Tabula Rasa, a Latin phrase associated with the metaphor of a blank slate was especially popular during the reign of Behaviorism, still is prevalent in our collective consciousness.

Perhaps, one reason for its current popularity among the masses is that it represents neutrality when compared with radically different alternatives like Hobbes claim that, at least, humans are born selfish and destructive and Rousseau’s claim that humans were “social animals who wished to live in harmony with other humans” (Hergenhahn’s History of Psychology, Sixth Edition, page 210).

Of course, one also could argue that the Tabula Rasa is popular because it represents the result of averaging the respective positions of Hobbes and Rousseau; that is, humans are born to be selfish and destructive as well as to live in social harmony. Afterall, this would not be the first or last time in history that we had to live with what appears inconsistent and contradictory.

This issue often garners the spotlight, for me, when I drive and have ample opportunity to observe people in our community, our neighbors, as well as myself; indeed, it is one of the primary reasons my students and I study driving behavior as part of our State Farm sponsored grant. Personally, I accept that my world view (perhaps my fantasy), more-or-less along the lines of Rousseau’s thinking, appeals to me because “it is pretty to think so”, a phrase that captured my attention when I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. However, in the interest of regulating this potentially absurd and ridiculous romantic view, I also remind myself of George Gershwin’s phrase “it ain’t necessarily so”.

These days, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, observing driving has been infrequent. However, now that we are entering our “new normal”, the issue of wearing a mask in public seems like a perfect opportunity to return to the Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau debate.

At this time, it is hard to imagine anyone can justify a dogmatic position that not wearing a mask in public is mistaken; similarly, it is hard to imagine anyone can justify a dogmatic position that wearing a mask in public is mistaken. Dogmatic positions simply do not make sense given the massive uncertainties of our current predicament.

However, despite these uncertainties, there are facts of which we can be certain. One of these facts is that there is a potentially lethal menace among us; we know this because of the infection rate and, more importantly, the number of our fellow humans who have succumbed to this virus and lost their lives. Indeed, the numbers are so staggering that, sometimes, this situation seems unreal; that is, it seems unreal until you recognize that it is all too real for those who have suffered and lost life.

This is why I think our governor is spot on when he says that even though he recognizes that it is one’s right not to wear a mask, the “right thing to do” is to wear a mask. Dr. Sanja Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, basically echoed the same sentiment when he posed the question: why would one not assume that he or she was infected and take precautions so that you reduce the risk of infecting others. Would that not be the smart and decent null hypothesis at this time?

Personally, I accept that a mask may have limited usefulness. But, aside from a false sense of security, I do not see the cost of wearing a mask even if it is of no medical benefit. Indeed, I figure that, at the very least, it tells me you are taking this virus seriously and that you value courtesy; I find comfort in those thoughts.

Moreover, when I think about driving correlates of wearing a mask, I find myself thinking that maybe wearing a mask suggests one understands the value of cooperation and the potential cost of its absence. But, then again, maybe this is just another one of those Hemingway moments whereby “it is pretty to think so” and nothing more.

Joseph R. McGahan, Ph.D., is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.

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