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How masks became a symbol of America’s intolerance

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Brand Thornton blows a shofar horn as protesters gather in the City Center Park in Orem in opposition to mask mandates on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There has been talk lately about the need for unity, as well as a lot of talk about the power of diversity. One might ask if the goals of unity and diversity are mutually exclusive. Of course, that depends on how you define the terms. Some seem to believe that unity means we must all agree, on all matters, all of the time. That seems like an unreachable reality, and frankly a boring one. Maybe the better goal is to be more accepting of each other’s differences.

I see in the business realm organizations that place high value on a diversity of thought.  Healthy company culture is when people express ideas without fear of condemnation or retribution. In this environment, thoughts are expressed freely, discussed openly and through that process good strategies and plans come to life.

I also often see the opposite, whether in business or life. People are afraid to share their opinions as they are quickly shot down. Some become offended when an opinion is shared different from their own. I imagine them mentally reaching for the “dislike” or “unfriend” button, as if real life was an extension of a favorite social media app.  

I guess this is what experts call confirmation bias. It exists beyond social media. Cable news has definitely become a “pick your poison” exercise, or in many cases “pick your truth.” And we see that leaking from media into families and friendships. Somewhere along the way “Let’s agree to disagree” has become “How dare you disagree with me?”

We’ve seen this happening in political circles for a while as compromise becomes a dirty word in the halls of Congress. The incivility that springs from intolerance was on full display during the recent presidential debates. Most parents would be appalled if their child interrupted another, hurled personal insults, told someone they disagreed with to shut up or called them a moron. Of all the insults thrown between the candidates, the greatest insult was to the American people.  

The pandemic has laid bare this intolerance beyond the realm of politics. Masks are the most distressing example. For most, wearing a mask became a pragmatic way to keep themselves and others safe. For others, the mask became a rally flag against draconian, dictatorial, unconstitutional, unenforceable, infringement on fundamental human rights.  People retreated to their corners with every action causing further entrenched opinion.  

Some felt confident in their corner but not content. Instead, they felt compelled to force their opinion on everyone else. I don’t feel comfortable sending my kids to school … AND I don’t want you to send your kids to school either. I don’t feel comfortable eating out in a restaurant … AND I want restaurants shut down so you can’t eat out either. I even heard reports of business owners who didn’t believe in wearing masks telling employees they weren’t allowed to wear them at work.

As the pandemic comes to an end, we can leave the stress behind and replace it with the strength to accept and respect people who hold views different from our own. In my opinion, we will never reach unity until we can first value diversity. 

Maybe you disagree, and that is just fine.

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.