their cause, the power of those images cannot be understated.
So, the choice must be made by each individual. Protest under the mask of anonymity and self-preservation at the possible cost of your message, or share your message publicly, unmasked and vulnerable, at a greater risk of public shame, retaliation and physical harm. The choice is up to you.
There is one more mask I have not yet addressed. The mask that moves this conversation to the present. The mask of the screen. Whether it is the smartphone, the tablet, the laptop or the desktop computer, these screens provide a new type of anonymity to the public. Even when the online persona is attached to a very real name, the screen provides a filter, a protection, a mask. The screen separates us from the real consequences of our words and our actions. The messages sent through these screens can be shaped and molded in a way that makes the message just as persuasive as those black and white images from the 1950s and 60s. The irony is not lost to me that I share my own messages to many of you through screens. Nevertheless, I hope you consider my message just the same.
Step away from the mask. Put away that screen. Set aside all those barriers that are getting in the way of our messages. Let us meet, face to face, eye to eye, as people.