Masked and anonymous: Two faces of a world in crisis

Masked and anonymous: two faces of a world in crisis

It has been noted that, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Given that so much of what we experience and so much of our history is told as a story, a narrative, a film, a podcast, it is easy to imagine ourselves as actors on a grand stage.

And because history repeats itself, there is a sense we are watching the same scenes or playing the same roles over and over, without ever coming to a conclusion, a resolution. Sometimes it's just the same story endlessly retold.

Our history of race relations is one such story. It is an epic tale of failure. It is a tragedy that plays out on the world stage season after season.

The unwillingness or inability of some to recognise the existence of racial injustice is so entrenched that it becomes almost absurd, the gallows humour of a bleak and terrible comedy.

Consider comedians like Donald Trump suggesting that George Floyd would be looking down on America approving of the latest employment figures, or Pauline Hanson in a clown suit bringing the house down by asking, "what about white lives?" or student of history Scott Morrison asserting that "there was no slavery in Australia".

Sometimes there is only a fine line separating comedy and tragedy.

The ancient Greek dramatists wanted to make it clear to audiences if the action was comic or tragic, so the actors wore masks; the laughing face of comedy and the weeping face of tragedy.

The symbols of the ancient Greek muses Thalia and Melpomene represent comedy (the laughing face) and tragedy (the weeping face).

The symbols of the ancient Greek muses Thalia and Melpomene represent comedy (the laughing face) and tragedy (the weeping face).

The mask has continued to be a theatrical device that protects the identity of our shy heroes, The Lone Ranger, Zorro, caped crusaders Batman and Robin, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Spiderman, Captain America and a litany of animated characters.

Menacing evil lurked behind masks too, most obviously in the laboured breathing of Darth Vader, and perhaps most shockingly in the Clockwork Orange gang.

They wore masks, but we always knew what side of good and evil they were on.

Fast forward to Crisis City, USA, 2020.

Stage right: A line of armed riot police carrying shields and batons march forward through a haze of tear gas. Rubber bullets hurtle overhead.

The police are walking towards a crowd of increasingly angry, but largely peaceful protesters.

The protesters are not observing social distance protocols in the midst of a deadly pandemic, but for the moment that is brushed aside. Indeed, the majority of people are supporting the protesters in this theatre of conflict.

The actors are not superheroes or arch-villains. Even if we do take sides, good and evil are not making themselves absolutely clear to us. We see police brutalising protesters in one place, kneeling with them in solidarity at another.

As politicians like to say, "It's a complicated and fluid situation".

It is hard to follow the plot at times, and our collective perception of events has been sharpened by an unusual circumstance.

Police are militarised by their wearing of masks and carrying of shields.

Police are militarised by their wearing of masks and carrying of shields.

Pretty much everybody, protesters and riot police alike, are wearing masks.

We all know why this is, but it changes the visuals, adjusts the imagery, so our view of the protests is somehow altered.

The masks act like a costume helping to create a higher degree of dramatic tension.

Masks have a long and complex history, but in modern times they generally do three things. They protect us, they scare us, and they keep identity a secret.

In the recent protests, and in the way the police have responded, the masks have been doing all three things.

The situation is tricky because while the police are there to maintain order on the streets, it is their evident brutality that is at the heart of the protest.

They are not just present to stop protests spiralling into chaos, they are actually the reason the protesters are on the street in the first place.

And the police response, despite exceptions, has been frighteningly aggressive as they are willed on by a president who demands they "dominate the streets".

When worn by the riot police, the masks do not really suggest responsible apparel for preventing the spread of Covid-19. Instead their masks make them look faceless, less human, more robotic, and, most of all, they look like they are hiding their identity, which makes them seem even more threatening.

They look like they are wearing war masks, which in ancient times were intended to instill fear in the enemy, just as the conical hats and white robes of the Ku Klux Klan were intended to terrorise African-Americans when white supremacists and lynch mobs actually went to the trouble of hiding their identities.

British tank operators at the 1917 Battle of Cambrai in World War I.

British tank operators at the 1917 Battle of Cambrai in World War I.

But then, on the other side of the barricade, there are the protesters.

They are wearing masks too, and most look like the conventional surgical masks to protect against infection, but many do not look like that.

In numerous photos the masks the protesters wear have a more militant look. They are more striking, they have a more revolutionary style, and sometimes they are worn with headware so they bear certain comparisons with balaclavas or the burka that is viewed with suspicion in the west.

The western world's predominant image of the terrorist is al-Qaeda, or ISIS or the Taliban or Hamas or, if you are old enough, the IRA, and of course, they all wear masks.

The Christian's long-held suspicion of the Muslim also plays into this narrative.

Here's the dilemma, the "complex and fluid situation". And it is particularly relevant in Australia where racial injustice is still pushed into the shadows of history, if not completely denied.

Protesting in large numbers is obviously a major breach of social-distancing protocols and presents a very real danger to people's health, to a community's health, to a nation's health.

And in this light, protesters can be painted as the unruly villains of this global drama, particularly when depicted as looters, burners and violent agitators.

After all, we are told, they are recklessly putting others people's lives at risk and are a danger to their communities.

The problem is that the value we put on life is not shared, not finite. And here lies the heart of the tragedy.

The disenfranchised, abused and unempowered do not feel they are part of the community. They feel that they have been marginalised and impoverished by this version of community, and that the part they are being asked to play is one of compliance to a social order that has overseen generations of neglect.

Asking them to be patient, considerate and respectful stacks up poorly against the hurt, anger, alienation and rage they feel.

And unfortunately, their lives are in such a state that the value they place on life has been diminished.

And that lack of value placed on life has been sponsored by many world leaders driving an agenda of returning people to work and opening up their countries for business while the pandemic still rages.

When Trump rails against Black Lives Matter protesters, he says nothing to indicate that he's worried about their health, or even the nation's health.

He has threatened to bring in the military to deal with law and order issues and to take back the streets from people he describes as "terrorists" and "ugly anarchists".

Because of this threat and the gaze of government surveillance strategies, the mask protects the protesters in another way, by maintaining their anonymity and their civil rights.

Last year the Hong Kong government passed a law banning the wearing of masks. Pro-democratic protesters wearing masks could face a year in prison for hiding their faces.

Hopefully the lights will dim and the curtain will close on this time of reckoning, and we will see the loosening and discarding of masks, and the audience will applaud because they have witnessed the fall of the intolerant and unjust.

The tragic protagonist is typically vanquished as a consequence of their own pride, their insolent daring, their overstepping of cultural codes or ethical boundaries.

It would appear there are a number of world leaders who would fit that description. Their tragic flaw is they cannot hear the streets talking.

This story Masked and anonymous: two faces of a world in crisis first appeared on The Canberra Times.