Many of us are familiar with virtue signaling on social media. Simply put, people post content that makes them appear to be good people.

For the past year, masks and vaccines have been the new, IRL virtue signaling — and, since we largely disagree on what true virtue is, they are continued drivers of political polarization.

Pre-2020, we were already bitterly divided. The virus made that worse, and now, with new CDC guidelines saying that the vaccinated can go unmasked, it’s left a dilemma for those who were using the presence or absence of a mask to determine someone’s political views or trustworthiness/untrustworthiness. Now, it's harder to tell who is in your ideological camp or not — who fits your idea of virtue.

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Understanding Virtue Signaling

Virtue is a standard of moral excellence and righteousness. The best example of virtue signaling is when people post and share social media content that publicly signals they are a virtuous and good person.

For instance, people may post an online petition or an activist slogan in order to signal they hold the virtues of justice and compassion. Maybe they post fitness and health content to signal they hold the virtue of self-discipline. Or perhaps they share content about American history to signal the virtue of patriotism. Or they’ll share a mask selfie or an “I got vaccinated!” post to signal they trust health authorities and care about the health of others.

Virtue-signaling is the key driver behind the sharing of nearly all social media content, and people may want to signal any of the key virtues.


Yet what is and is not virtuous behavior is often the biggest driver of political polarization.

Some people think it’s virtuous to attend protests and marches focusing on big political issues; others would say it’s more virtuous to focus on what is within your immediate control.

Some people think it’s virtuous to “live and let live” and not enforce standards of dress or behavior; others say we need to enforce societal rules that ensure maximum well-being.

And as we’ve seen in the past year, some people think it’s virtuous to wear masks and get vaccinated; others think it’s virtuous to resist what they see as unjustifiable government infringement on freedom.

Masked or Unmasked, Vaxxed or Unvaxxed: Who is More Virtuous?

As masks and vaccines become the new markers of virtue, we are seeing Americans more polarized than ever on what is the right course of action. Especially since the CDC issued new guidelines stating that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in public, it's hard to know who is in your ideological virtue tribe.

A recent New York Times (Lean Left) article titled Mask? No Mask? New Rules Leave Americans Recalibrating, Hour by Hour, explained how we used to have an “easy” way to “label” one another as liberal or conservative, free thinker or sheep, compassionate or heartless, smart or silly — or any of the other polarizing beliefs we adopted about one another based on their beliefs about official Covid-19 guidelines and rules:

“Over the last year, as Republicans pushed back against mask mandates, some Democrats wore masks even while outdoors and alone, and updated their Facebook profile photos to show their mouths and noses covered...The new guidance seemed to scramble all the presumptions people had come to understand about who wears masks and who does not.

Someone with no mask might still signify that they oppose masks and doubt the risks of Covid-19 — or it now might mean the person is fully vaccinated and following C.D.C. guidance to the letter. And someone with a mask might now be signaling their support for virus-control efforts but rejection of the latest C.D.C. guidance — or it might mean that a person is unvaccinated and following the rules to stay masked. Or it might mean something else altogether. Easy labels have vanished.”

Throughout the last year, people who obeyed mask mandates were generally assumed as believing a number of things:

  • CDC and public health officials such as Anthony Fauci are to be trusted;
  • masks work and protect ourselves and others from the virus;
  • Covid-19 is deadly and extremely contagious, and without all of us taking measures, untold numbers of people will die or hospitals will be overwhelmed;
  • wearing a mask is the responsible and compassionate thing to do, to avoid negatively affecting others;
  • infection is something we should fear and avoid, because it can either be deadly, force people into the hospital for long periods, or have long-term, dramatic secondary effects that we don’t yet understand.

Meanwhile, those who were not wearing a mask could generally be assumed to believe any or some of the following:

  • the CDC and public health officials are not to be trusted;
  • Covid-19 guidelines — telling people what to wear, whether they can leave their homes, the number of people they can see at one time, whether they can open their business, etc. — are an unjustifiable infringement on civil liberties;
  • the virus is not to be feared by most/is not as deadly to the majority of people as the media and government led the public to believe;
  • a government that truly cared about health would encourage exercise, sunlight and clean eating, not masks, distancing and pharmaceuticals;
  • “health” guidelines were a ruse to force Americans to submit to government authority and reconfigure the economy to transfer wealth to the elites — taking out small businesses and getting everyday Americans dependent on government assistance.

The mask was a public virtue signal — a clear marker of which tribe you were in. Some people saw mask-wearing as a sign of virtue. Some people saw bare faces as a sign of virtue.

The mask showed whether you were trusting of the government and health authorities or not. It showed whether you were blindly doing whatever you were told or not. It showed whether you were compassionate or not. Or showed whether you cared about freedom or not. It showed whether you were taking this seriously or not. It showed whether you were skeptical of the elites or not.

It was easy to divide ourselves into two camps:

The masked and unmasked.

The compassionate and incompassionate.

The believers in science and the conspiracy theorists.

The sheep and the patriots.

Now that the CDC has said those who are fully vaccinated don’t need to mask up, this easy-to-spot, public measure of political beliefs and virtue has been lost. We may no longer be so publicly branded in our views. That’s why some are saying they’ll keep wearing masks simply so they aren’t seen as being part of the group they disagree with:

And some of those who previously trusted the CDC and followed all the guidelines now distrust the new guideline, saying it’s too early to lift mask mandates:

Some are pledging to continue wearing masks out of distrust of people who choose not to get the vaccine:

Others say it’s authoritarian coercion to give citizens ultimatums:

And still others are still saying we should never have trusted guidelines in the first place:

The polarization is still in place, even if the public markers of it are disappearing.

Perspectives on New CDC Guidelines

CBS News (Lean Left bias) interviewed psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling about the idea of people wanting to continue wearing a mask, even if they accept that going without one is probably safe.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with wearing a mask," she said. "It's all a personal comfort and I don't believe that people should denigrate each other for either wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. It's your own psychological safety and that has to feel comfortable for you."

Not all therapists agree, though.

In Evie Magazine (Lean Right bias), therapist Yuzo Kikumoto said some of his clients had grown accustomed to living anonymously behind a mask and couldn't stop, signaling addiction.

"While some people used to feel safe or secure when going out with a mask, it has reached a stage where they cannot go out without wearing a mask. That's how serious it is getting," Kikumoto said. "The mask acts as a security blanket, and people with this addiction cannot talk to people without wearing a face mask. And society's acceptance of interactions behind masks perpetuates such a dependency.”

In the last year and a half, public health officials said frequently that facemasks did wonders to stop the spread of COVID-19 (and now want people to keep wearing them to combat the cold and flu, commonly done in Asia). Other health professionals strongly disagreed.

Conclusion

Many Americans made major adjustments to their lives over the past year, and are just now beginning to return to normalcy. Others refused to live differently — when they could help it, at least — as an act of resistance. Yet divides over safety and freedom will persist, and people will continue to draw different conclusions from public health mandates and guidelines.

To some, the virus is a public health crisis, and distancing, masking and getting vaccinated are virtuous — to others, it is manufactured fear meant to shake the foundations of freedom, and resistance to tyrannical control is the true mark of virtue.

No matter your stance, do your best to understand where others are coming from — even (and especially) if you don’t agree.

We’re not going to get on the same page any time soon. But being able to understand views that diverge from your own instead of adopting mischaracterizations of the other side should be something everyone can get behind. Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias. Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter contributed to this piece; he has a Center bias. This piece was reviewed by Daily News Specialist Joseph Ratliff; he has a Lean Left bias. Joseph also created the graphic atop the page.