The latest public outbreak of antagonism towards masks and vaccinations isn’t just a biomedical issue and it’s certainly not confined to health care settings or schools. It’s starting to creep into everyday life in a way that suggests a broader, more deeply embedded culture war that will not go away soon.
We got a sense of that the other day when a sub-contractor for our basement build-out up showed up without mask and made a point of refusing to wear one. It led to quite the verbal scuffle; one I worried might escalate into something worse. It embarrassed our normal, all-purpose genius home repair and improvement guy, our version of Eldin from the 1990s TV series “Murphy Brown,” who witnessed most of the scene and who later apologized for it – though it was not his fault and he had nothing to apologize for.
Turns out we needed sheet rock installed in what will eventually become my new downstairs office. Getting quality workers these days is tough in every construction or landscape trade, but the sub-contractor who was called has a good reputation for his work – or did, anyway.
The sub-contractor showed up early, without a mask, and while we don’t expect workers in the basement to wear a mask while they are down there, since access is closed off from the rest of the house and there’s venting through an open door, I did tell him that if he needed to use the bathroom he’d have to put one on. That’s when he went off on a tirade about “we still have our rights” and “you can’t tell me what to wear.” At which point I said well, then you can’t use the bathroom. To which he answered (and I paraphrase), “well, in that case I’ll just take a piss in the woods or take a dump back there.”
He left to get some stuff out of the truck, and I went in, thinking I was actually going to be helpful, and got a roll of toilet paper and a plastic bag to leave for him in case he was going to use the great outdoors. By this time, our regular contractor arrived on scene, and he watched as the subcontractor, who just then spotted me with the bag and toilet paper off, erupted. “We still have our #%^&@^$ rights . . until you Communists take over.” He quickly transitioned into an assault on vaccines, liberals, and the government in general.
It was an ugly invective, infused with a rage and aggression that seemed (to me, anyway) to bear no relation to the incident. I tried to tell him we could work this out, there was no need to escalate the tension, but he wasn’t listening. In fact I could have worked out an alternative path, through the garage, to a small bathroom near the laundry that could get ventilated easily enough and is pretty much cut off from the main part of the house. But in the middle of a raging verbal scene like that it is hard to think clearly.
What I did manage to tell him was that I wasn’t telling him what to do; I was pointing out that if he is going to exercise his freedom he also had to accept the consequences of it when it came into conflict with the rights I had as a homeowner. How much of this came out coherently on my part I’m not sure, but he certainly was not of a temperament to hear it. And I was more concerned to defuse things lest he reach for a gun.
Eventually, we managed to quiet down long enough for him to say he’d just get the work done and “hold on” long enough until he left for lunch. And in fact that’s what he did, and upon returning he finished off the work perfectly well. Though the whole incident scared the hell out of me because he had gone from zero to 60 in a flash rage that seems to have been seething inside of him just waiting to explode.
All I could think about was if this is what we are in for in the next few years. I also reviewed in my head if I could have handled it better, thinking about alternative steps that I might have offered that were more workable than the one I had proposed. But the anger that raged within him and that erupted so suddenly, so (verbally) violently, is the same kind of anger that we see at school board meetings, and that we saw on Jan. 6 at the Capitol Building. It’s not the kind of anger that can be countered in discussion
Rage unfurled like that cannot be engaged directly, but it does merit close examination symptomatically. It’s the same kind we are seeing at airport counters and at any place where the rights of individuals come face-to-face with the safety of others.
Our whole language of rights and privacy has come into question because of the pandemic. Maybe it’s a discussion we should have been having all along, Without that honest conversation and fundamental re-examination of what we owe each other as citizens and as persons we are going to be in trouble. Without it, we are going to see more seething anger and frustration break out into violence.