Modern Hell #13: A Convenient Death
Can some of us learn to live a slightly harder life before it's too late for everyone?
In a video posted online earlier this week, a JetBlue pilot speaks over his plane’s intercom to the passengers. “I’ve been going up and down this coast, from South Florida to New York for about 35 years,” he tells them. “I’ve worked through the blackout, 9-11, all the storms, the crazy stuff, it’s kind of a crazy world. We just got an announcement a few minutes ago…at this moment, if you choose to, you may remove your mask.”
“Yeah!” the camera-holder, a passenger, shouts. Other cries of “woo!” can be briefly heard. The video is one of a handful that circulated in the hours following a decision by a federal judge in Florida who, in ruling on a lawsuit filed by an anti-masking group against President Joe Biden, struck down the Center for Disease Control’s mask mandate for public transit.
I suspect part of why flight crews are happy the mask mandate is lifted – for now – is that they hated having to enforce it with unruly passengers. And while most people did as they were asked, we can all admit that wearing one kinda sucks. Not wearing one also sucked for a while in most places, because it meant you were suddenly barred from doing things you’d always done. Whether you’re pro-mask (me) or anti-mask (if such a binary really exists), we all know the whole thing is kind of a hassle.
A lot’s been written about the mask-as-signifier during this pandemic, but when you get down to it, this is the underlying source of complaint about masks from everyone (and everyone complains about them): they introduce a level of inconvenience into our lives. But objectively, for a lot of people, that inconvenience has been small. So why does it feel so big? Why does wearing a mask feel to some like authoritarianism or social collapse? Why do people think wearing a mask is the end of everything?
Three years ago, around the time JetBlue introduced facial recognition check-in, I noted the impacts we experience by holding convenience as our most treasured shared value. And we do regard it that way. When pressed, we’ll value convenience above even the most treasured aspects of our society. We’ll choose convenience even if it means it will undermine equality, privacy and democracy – not to mention public health.
To repeat myself a bit, convenience explains a lot of our decisions, from those that seem mostly inconsequential all the way to those that will have a lasting impact on our lives and those of our communities. Convenience is why we listen to playlists but not albums; why we see some products online and not others; why we have things like biometric scans to board airplanes; why we’ve relinquished our privacy in so many ways without much fight. If you’re bothered by being tracked online, by scanning your face online, or by endlessly flipping through similar choices on Netflix, convenience is to blame. In many ways, convenience explains why we’ve come to live in a world we hate.
Underlying this tendency to value convenience so highly is a strong sense of both inherited and reinforced entitlement, encouraged via decades of effective consumerist messaging: we (or some of us) are supposed to have things easy. More specifically: you, at an individual level, are supposed to have things easy. This personalized aspect of convenience, that it applies to each of us singularly is how things can get very weird collectively. Is it more convenient for me, a white middle-class male, to board a plane using facial recognition? Yes! Is it more convenient for me, a generally healthy 30-something, to forego wearing a mask? Again, yes. But my convenience manifests inconveniences for others not in my position. My convenience will often create someone else’s hell.
Convenience – and particularly this aspect of it – is why some changes happen and others do not. Convenience reinforces a fundamental status quo. In most cases, it’s one that favours those with consumer power. The more you consume, the more convenience you purchase, and the more you begin to expect things to be easy for you by default. Convenience becomes understood by those who can afford it as a natural state. This is why masks have become such a powerful symbol for a certain (white, middle-to-upper class) sector of the population. Masks are inconvenient, therefore unnatural.
Which should make us wonder will happen when actual natural things, like the ecosystems we inhabit, create significant inconveniences that are immune to consumer capacity?
It’s simplistic to say that climate change will be inconvenient. Obviously. The predicted shift our climate will undergo over the next few decades will introduce multiple small and large changes to our lives, many (if not all) of which will force us to deviate from what we consider to be normal. Life, in both small and big ways, will become more difficult. Those inconveniences will hit some – poorer, older, younger, living in underdeveloped nations, in areas of existing weather extremes, with preexisting health conditions, etc. – harder and faster than they will hit others. But eventually, it will come for us all.
I’d like to think that at some point, we will begin to realize that convenience – our most treasured social value – should be reevaluated. That we might decide to use democracy to multiply the kind of moral policies that undercut individual convenience for the sake of collective progress and survival. Or, even more simply, that we each might learn that what’s easy for us is also often what’s damaging for everyone else.
But then I look at those passengers cheering the end of a mask mandate amidst the sixth wave of a pandemic that has killed millions and realize that we will likely continue to demand that we are given either convenience or death. And in the short term, we’ll still get convenience. Today, tomorrow, next week. But in due course we shall have death.