Jesus Christ gave a stern warning to his followers in Matthew 6:5: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.
He was warning about performing actions believed to be virtuous for the purpose of other people noticing that the one performing the actions is virtuous. In that time, some people valued the appearance of doing good more than the importance of doing good itself.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
[Wisconsin] DNR spokesperson Megan Sheridan told McClatchy that the department wanted its employees to set an example for others by displaying their masks.
“By wearing a mask while video conferencing with the general public, we visually remind folks that masking is an important part of navigating the business of natural resources during this tumultuous time,” Sheridan said.
That’s right: A Wisconsin government department has mandated that employees wear masks on video conference calls entirely for the benefit of being seen wearing them.
The science underlying public masking is still developing, but in most cases it is at worst an inconvenience that may help stifle the spread of infected droplets in crowded situations. Mask mandates have become widespread, and Wisconsin’s governor recently ordered them to be worn statewide in situations where social distancing is impossible.
But that’s not what the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is doing. They are requiring masks to be worn on video conference calls, situations in which social distancing is already in place.
This is a textbook example of virtue signaling, a practice in which people express or demonstrate viewpoints that they believe will cause others to think highly of them. The practice is not new, of course, but in the social media age we live in it has become massively popular. And the social turmoil of 2020 has amped up the volume on both the Right and the Left. For evidence, scroll through your Facebook feed.
In Wisconsin, virtue signaling has now become government policy. A DNR employee at home, alone, as distanced as one can possibly be, is still required to wear a mask to participate in a video conference. The logic is that the proletariat will see DNR employees wearing masks and thus choose to wear masks themselves. The Wisconsin DNR wants to send a message: “Masks are good.”
Except, that’s not the message that will be received. The message that this policy really communicates to outsiders is that masks are a fashion statement, a performance. Admittedly, it is a message that appeals to some, but those are mostly people who already believe in masks and have already posted pictures of themselves wearing one as their avatar on their social media account. The people who don’t take masking requirements seriously, who think that it’s needless hype or a case of government overreach, will not be persuaded by this policy that they are wrong. They will see mask-wearing being used purely for symbolism, and they will be further convinced that they are right.
And the Wisconsin DNR knows this already. The purpose of this policy, as with most virtue signaling, is not to persuade others to join in the practice. It is to show others who already agree with them how serious they are, and to feel good that they are “doing something.” No person will be protected from COVID-19 by this policy, and no person who has contracted COVID-19 will be healed by this policy. It is purely theater for the believers.
There is exactly one benefit conveyed by this policy: The people of the Wisconsin DNR get to feel good about themselves. As Jesus concluded in Matthew 6:5, “They have their reward.”