Commentary | What’s in a mask?

How the fifth floor occupiers created a tense environment

On November 10, 14 protestors “occupied” the fifth floor of the James Administration building on campus. As has been confirmed by both administration staff present in the building and the occupiers themselves, several of these occupiers covered their faces. In this context, this seemingly simple is uncommonly powerful and exhibits a general naivetè on the part of the occupiers.

In “Letter from the fifth floor occupiers” (November 14, Commentary, Page 9), the occupiers claim to have had strictly peaceful intentions. Though it is far from improbable that some of the protestors were hoping their actions would escalate tensions, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in this claim. Unfortunately, it is not intentions that matter, but how their intentions as protestors are perceived. Their letter displays an ignorance of this fact. As evidenced by the response from staff in “We, too, are McGill” (November 21, Page 9), the perception of the 14 protestors by staff inside the James building was, at best, one of uncertainty. Staff admittedly felt “threatened” and “intimidated.” Whether or not the 14 choose to admit it, their occupation was inherently violent and perceived as such.

A mask itself is a simple tool without any one purpose. Medical personnel and athletes wear masks for protection. Actors wear them in theatre and film productions. When worn in the context of violence, however, a mask takes on an entirely different meaning. From the bandana-clad faces of Libyan revolutionaries to classic stereotypes of ski mask-wearing bank robbers, contemporary culture often associates “face-masking” with violence, for better or worse.

Regardless of context, a mask helps sustain anonymity. When we rely so heavily on reading facial expressions to interpret others intentions, restricting the ability to do so creates uncertainty. As someone who has stared down the barrel of a handgun, its wielder’s face shrouded by a bandana, I can attest to the potential that masks have in creating fear when used in uncertain situations. During a disruption of the status quo, masks might be worn for several reasons: to avoid identification, for protection, and to prohibit the intentions of the wearers from being known. The occupiers seem to have ignored the possibility that their use of masks would be perceived as anything other than an expression of anonymity and protection.

At best, the actions of the occupiers, including the decision to wear masks, displayed a childish naivetè in assuming their use of masks would not induce fear. At worst, their actions displayed a malicious intent to escalate the conflict. I sympathize with those set-upon by riot police, particularly those merely swept-up in the violence. But perhaps more blame ought to be placed on the occupiers who, regardless of their intentions, created a hostile environment.

J. Griffin Durling is a U2 Political Science and International Development Studies student. He can be reached at jacob.durling@mail.mcgill.ca


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