By Troy Headrick
We’ve seen them on the internet. The YouTube archives are full to the brim of examples. I’m talking about mobile phone footage of people protesting the requirement that they wear masks when entering businesses and other public places. Often, once confronted about not donning an acceptable nose and mouth covering, these angry folks will scream, make obscene gestures, cough in people’s faces, throw things, fall on the floor and roll around (just like I’ve seen young children do), and yell about how their freedom is being taken away.
More “dignified,” state-sanctioned protests against masks can be found by reading the news. In Texas, the place where I currently reside and where the highly esteemed Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, has belatedly issued an executive order for people to wear masks after fighting, tooth and nail, against such a mandate much earlier in the pandemic when an order of this sort would have saved lives. Abbott’s fighting against masks and then reluctantly changing his mind is an interesting study of irrational behavior exhibited by “leadership.” Other American elected officials have also battled against the mandating of masks even as public health experts said that the wearing of them would slow the rate of infection and save lives.
From a psychological point of view, this kind of resistance against the donning of nose and mouth coverings—a easy and inexpensive preventative—is puzzling. The anger which fuels such resistance is hard to understand. Such protesters are railing against doing something simple that would be in their own self-interest to do. It almost looks like they want to put themselves and their loved ones at risk. Is it possible that they have some perverse, unconscious need to do self-harm?
Back when I was in graduate school, I took a class that required us to read several of Sigmund Freud’s greatest works. Unfortunately, I got rid of all those texts several years ago, so I’m no longer able to consult them, but I remember a lot of what I learned, including many of Freud’s basic theoretical constructs. Lucky for us, there are numerous websites which explain Freud’s concepts of “Eros” and “Thanatos,” otherwise known as his “life drive” and “death drive.”
“Freud’s Theories of Life and Death Instincts,” by Kendra Cherry and appearing on the Very Well Mind website, is a very accessible explanation of these two competing drives. For those who find all this intriguing, I recommend that you check out the website I’ve linked to as well as Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Cherry points out that Freud believed that humans were motivated by a “life drive” (Eros) and a “death drive” (Thanatos). Eros, the one most of us are most familiar with, governs sexuality, “basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction,” all of these aimed at the perpetuation of the individual and the species. Cherry goes on to say that “the energy created by the life instincts is known as libido.”
What many are not aware of is that Freud argued that human behavior was also governed by a self-destructive “death instinct” which he called Thanatos. Cherry points out “that people generally channel their death instincts outward. Aggression, for example, arises from the death instinct. Sometimes these instincts toward destruction can be directed inwards, however, which can result in self-harm or suicide.” It is important to remember that because these are instincts, they are hardwired in the individual. They operate below the level of consciousness and thus are difficult (if not impossible) to control through the exertion of willpower.
Many political commentators have tried to label people’s seemingly self-destructive impulse to refuse to don simple nose and mouth coverings during a deadly pandemic as being a kind of political act. They conclude that mask wearing has thusly become “politicized.” I see these angry outbursts as caused by something deeper than political affiliation. In fact, I think that perhaps Thanatos is expressing itself in these vehement protestations and refusals.
Freud’s Eros and Thanatos mean that humans are always being pushed and pulled by competing instincts. We are pushed to fight tooth and nail for self-preservation while, at the same moment, pulled to engage in destructive acts that can be aimed at others or at ourselves.
The ultimate irony takes place when the anti-maskers scream to assert their freedom “to be” while they act in ways that would put their very “being” at risk.
What do you think about all this? I look forward to hearing your responses. Thanks for reading.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.
The photo used in this blog was borrowed from here.