The veil of civilization and the semiotics of the mask

It seems that the world is coming around to the idea of ordinary people wearing face masks as a way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. After months of dismissing their usefulness for the general public, and even extorting people to STOP BUYING MASKS!, on Tuesday (March 31) the US Surgeon General and the CDC admitted that they were considering advising that everyone wear masks, with President Trump even touting ordinary scarves as a must have antiviral accessory. By Thursday (April 2) the mayors of America’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, had issued recommendations that people practice ‘facial covering’. And by Friday (April 3) the US government finally issued a formal recommendation that people wear ‘cloth face coverings’ in public settings. The Australian government made a similar about face, going so far as to make mask wearing compulsory. Even the World Health Organization, which earlier in the week was standing by its recommendation not to wear masks unless you are sick or caring for someone who is sick, is considering changing its mind in light of ‘new research’ regarding how far virus bearing droplets can travel through the air when people cough or sneeze, something Chinese researchers were warning about in early March.

This has indeed been a dramatic shift in a long simmering debate about what governments should advise their people to do in response to the pandemic. Most East Asian governments long ago came down on the side of people wearing face masks in public, a practice that their citizens were already accustomed to as a way of managing much less deadly respiratory infections, and one that gained significant traction during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Even some European countries such as Austria and the Czech republic have embraced masks as an ingredient in their fight against Covid-19. But the response in the US, the UK and other countries in Europe has, until now, been virulently anti-mask. Experts from major universities were paraded in front of media audiences to tell them that there is ‘no evidence’ that wearing masks can protect people, that most people don’t know how to wear masks properly, and that wearing masks can actually make people more vulnerable to infection

“The top-down conversation around masks has become a case study in how not to communicate with the public, especially now that the traditional gatekeepers like media and health authorities have much less control.”

Zeynap Tufekci

Wearing masks could be dangerous for another reason as well. In many European countries and in the United States, wearing a surgical mask in public, especially if you look East Asian, has sometimes opened people up to racist verbal abuse and physical attacks, a phenomenon that The Guardian dubbed ‘maskphobia’. Of course, this phenomenon has cut both ways. There are reports of Westerners in Hong Kong receiving similar abuse for not wearing face-masks. A viral video made by a popular local vlogger interviewing foreigners in the Central business district about why they weren’t wearing masks had be taken down because one of the interviewees became a victim of cyber-bullying, and one correspondent reported seeing a sign on the streets of Hong Kong that said: ‘HEY YOU GWEILO! are you too poor to buy a mask?’ (gweilo, meaning ‘ghost man’ is a less than flattering Cantonese term for foreigner). 


Not all of the anti-mask sentiment directed towards East Asians in the UK has been violent. Some of it has been well meaning, intended to helpfully point out to mask wearing Asians the error of their ways. As part of this project we have been interviewing Chinese students studying in the UK. One told us of an incident where a Professor insisted that she take her mask off during class. ‘I have to see your face,’ he said. He then proceeded to lecture her about how irrational her behaviour was, saying that there was ‘no research’ that proved that masks were effective. While the student was clearly upset by this incident, she didn’t attribute the Professor’s actions to racism or malice—she figured he was actually doing his best to try to educate her. A few days later, the Vice-Chancellor of the same university sent a message to staff and students reminding them that, while there was no evidence that people should wear masks, for some people mask wearing was part of their ‘culture’, and so should be tolerated. This is a discourse that has surfaced over and over again among liberal, more ‘tolerant’ anti-maskers – that the reasons that East Asians wear masks is because of ‘culture’ (maybe because they are ‘shy’ or ‘conformist’)—because it certainly isn’t because of ‘science’.  When British and American authorities start recommending people wear masks, on the other hand, it’s always about ‘new research’.

Even with experts telling them not to, as the epidemic started to take hold in their countries, many people in the the US and Britain defied the advice of experts and started buying up masks. There was something muddled about the message. If face masks don’t work, why do doctors wear them? If people don’t know how to wear masks, why don’t you teach them? For many it seemed that governments’ anti-mask messages were designed more to manage the scarcity of masks (and to reserve them for healthcare workers) than to actually tell people the truth. Back in mid-March, University of North Carolina Professor Zeynap Tufekci wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled ‘Why telling people they don’t need face masks backfired’ in which she argued that ‘the top-down conversation around masks has become a case study in how not to communicate with the public, especially now that the traditional gatekeepers like media and health authorities have much less control.’

Zeynap is a Professor of Information Systems, and so her criticism of communication around face masks focuses more on how it ignored the complex flows of information around health and risk in contemporary societies. But there is also a more linguistic/semiotic critique to be made, one which points out that the difficulty people have had communicating about face masks is a result of ignoring the complex nature of meaning, how the meaning of any sign—whether it be a word or an object like a face mask – is both highly contextual (it changes depending on the circumstance in which it is used) and overdetermined – in these different contexts signs arrive heavy with the accumulation of the histories of their previous uses. 

One problem with masks is that, because of their long and complicated history in human civilization, they come to us particularly heavy with these histories – heavy with meanings and associations, which is one reason why they are difficult to talk about. They are what we call polysemous—not only are they heavy with meaning, but that meaning itself is slippery, adaptable, able to fit into all sorts different, even contradictory moral frameworks. That’s why, in the current crisis, depending on where you are, both ‘wearing a mask’ and ‘not wearing a mask’ can be held up as a symbol of intellectual superiority or moral rectitude. 

Masks have power. Anthropologists have told us this for a long time. But the power of masks comes from the fact they are never just one thing. They are always at least three kinds of things at one time. They are things that conceal, things that protect, and things that transform. And understanding this, especially understanding the transformative nature of masks (and, for that matter, all signs) can help us to make sense of how the discourse around masks has changed, and how it’s likely to change in the future.  

Masks as things that conceal

When Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam began appearing at press conferences in a face-mask just weeks after she had instituted a ban on wearing face masks in public in an attempt to quell the city’s months long anti-government protests, the irony was not lost on members of the press or members of the public. Once preoccupied with preventing Hong Kong citizens from covering their faces, Lam found herself at the centre of a firestorm of criticism for not being able ensure the supply of face masks for residents, something that the governments of Singapore and Taiwan had managed to do. A few days ago, a friend of mine in Hong Kong remarked on his Facebook: ‘A few months ago is was illegal for me to go out with a mask. Now I can’t go out without one!’ 

One of the most important functions of masks throughout history has been to conceal the face of the wearer — either in order to hide their identity, or as a matter of modesty or decorum. Masks are the accessories of bandits and bank robbers, but nuns and brides also often appear with veiled faces. How masks are used as coverings depends crucially on community beliefs about what should be covered and what shouldn’t be in different circumstances, beliefs that people can be very emotionally invested in. An example of this investment can be seen in the Professor’s insistence to his Chinese student, in the story we related above, that, in the classroom, ‘I need to see your face’. In Christian moral philosophy and Western culture more generally, there has always been a suspicion of masks, as they function to disjoin personal identity from people’s behaviour, making them essentially unaccountable. In his essay, ‘Cover their face: Masks, masking and masquerades in historical-anthropological context’, sociologist David Inglis writes:

the power of the mask to disguise a person and dissemble identity has as a corollary the fear not that identity may be obliterated but that an ill-intentioned identity hides behind, and is either made possible, or is certainly greatly accentuated, by the mask. The fear in such settings is a) that an evil-doing persona skulks behind the mask, and that the mask may afford it carte blanche to do as it pleases, and/or b) that an erstwhile innocent persona is corrupted into carrying out wicked acts by the donning of the mask and the invisibility – physical and moral – which it allows or promotes. Thus when the face is masked, or when the face is like a mask, the potential for dissembling, un-truth and wickedness can be thought to be immense (see Goffman 1959). 

In the Muslim tradition, of course, there are different sets of beliefs about the meaning of a covered face. The purpose of veiling a woman’s face is not to conceal her evil intentions but to discourage male onlookers from developing their own. Obviously, the unease of Europeans and Americans with East Asians wearing masks in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing compared to their longstanding discomfort with Islamic women wearing veils (niqabs, burkas), and just as ‘rational arguments’ about science and research are central to anti-facemask arguments, ‘rational arguments’ about social order and civilized behaviour have been marshalled to support discourses against the veil. Justifications for France’s 2010 law making it an offence to ‘wear clothing designed to conceal one’s face’, for instance, do not normally single out Islamic women, but rather focus on how the very act of concealing one’s face constitutes a danger to public safety and public order: The administrative circular enacted by the prime minister to explain the reasons for the Act declares that ‘concealing one’s face amounts to undermining the minimum requirements of social life.’

It’s perhaps not surprising that this law, which its promulgators insisted had nothing to do with discriminating against Muslims, has more recently ended up being used to target mask wearing Chinese. On March 7th the Chinese Embassy in France issued a warning about a scam in Paris involving people pretending to be police officers stopping masked Chinese tourists and students and fining them €250 for violating the French anti-mask law. Of course, the law itself expressly makes exceptions for masks worn ‘for health or professional reasons, or if it is part of sporting practices.’

Perhaps the most interesting turn of events, however, has been the practice of Chinese students in the UK impersonating Muslims, wearing burkas to conceal their surgical masks in order to avoid harassment by passers by, the calculation apparently being that coronavirus related ‘maskphobia’ in Britain has exceeded Islamaphobia. Below is a video tutorial for those wanting to try this out which has been making the rounds on our Chinese students’ social media feeds.

Masks as things that protect

Another central function of masks in both ancient and modern cultures has been to protect their wearers against magic spells, bad luck, air pollution, tear gas or diseases. In many cultures masks have been endowed with apotropaic powers – the power to ward off evil spirits – from the Nuo opera masks of Southwest China to the Carnival masks worn during various European festivals such as the Carnaval de Binche In Belgium and the Kukeri Festival in Bulgaria. Modern day Halloween masks are linked to the ‘guises’ worn for the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain to protect wearers and their ones loved ones from malevolent ghosts. 

Bulgarian Kukeri Masks

As with its concealing function, the protecting function of the mask provides a window into the fundamental principles upon which different cultures organize their societies, their beliefs about who should be protected from whom, and their deeper understandings of the nature of personhood. The protective function of masks turns them into a tool for distinguishing between good and evil, between inside and outside, and between me and you. 

This is just as true in the current debate around the ability of facemasks to protect against the coronavirus as it was in the ancient masking rituals of the Celts. I am less concerned here with scientific studies about the different sizes of particles that can permeate different kinds of masks, and more concerned about how people talk about the protection masks afford, in particular, how they talk about who is being protected. 

The striking thing about the European and American guidelines that were in place before the recent about face is the degree to which they focused on the wearer of the mask as the one who is (or is not) protected. For example: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask (including respirators) to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.


Face masks play a very important role in places such as hospitals, but there is very little evidence of widespread benefit for members of the public.


There is not enough evidence to prove that wearing a surgical mask significantly reduces a healthy person’s risk of becoming infected while wearing it.


This contrasts with the advice of the Hong Kong Department of Health, which states:

Surgical masks can prevent transmission of respiratory viruses from people who are ill. It is essential for people who are symptomatic (even if they have mild symptoms) to wear a surgical mask.

Hong Kong

In Asia, wearing masks has always been a matter of protecting other people. Primary school students in places like China and Japan are taught to wear masks when they have a cold, and in times of epidemics, masks serve as a visible reminder that limiting infection is everyone’s civic responsibility. 

‘Civic responsibility’ has also been a trope in anti-mask discourses in the West. In Britain, for instance, until recently, the way to signal virtue, was to not wear a mask in order to save them for healthcare workers who are suffering from a shortage of personal protective equipment. It’s not about protecting you, but ‘protecting the NHS’. One problem with such heroic projects of individual sacrifice in the context of neoliberal Britain is they distract attention from the profit driven off-shoring and just-in-time supply chains, not to mention the decade of austerity imposed on the NHS by the Tories, that led to these shortages in the first place.  

The message that we must all wear masks to protect others is now the main thrust of the CDC’s new Recommendations Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission. This is not based on any new scientific discoveries. While the evidence that people can be very contagious long before showing symptoms has become stronger in recent weeks, the fact of asymptomatic transmission is something that Chinese scientists and health authorities have been talking about since late January. Rather, it signals a shift in moral perspective when it comes to personal hygiene related to the coronavirus—an acknowledgment that, even for ‘freedom-loving’ Americans, personal hygiene is not really ‘personal’ in the context of an epidemic. 

It is sadly not surprising that President Trump has announced that he will refrain from following these recommendations. ‘Somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk,’ he said, ‘I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.’ He no doubt calculates that visibly displaying regard for the welfare of others would be seriously ‘off brand’. 

In response to Trump’s statement, the New York Daily News featured a picture of the President wearing a mask on its cover superimposed with the words ‘if only it were a muzzle,’ a humorous suggestion that by wearing a mask President Trump might protect the public in a different way, not by preventing the spread of the virus, but by preventing the spread of misinformation, blocking out the President’s frequent statements about the epidemic that have defied science and sometimes contradicted the medical experts stranding right next to him during his daily briefings on the crisis.

Masks as things that transform

According to anthropologists, the most important cultural function of masks is not to conceal the face of the wearer nor to protect her or others from harm, but to transform the wearer, to imbue her with a new identity, a new mode of being. This is what happens when superheroes like Batman don their masks – they are transformed from ordinary beings to extraordinary beings. The usual way of thinking about this transformation is in terms of representational meaning. The mask transforms its wearer into the being – say an animal or a god—whose face is represented on the mask. Such transformations are necessarily temporary. When the wearer takes off the mask, he or she returns to being human. But anthropologist Donald Pollock, in his in his classic essay ‘Masks and the semiotics of identity’, proposes that a more important aspect of this transformation has to do with what semioticians and linguists call the indexical meaning of the mask. Indexical meaning is the kind of meaning that is made when certain signs over time become associated with certain kinds of people, places, activities or values. In sociolinguistics, for example, certain ways of speaking (accents, for instance) cam come to index certain regions, classes, kinds of people, or even attitudes. When we see the transformative power of masks as a matter of indexical meaning, we focus less on how masks destroy old identities and bring about new ones, and more on how they modify the existing identity of the wearer by associating it with new sets of values that are indexed and thus promoted by the mask. Indexical meaning is not just about resemblance. It is meaning that is socially constructed over time and reflects larger constellations of power and ideology within a society. Pollak writes:  

Masks work by operating upon the particular ways in which identity, or personhood, is expressed in any culture. The mask works by concealing or modifying those signs of identity which conventionally display the actor, and by presenting new values that, again conventionally represent the transformed person…

In his article, ‘Plague masks: The visual emergence of anti-epidemic personal protection equipment’, anthropologist Christos Lynteris traces the cultural practice of East Asians wearing face masks to combat infectious diseases to the Great Manchurian Plague Epidemic of 1910-11. The plague broke out during a period when three different nations, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Russians were vying for political power over the region, a struggle made even more complicated by the presence of missionaries, doctors and other ‘experts’ from Europe and America. 

In the midst of this conflict a Chinese doctor in Harbin named Wu Liande defied the conventional wisdom of the European and Japanese medics by suggesting that, unlike earlier manifestations of plague that required vectors such as fleas to be transmitted, this strain was actually airborne. In order to protect people from infection, Wu invented the ‘anit-plague mask’, a mask made of ‘two layers of gauze enclosing a flat oblong piece of absorbent cotton 6 inches by 4 inches’ to be worn across the nose and mouth. The masks were to be worn not just by doctors, but also by patients, their contacts, and, to the extent possible, by the entire population of the affected region. 

Manchurian Plague Prevention Service (Harbin), Early photos of pneumonic plague epidemics, 1910-11 and 1920-21, Manchuria [U 614.42518 M26 e], Courtesy of The University of Hong Kong Libraries. (From Lynteris 2018)

The European doctors were particularly dismissive of this intervention, not just because they were sceptical of Wu’s airborne contagion theory, but also because they were sceptical that Chinese doctors had the level of ‘civilization’ required to confront the epidemic in a ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ way. Among Dr Wu’s most fervent opponents was the distinguished French physician Dr. Gérald Mesny. In his autobiography, Wu related in the third person one of his more rancorous confrontations with Mesny.  

Dr. Wu was seated in a large padded armchair, trying to smile away their differences. The Frenchman was excited, and kept on walking to and fro in the heated room. Suddenly, unable to contain himself any longer, he faced Dr. Wu, raised both his arms in a threatening manner, and with bulging eyes cried out ‘You, you Chinaman, how dare you laugh at me and contradict your superior?’

Not long after this meeting Mesny set out to operate in plague hospitals, refusing to wear Wu’s mask, and quickly contracted the disease and died, leading other foreign doctors as well as the general public to immediately adopt Wu’s prophylactic device. 

The main point of  Lynteris’s article, however, is not to reveal how the arrogance and racism of Europeans prevented them from adopting a life-saving technology, but rather the way Wu’s mask acted to transform the identities of Chinese doctors and unsettle the existing relationships of power between colonialists in China and the local population. The mask came to index not just medical rationalism and modernity but the ability of the Chinese to battle epidemics without the help of foreigners. It acted to transform the populous as well, turning them from ‘a superstitious and ignorant’ mass into an ‘enlightened and hygienic-minded population, a population that accepted the contagious nature of the disease and corresponding, often brutal, quarantine and isolation measures’ (p. 451). For Wu, the plague mask functioned not just as a medical device, but as a ‘veil of civilization’.

The power of the facemask to index and thus to promote certain cultural values and to bring about transformations in social relationships and political power was also evident in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS epidemic, an outbreak that coincided with considerable political discontent and mass protests against a planned national security bill that people believed violated Hong Kong’s ‘One Country-Two Systems’ arrangement with China. At that time, as sociologist Peter Baehr has noted, mask wearing was an act of communicating public responsibility, of constructing Hong Kong people as a mature, ‘civic-minded’ populous. In this way, it was also a way of communicating political solidary in the face of uncertainties about the territory’s relationship with China. Many people who lived through that time in Hong Kong have noted how the crisis transformed the society, resulting in not just increased public health awareness, but also in an increased sense of civic responsibility in a city that had before been famous mostly for its cut-throat capitalism. 

The political symbolism associated with masks in Hong Kong has also been evident during the current crisis. When, at the beginning of the epidemic Carrie Lam’s government was unable to secure a steady supply of masks for the general public, the pro-democracy party Demosisto imported 100,000 masks from the United States to distribute to the poor and underprivileged. The image of pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong with his shipment of masks was as potent a symbol of political victory as the photos Dr Wu staged of his modern, efficient hospital staff wearing ‘plague masks’ in Harbin in 1910.

Photo credit: Demosisto (From Hong Kong Free Press)

‘Somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.’

Donald Trump

The veil of civilization

Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift (from

There is perhaps another way to think and talk about masks that gets us beyond conversations about right and wrong, good and evil, self and other, that gets us beyond stereotypical debates of East vs. West and pointed gestures of political theatre. We can see masks as gifts. Like the mask, the gift is another favourite topic of anthropologists, among the most famous being Marcel Mauss, who pointed out the importance of practices of gift giving in so-called ‘archaic’ societies for maintaining social order and cohesion and creating mutual trust between people. The power of the gift, Mauss says, lies in the notion of reciprocity.

More traditional Judaeo-Christian, Islamic and Buddhist explanations for gift giving focus more on the concept of generosity. Giving doesn’t just benefit the recipient, but transforms the heart of the giver, bringing him or her closer to God, or loosening the bonds of ego and selfishness that perpetuate his or her suffering. 

All crises give rise to heart-warming tales of heroism and generosity, and that’s a good thing. Among these stories that went viral in the past few days was the story of Dr Sarosh Ashraf Janjua, who got stopped for speeding while commuting to the hospital she works at in Minnesota. Instead of giving her a speeding ticket, the officer who stopped her gave her the store of N95 masks the state had given him for his protection. ‘This complete stranger, who owed me nothing and is more on the front lines than I am,’ she wrote on her Facebook page, ‘shared his precious masks with me, without my even asking,’ and then added: ‘The veil of civilization may be thin, but not all that lies behind it is savage…We are going to be OK.’ 

Less dramatic but equally meaningful are the countless stories of ordinary people all over the world forming sewing groups to make masks both for frontline workers and for the general public. In one of these stories an amateur mask maker puts it this way: ‘It makes me feel that I can make a very tiny contribution, since I’m really a nonessential worker, to this thing that’s overtaken our world.’ What masks mean for people like this, many of them retired, is a chance to make a contribution in the face of the maddening paradox of people being ‘mobilized’ to ‘stay at home’. 

Even sharing things on social media, though sometimes dismissed as trivial, can prime people’s orientation to generosity and reciprocity. An example is the hashtag #masks4all started by the Czech authorities, which encourages people to share Instagram photos of themselves wearing masks. It may not seem so important, but making masked faces something we share rather than something we argue about or worry about might be just what is needed, and the campaign’s slogan: ‘I protect you, you protect me’, again, primes people to focus on reciprocity. 

Cultivating the language of generosity and reciprocity, it seems to me, is especially important at a time when the way most politicians have chosen to talk about the crisis is by using the language of war: the virus is an ‘invisible enemy’ and medical workers don protective masks ‘in preparation for battle’. Granted, the language of war can be very effective at mobilizing people for action, but so can the language of love. 

The way we are talking about masks reveals some troubling cracks in in the psychological, social and discursive equipment we are going to need to deal with this crisis: cracks in our reasoning, our tolerance, as well as cracks in our healthcare and economic systems, and, most of all, cracks in our politics. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently put it: 

If there’s ever been a moment where we needed to be unified — unified such that I decide to stay at home because I’m concerned about you and I’m concerned about us — a pandemic situation is that moment. It’s a moment like this where we see the extent to which our fate is linked — where my well-being hinges on yours.

In the end of the day, masks won’t save us. As Christos Lynteris puts it in his article on Manchurian plague masks, masks are just fragile ‘talismans’ that allow humanity to ‘persist on the edge of the end of the world.’ The real veil of civilization is to be found in ourselves. 

‘The veil of civilization may be thin, but not all that lies behind it is savage…We are going to be OK.’ 

Ashraf Janjua

4 thoughts on “The veil of civilization and the semiotics of the mask

  1. Thank you especially for suggesting the possibility of framing actions and activities in the language of generosity and reciprocity instead of the reflexive knee jerk reliance on battle and war metaphors. I have been advocating for this but to date have been unsuccessful. Thanks for a great article.


  2. Rodney, thanks for this one! When the virus broke out I immediately recalled a conversation we had in an apartment in Seattle about your reflections about people wearing masks during the SARS period.

    the language of war: the phrase “shelter in place” meant that the enemy is likely in the wire and you are to stay in your “place” with a weapon locked and loaded.


    1. The similarity between the coronavirus war metaphors with SARS is uncanny. I recall a newspaper article doing SARS with the sentence “the enemy has no name and no identity.” This or parts of it have been recontextualized quite verbatim e.g. invisible enemy.
      I tend to think that viruses invoke war metaphors b/c of the idea of the body being attacked by foreign _____, which then allows a slippage into a discourse of migration and boundaries etc. Thanks so much for this.


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