February 24th is National Pink Shirt Day in Canada, an occasion for schools and workplaces, teachers and students, parents and their children to raise awareness about the problem of bullying by wearing pink T-shirts in solidarity with its victims. Bullying is generally defined as a form of aggression that involves a power imbalance: the person doing the bullying has some kind of power—physical strength, a position of authority—over his or her target. There are several initiatives aimed at addressing this problem, most of them focussed on the bullying of children, an important cause that is broadly publicized every year.
I’d like to use this day to talk about another form of bullying: one in which the offenders don’t necessarily have power over their victims but gleefully assume such power anyway because, well, they are arrogant, self-righteous, anti-social gobshites. I call this entitlement bullying: the public berating and denigration of others one perceives to be trampling on one’s individual rights by assuming common decency. This year’s winner of the Entitlement Bullying Award are the Coronabullies: those legions of aggrieved libertarian bores, the anti-maskers who not only refuse to comply with public health orders aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 but, in their opposition, display an almost evangelical zeal with their chest-thumping insistence that personal liberty—the right to cast spittle free of restraint—is more important than public health. More important than everyone else’s right to be COVID-free. And they seem completely oblivious to overwhelming evidence that most of their fellow citizens are selflessly doing their part to protect each other. As with racism, not every offender fits into a single demographic. But the sheer volume of cell phone videos posted to social media—some by the offenders themselves—suggests that this kind of bullying might be a thing among angry, straight white males and their angry, straight white “Karen” allies.
I am so tired of writing about white male assholes of one kind or another. It’s getting to be a nasty habit, what with Don Cherry, Bryan Adams, and Barry Neufeld all getting the treatment over the past year or so. There are other, much worthier subjects to write about in that great big world of ours: apart from COVID there’s the climate crisis, multiple genocides, authoritarianism and military coups, famines, collapsing economies, vanishing ecosystems, endangered animal species and narco state-sponsored murder, not to mention that giant-and-still-growing chasm between the likes of Jeff Bezos and virtually everyone else on the planet. Same goes for our own back yard: there’s an opioid crisis, a housing crisis, underemployment and rising poverty, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism, transphobic violence, et cetera, et cetera ad nauseam. All of these issues demand urgent attention. But for what cause do these QAnon-spouting, conspiracy theory-pushing, over-privileged whiners and wankers gather on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery to raise their voices in protest about? The imposition, the affront to personal liberty, of wearing a mask during a global pandemic. The belief that medical health professionals and scientists—you know, doctors and epidemiologists, the people entrusted to guide citizens through a pandemic—have somehow got it all wrong or are part of some Deep State conspiracy to control our minds. And that the vast majority of us who comply with health orders are “sheeple” who can’t think for ourselves. (I do wonder what makes these know-everything anti-maskers so certain in their knowledge, what tomes populate their bookshelves apart from dog-eared copies of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. If that.)
I wasn’t going to write about the anti-maskers, I swear. I didn’t think I’d need to. Nine or ten months ago, I was convinced—just as I was in 2016 that a certain despicable American real estate developer would never become U.S. president—that the unfortunate ranks of these COV-idiots would be entirely depleted, all but gone from the public sphere, by now. Like those silly Corona beer jokes in January 2020 (which implied the coronavirus would never reach our shores), or the panic shopping for toilet paper in March (once it had landed here with a vengeance), the notion of resisting mask-wearing as a matter of personal liberty seemed quaintly misguided; the kind of ignorance that would correct itself with education and, failing that, public shaming or shunning. Science would prevail. And, if not, the anti-maskers would finally be moved by the lived experience of people contacting COVID and suffering or dying from it. Or by the shattered lives left in its wake, including those of health care workers whose horror stories from the front line were readily available. Surely these realities would have an impact and, like the other ninety per cent of us for whom empathy and regard for others is essential to the human condition, these jerks would come around.
But no. Like those variants of COVID-19 which its influence has helped to fester and spread in these parts (needlessly prolonging the pandemic—and, ironically, the very health orders and mask requirement it self-righteously condemns), anti-maskerism has become a contagion itself, a kind of social cancer. And, if those ongoing dingbat rallies and violent confrontations are anything to go by, the malignant cells of Trumpism from which it came show few signs of dying off. And so, as much as I’ve argued that granting these nitwits any attention at all only serves to legitimize their noxious views, I’m finding it harder to bite my tongue these days. Last week, a single act of mind-numbing stupidity and selfish entitlement finally put me over the edge, convincing me to reckon with this sorry lot.
The blatant disregard for the health and well-being of others—while at the same time showing indifference to the efforts of strangers who show regard for your health and well-being—is not the behaviour of a citizen. It is the willful ignorance of the Flat Earther, the ultimate middle finger to that collectivist call to “be kind, be calm, and be safe.” At a time when COVID-related stress can make us all a bit edgy, it hasn’t escaped me that mental health is often a factor in this kind of behaviour. But while I sympathize with people whose “issues” can affect their judgement, mental health problems are not a free pass to bully others while spreading bullshit. And I have had quite enough of this anti-mask nonsense. I am done. Nor am I alone in this fatigue: a close friend who works in health care, someone who spends every working day covered with PPE and exposed to random untested members of the public, reached her breaking point recently when someone on Facebook said COVID-related restrictions “are really about the selfishness of health care workers.” Yes, you read that right. Health care workers.
They all seem so proud of themselves, these Coronabullies, defending their right to spread droplets. I hope they enjoy being on the wrong side of history.