This month, Collins Dictionary named “lockdown” the word of the year. This seemed rather apt — runners-up included “social distancing,” “self-isolate” and “coronavirus,” after all — but I think that “performative” should have gotten more love than it did.
Consulting with Merriam-Webster (a better dictionary than Collins by a long shot, it’s worth pointing out) “performative means” — at least in our context — an act that is “made or done for show (as to bolster one’s own image or make a positive impression on others).”
Long a pejorative byword in academic and liberal activist circles, “performative” went prime-time this year as the more woke us bemoaned the performativity of those who made their wokeness conspicuous.
While that’s a silly game, the word itself is useful in a panoply of contexts, including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his masks.
Did you know Biden believes in the power of mask mandates to curb COVID-19 spread? I certainly do because he’ll talk about it to anyone who’ll listen, particularly during his media briefings.
It’s not just words. He’s gotten to the point where he’ll often wear two masks out in public just so you know how serious he is about this:
This Veterans Day, I feel the full weight of the honor and the responsibility that has been entrusted to me by the American people as the next president, and I vow to honor our country’s sacred obligation. pic.twitter.com/BuynOGvSO0
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 11, 2020
“I walked in here with this mask, but I have one of the N95 masks underneath it. And I left it in the dressing room, the room I was in before I got here,” Biden said during his October town hall in Philadelphia, where he wore a blue surgical mask over the N95 one, according to USA Today.
This doesn’t necessarily protect him (“It’s a practice with which I’m not familiar,” said Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, when asked about the doubling-up. “I don’t know that the surgical mask adds anything”), but you’d be a fool to not realize where Biden stands on masks.
This isn’t to question the efficacy or wisdom of masking up; it’s to call out the former vice president for a bit of performativity — particularly when this was Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday afternoon:
Exactly 5 seconds after taking off his mask, Joe Biden coughs directly into his hand. pic.twitter.com/fyQ4SgtZRR
— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) November 19, 2020
I decided I’d trust the experts and go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to see what it had to say regarding what you should do when you cough and/or sneeze to prevent COVID-19.
Wouldn’t you know it, the answer was pretty much “Anything but this.”
“Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze,” the CDC recommends.
“If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands.”
You’re also supposed to immediately wash your hands or use some kind of hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of germs.
Yes, there are slip-ups. Then again, this is a slip-up from a presumptive president-elect given to statements like this:
Wearing a mask isn’t a political statement — it’s a patriotic duty.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 20, 2020
And to videos like this:
Do your part. Wear a mask. pic.twitter.com/pdnEecS49Q
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 10, 2020
Viewed in a different light, you could see these as either invoking the patriotic togetherness of World War II or as creepy propaganda that seems more at home in a dystopian novel than in a campaign to get people to wear masks.
They’re also the kinds of statements that don’t give the speaker much leeway as a moral exemplar.
This is especially true considering Biden, who’s currently putting pressure on Republican governors to accept statewide mask mandates, has floated the idea of a national mask mandate. (A national coughing-into-your-shoulder mandate, alas, isn’t on the agenda.)
“Our legal team thinks I can do that, based upon the degree to which there’s a crisis in those states, and how bad things are for the country,” Biden said in October.
Two months earlier, he’d said that “there’s a constitutional issue whether the federal government could issue such a mandate.”
If that legal fight is anywhere in our near future, it’d help if it weren’t put into motion by a guy who wears an N95 mask under a cloth one but still can’t figure out not to cough into his hand.
How much performativity went down the toilet simply because Biden couldn’t remember to cover his mouth the way every youth was taught to do?
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