Mask Panic: Past and Present

Mask Panic: Past and Present


Listen to the author read this essay:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


On January 7, 1514, the Parlement of Normandy, the royal court of appeal for that prosperous French province on the Channel coast, issued a decree banning the wearing and owning of masks. “It is prohibited for all persons [...] to wear or purchase any false visage, mask, fake nose or beard, or anything else that disguises the face,” proclaimed the magistrates. They prohibited merchants from selling masks and ordered that all masks be handed in to the authorities, as if they were dangerous weapons. The timing of this decree suggests the court issued it in anticipation of Carnival, the traditional mid-winter festival that preceded the forty-day fast of Lent in the Christian calendar. As they still do in many parts of the world, in Normandy at the time people, especially young men, celebrated by parading the streets wearing costumes and masks. The Parlement, whose duties included regulating public order, evidently felt that by hiding people’s identity, masks created the potential for disorder.

Five centuries later, we are going through our own moral panic about adults wearing masks in public. During the June 2010 meeting of the G20 in Toronto, police deployed a rarely-used law against wearing a disguise with criminal intent—one usually applied to armed robbers—to arrest people wearing bandanas in the protest area.  Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament introduced a private member’s bill to create a law against wearing a mask during an “unlawful assembly,” and the government has said it will support the bill. Since rioting, vandalism, and wearing a mask with intent to engage in a criminal act are all already illegal, this law won’t discourage any further violence. It could potentially, however, be used against a protest that was peaceful but not approved by the authorities. A new bylaw passed by the City of Montreal, meanwhile, does not even make that distinction, banning the wearing of masks at all protests in response to the continuing student demonstrations against Quebec’s proposed tuition hikes

Canada isn’t alone in its mask panic. In response to widespread riots in 2011, Britain moved to give police the power to remove masks from people wearing them in public. In New York, police revived a little-used law from 1845 that bans mask-wearing at gatherings to arrest several Occupy Wall Street protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Tellingly, the law was first introduced after poor protesters in nineteenth-century New York donned “Indian” costumes of “calico gowns and leather masks” to inflict political violence against the agents of a wealthy landowner who was trying to evict his tenant farmers.

Meanwhile, in the midst of an ongoing European financial crisis, the French authorities took the time to once again ban public mask-wearing. A French law directed against the niqab, the full-face veil worn by less than 2,000 Muslim women in France, came into effect on April 11, 2011. Women wearing it face a fine or compulsory citizenship lessons. To allay the anti-Muslim overtones of the law, however, France adjusted it to include any instance of “covering one’s face in public space,” meaning it also bans balaclavas, hoodies or masks, although it includes exemptions for parades and practical needs, like motorcycle helmets. Legislators identified gender equality as the reason for the ban, suggesting that the niqab oppresses women and that even wearing it voluntarily might result from family and community pressure, but they also cited the need for authorities to be able to identify people.

The way the niqab debate played out in Canada suggests that a deep-seated fear of hidden identity plays a part in the frenzy devoted to this small piece of clothing. In 2007 Quebec’s provincial chief elections officer required women in niqabs to unveil in order to vote, claiming that a hidden identity could be a mask for fraud. When Elections Canada found a simple procedure for women with covered faces to identify themselves without unveiling, the Conservative government kicked up a fuss, revealing that their concern was more symbolic than practical. Last year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney further decreed that women could not take the citizenship oath while wearing the niqab. He argued it is a “public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly.” The ban was instituted despite the fact that veiled women already confirmed their identities by showing their faces to officers of the court before taking the oath, again revealing that the legislation was less about the need for formal identification than a desire for symbolic openness. But if the source of the niqab panic lies partly in the hiding of individual identity, it also grows out of a perception that wearing the veil denotes an identification with an alternate group identity, one that is perceived to be in conflict with “Western values.” In August 2010, in what was quickly dubbed an instance of “niqab rage,” a woman was arrested for tearing off another woman’s niqab while swearing about the victim’s religion and presence in Canada. Ironically, the victim was attacked while engaging in that prototypically Western consumer activity, shopping at a suburban mall with her kids.

No members of the sixteenth-century Parlement of Normandy would have ever encountered a niqab, although nuns or widows shrouding their faces would have been familiar to them. The members would instantly have recognized the other controversy driving anti-masking laws, however: young people wearing masks for political demonstrations and violence. One mask in particular has come to encapsulate this activity for both protestors and authorities. Popularized as an image by the illustrator David Lloyd for Alan Moore’s 1980s comic-book series and later graphic novel V for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes mask became widely available as a piece of merchandizing after the 2006 movie adaptation, quickly spreading around the world in the form of cheap plastic copies. In the graphic novel, the mask symbolizes resistance to corrupt authority, and it soon began appearing in protests—those associated with the G8 and G20 meetings, then the Arab Spring, and more prominently in the Occupy movements in North America. The mask also became the symbol of the online hacker movement Anonymous, and in turn, authorities began to use it as a marker of potential subversion. In an internal report, Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre highlighted the Guy Fawkes mask as a way to identify people who might be sympathizers with Anonymous’s threats of cyber attacks related to Toronto’s 2011 Occupy movement.

Other masks, whether the black balaclavas used by the “Black Bloc” anarchists at Toronto’s G20 protests or a simple bandana covering the face, may be less striking but have a similar effect. Even the hoodie, which doesn’t cover the face but shadows it, has the power to disturb. In Eminem’s 2004 “Mosh” video young men angry about the injustices of George W. Bush’s America don hoodies and gather in a seemingly threatening group—whose surprise purpose turns out to be to go vote. The video plays on the multiple implications of protest and threat, and of anonymity and group identity, created by shrouding the face with a hood. The movie Hot Fuzz mocks the similar panic in England about hoodie-wearing youth. The February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young black man wearing a hoodie in Florida, however, shows the very real tragedies that can result from these fears.

Both the appeal of masks and the fear of them may have some genuine basis in human psychology. Modern psychological experiments suggest that people who feel disguised are more likely to break rules of all kinds, both altruistically and selfishly. Two researchers at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, Chen-Bo Zhong and Vanessa K. Bohns, along with colleague Francesca Gino from UNC-Chapel Hill, conducted an experiment in which U of T students wore glasses—some clear, some sunglasses—while performing a “sharing” test through a computer with someone they didn’t know. Those who were wearing sunglasses shared far less money than those wearing clear glasses. A separate experiment confirmed that simply wearing sunglasses created a strong feeling of anonymity in students. The researchers concluded that even a sense of “illusory anonymity” resulted in less-inhibited behaviour. In another article, Chen-Bo Zhong and others looked at a whole series of studies on anonymous behaviour, whether in darkness, in masks, behind an internet pseudonym, or simply in a crowd. It turns out that more aggressive people, especially young men, are indeed more likely to engage in violence when they feel anonymous, but those of milder temperament become more likely to try to stop it. The character of the mask itself can also shape behaviour. In one experiment, participants wearing Ku Klux Klan uniforms increased the electric shock levels of subjects who couldn’t see them, but those wearing nurse’s uniforms decreased the levels of pain they inflicted.  Other experiments showed that masked people were also more willing to break social taboos to speak truth to others, even about something simple, like telling a person her fly is down.

Similarly, during Carnival in sixteenth-century Normandy, maskers felt free to make public satirical comments about the foibles of their fellow-citizens and authorities—whether of the church, nobility or the law—that they would not make so boldly at other times of the year. But this satire could also degenerate into vicious personal attacks, and there was always the threat of riot. Given the genuine potential for rule-breaking that comes with wearing masks, it becomes easier to understand why authorities might have concerns about people wearing them in public. Regulators need to guard against over-reacting, however. Over time, the Parlement of Normandy learned to distinguish between harmless and dangerous masking. Their initial ban was completely ineffectual—not only did masking continue, but masked Carnival celebrations in the city of Rouen, where the court was based, became ever more elaborate. Eventually, the Parlement abandoned its blanket prohibition and instead came to an understanding with the maskers. The magistrates let the Carnival organizers themselves decide who got to wear a mask, making them self-policing. They then focused their regulation on keeping the festivities from going bad, by punishing vicious satirical attacks against individuals, making sure people wearing masks didn’t carry weapons, and keeping the festivities from going on too late into the dark winter nights.

Modern authorities should take a page from this sixteenth-century experience and learn to distinguish between harmless and dangerous uses of masks. The New York anti-mask law did introduce an exception for parties in the 1970s. And the French law against covering the face also had to include a series of exceptions, including wearing them for Carnival. But these laws still don’t distinguish between wearing a mask for peaceful protest and wearing one for rioting. The resurgence of this long-forgotten issue reminds us that covering the face in public carries power—to set oneself apart from society or to identify oneself as part of a group, to break free of social rules or protest against authority. After all, even children carry an implicit threat when they walk the streets in disguise at the end of October, tricks if there are no treats—but we have yet to abolish Hallowe’en.

About Dylan Reid

Dylan Reid (@dylan_reid) is a co-founder and senior editor of Spacing Magazine and a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.