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Wearing A Mask that Reveals Too Much

By Kaivan K. Shroff
Kaivan K. Shroff is a third-year joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.

I was raised not to wear words on clothing. I don’t remember my parents specifically caring or my public school having a policy against them. Perhaps it was the result of modern fashion trends? I wasn’t sure — but, for my entire adult life, I’ve met this unspoken rule without questioning it.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself intentionally breaking this rule — and tangling with the ensuing cognitive dissonance.

As I left the suburbs of Westchester for college and the working world, it quickly became obvious why “polite society” has internalized the norm. Branding yourself can be alienating and limiting.

Companies have long understood this. The president of the United States, for example, recently called for his followers to boycott Goodyear upon reading a tweet claiming it had a policy allowing its 60,000 employees to wear “Black Lives Matter” apparel, but not “Blue Lives Matter” or MAGA gear. The information was false. Goodyear has a policy against any campaign attire in the workplace. Amid public pressure, though, other mega-corporations like Starbucks that have previously demonstrated a desire to prohibit divisive labels at work are starting to relax their rules.

Neither retailers nor ambitious people want to limit their customer base. Discussion of politics or religion is particularly frowned upon in white collar settings. Wearing the name of your alma mater across your chest pigeonholes you — elitist, fratty, poor, dumb, stoner. To some eyes, designer clothes with brand names on them read “foreigner,” “new money,” or “obnoxious,” while plain, textless purchases from the same stores are considered the height of class.

To wear a label has always felt gratuitously restricting, as if to shout to the whole world, “I am one thing and not the other.” Nevertheless, I have made a notable departure from this convention in past weeks.

Every time I wear my Biden mask out, I am painfully aware of it. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, brands, including campaigns, have turned face masks into their latest billboards. I got the mask as a gift last month. It’s not bright red, but still, people stare. Paying at the checkout counter, walking past others in the street — I feel physically uncomfortable. The mask is on my face, but I’m shoving my perspective in your face. We’re all trained not to “judge a book by its cover,” yet in expressing my opinion so blatantly before we’ve even interacted, if we ever do, I’m forcing you to judge. Given the reports of confrontations by Trump supporters and the president’s sharing of a video that says “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” I admit I’m also nervous about where I wear my Biden mask.

The Biden mask has become a counter-symbol to the MAGA hat. Its impact, however, is both similar and disparate. In his book on mass movements, “True Believer,” social philosopher Eric Hoffer explains that those vulnerable to populist fervor “crave to be rid of an unwanted self.” Supporters discard their personal identity for that of the mass identity. This is a key function the MAGA hat has served since its adoption by Trump supporters, many of whom are rightwing populists. The primary function of my Biden mask, however, is to help me do my part to limit the spread of COVID-19, a deadly virus that has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans.

Yet, in a pandemic of loneliness as the safeguards of our democracy fail, my Biden mask, like the MAGA hat, reveals that I too am in a cult.

“I like your mask,” one lady remarked in an otherwise pin-drop silent checkout line at Bed Bath & Beyond. “We’re definitely letting you in with that mask,” the manager of the local Cambridge spa I frequent told me. Later, the esthetician and receptionist each made a point of telling me they “love the mask.” I’m a private person in my day-to-day interactions and it’s initially jarring to have people react so directly and immediately upon a first interaction. Once I realize this reaction is enthusiastic and blind acceptance from my fellow cult members, however, I feel strangely safer than normal. In a gaslit nation, our cult of decency listens to scientists, supports democratic norms, and knows none of the past four years have been normal. Wearing labels may be limiting, but in this moment — I suddenly want to draw those boundaries.

Kaivan K. Shroff is a third-year joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.

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