Jonathan Young

Gov. Tim Walz’s recent face mask mandate has some people cheering and other crying “tyranny.”

While scientific evidence supports mask use as a way to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus (and I encourage you to wear one), some say it’s not the government’s place to make us wear masks in public. It has politicians and voters once again debating the role of government.

That’s a healthy debate to have.

Unfortunately, what’s often missed in our world of 24-hour news cycles, relentless social media and hyper-partisanship is nuance. Political debates are often painted in stark black and white, when the reality is gray. It’s easy to make sweeping statements that the government should never do something or that the other side doesn’t care about people.

Reality is usually more complex.

Decisions around requiring masks or implementing other COVID-19-related restrictions are usually questions of scale and degrees along a continuum, not questions with cut-and-dried, yes or no answers.

Nearly everyone, from socialists to staunch libertarians, would agree that at some point the government should restrain certain behaviors when they infringe on the rights or wellbeing of others. There’s broad consensus that the government shouldn’t allow you to drive drunk, for example. The risk to others (not to mention yourself) is too great. And when your actions affect others negatively, at some point it’s appropriate for the government to step in.

Your choice about whether to wear a mask could also put others at risk, especially since experts say cloth masks are largely intended to help prevent an asymptomatic carrier of the COVID-19 virus from transmitting it to others. But the risk in this case is harder to quantify, especially when there’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus. And every activity carries some degree of risk, but we can’t regulate every little thing.

So the question becomes more about where to draw the line on a continuum between one extreme and another. It’s a gray area, and it’s tricky, and people will disagree. But in this case it’s less about a fundamental disagreement on the role of government and more about where to draw that line.

Is telling people they can’t go to indoor public spaces without a mask similar the state’s recent ban on texting while driving? Or is it crossing a line and interfering too much with personal liberty?

Drawing the line in a gray area can be complicated.

Even my discussion here is oversimplified, because we also have to consider how regulations are enacted — via the legislative action or executive order. Process matters in a democracy. But even in this discussion both sides of the debate largely agree there must be a balance between the need for quick action in emergencies and the necessity of checks and balances. Once again, it’s a gray area and a question of where to draw the line.

We need to have these debates. They’re important.

But we — and I include myself — should avoid the temptation to oversimplify the issues and vilify the other side.

Life and politics aren’t simple.


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