Maskenfreiheit: the freedom that comes with wearing a mask

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Source. 

“Would you look at that idiot! What an asshole…”

Road rage seems to just be an accepted part of modern life. I don’t drive, but as a passenger in other people’s cars, it never surprises me to see an otherwise calm, polite, rational person lean out of a window and scream insults over a minor transgression. Sometimes it turns into an all-out fight — I once saw a policeman turns off his siren and lights so he could shout at a driver who got in his way. 

Someone told me that their dad pulled over to argue with another driver and ended up half strangling the guy through an open window. Even the calmest drivers I know will, at the least, give moral judgement and regard the driving skills of others as the most accurate IQ test. 

It’s easy to find explanations for road rage. Driving is tiring. Boring. Nauseating for some. Dangerous. People regard both their cars and their driving skills as a concrete manifestation of gender, class, age, nationality, and personality. No one likes having their personal space infringed upon, even if that space is a moving radius of tarmac.

But plenty of situations have those characteristics and don’t cause otherwise civilised people to erupt with fury. It doesn’t explain why we treat road rage as something understandable, something which isn’t a reflection of a person’s true temperament — like PMS. Most of what we all do on an average day is boring and tiring.

Why is driving so different? Because it’s anonymous. 

Safe behind a windscreen, you are encased in your own private world and therefore unchained from social constraints. Say what you like, swear as much as you want, make whatever obscene gestures you favour — as long as you’re following the driving laws, it’s okay. A car is a mask that lets you shrug off yourself.

Here’s what Joe Moran writes about road rage in the fabulously nerdy On Roads:

“In 1994… I passed my driving test and haltingly began my own career on the roads. Up until that moment, I had spent very little time on roads even as a passenger and so the behaviour of that alien species, the motorist, was as fascinating to me as the creatures on a South Sea island must have been to an evolutionary biologist. 
This species mostly assumed it was invisible…But when it wanted to communicate with its unhappiness to another member of the species, it seemed suddenly consumed by frustration.. behind a windscreen its gesticulations seemed more animated, its face more expressive, its curses more vociferous, its death stares more terrifying.
…Precisely because encounters with other motorists were near anonymous and temporary but involved the questioning of one’s character and judgement, they assumed an intensity that was quite disproportionate to their actual importance. Nowhere outside silent films did people’s body language seem quite so histrionic.”

There’s a wonderful German word that encapsulates this- one of the many concepts with no English equivalent, perhaps because it contradicts the essence of how British people think of themselves- maskenfreiheit

Loosely translated (whenever I refer to German words I get native speakers correcting my interpretations) it refers to the freedom that comes with wearing a mask. The literal translation seems to be 'carnival license.' Which can be positive or negative, a literal mask or a metaphorical one.

It’s a cliche at this point to talk about how we all wear masks, we all portray a fake image on social media, we all lie and conceal our true selves. 

Of course we do. We always will as long as it’s not socially acceptable to do things that everyone does. And although that’s seen as a bad thing, it’s not. We wear masks because it liberates us. A driver, screaming bloody murder at the minivan that cut them off, is taking advantage of the anonymity to vent their bottled up rage at the world because they can. 

In psychology, the phrase ‘masking’ refers to a process wherein someone disguises their true personality, often without realising. 

For example, a person who has been bullied for enjoying time alone may later mask that aspect of themselves by acting extroverted and constantly socialising. In the long run, this will leave them exhausted and unhappy, without them knowing why. 

We all do this because we have to. Otherwise, we’d end up unemployed (and unemployable) and unloved (and unlovable.)

Maskenfreiheit is different though. It’s the freedom we feel when we literally cover our faces or hide our identities. That freedom works both ways. It always has. Although it takes many forms, the liberating effect of masks is part of our world, manipulated for good or evil. The question is: do masks make us into someone else, or do they make us more ourselves?

Perhaps it makes sense to ask what masks are and how we use them. 

A brief field guide to masks

First, the ugly. 

Criminals wear balaclavas, motorcycle helmets or scarves to make it harder for them to be identified — but I suspect it also helps them suspend their conscience and preserve their self-image as a good person. 

Protesters wear masks, famously Anonymous, for a similar reason and to create the feel of a global, unified group. I’ve seen Anonymous protests all over the world and the effect is profound. It might as well be a single army, even if the participants are different each time. 

Members of the Klu Klux Klan and similar groups do the same. Horror movie villains are portrayed wearing masks for the creep factor and to dehumanise them (Jigsaw, Michael Myers, almost any villain in a home invasion movie, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, Ghostface, etc.)

Masks can be a form of protection, again more psychological than practical: gas masks (more effective for preventing gas attacks than surviving them), surgical masks worn in cities, plague doctor masks (like the one Scipio wears in The Thief Lord) with a nose full of sweet-smelling herbs, armoured masks worn in battle, football helmets.

Then, the mysterious. 

Masks are deeply embedded in social rituals. The oldest surviving examples date back 9000 years, but it’s believed people have made them for as long as 40,000 years. The earliest masks tend to be ceremonial or death masks.

As soon as we knew who we were, we wanted to become someone else.

During rituals, people wore masks to take on another form, often that of a god, animal spirit or another spiritual being. Shamans, healers and witches wore elaborate masks as they cured the sick, manipulated the weather, promised good luck or foretold the future. 

Dionysian cults wore masks conveying the god’s face as they abandoned themselves to hedonistic revelry and ignored societal norms. Wearers were liberated from their usual selves and could become someone else. 

Death masks -often made using a plaster or wax cast of the deceased’s face- have been used for millennia to preserve an image of the person, protect them in the afterlife, provide a reference for works of art, help identify John and Jane Does before they decompose, as a piece of art in themselves, or as a reminder for the living. Actors would wear death masks at Roman funerals to take on the role of a person’s ancestors and enact parts of their lives.

Tibet, 1930s. Taken by Elisabeth Meyer.

The boundaries between rituals, celebrations and theatre have always been blurred

Later, masks became an integral part of theatre where they served the same role. Indeed, the boundaries between rituals, celebrations and theatre are somewhat blurred. In each case, masks let wearers shrug off their identities and become someone else. 

When I took drama for GCSE, I worked on a script about a teenage runaway who falls into the clutches of a manipulative pimp and his silent henchman. My friend played the henchman but the vibe felt wrong — silence alone didn’t make her seem threatening.

 So we took a plain, featureless mask and painted it black. She put it on with a long black coat, pulling her dark hair forward to cover the edges. The effect was sudden and horrifying. So did everyone else. Several people in the class would leave the room when she put the mask on, some would scream if they unexpectedly saw her. It was odd — after all, it was a plain mask, a gender and race neutral, featureless piece of plastic (like this one.) And yet, it was terrifying. Her whole demeanour changed. She became that character: the heartless, silent henchman. That was when I first understood why masks are so ubiquitous across so many parts of cultures.

Beginning in the 15th century, masked balls became a popular way for people to dance and let themselves go, without harming their reputations. European villagers from all walks of life came together for masked carnivals and parades. The practice spread to the higher echelons of society, as wealthy Venetians appropriated masked balls. Anonymity was the main appeal. Like Dionysian cults, Venetians enjoyed the freedom to dissolve into pure hedonism.

Although the practice was short-lived and less extreme than we imagine, masked balls are still associated with lust, seduction and murder. 

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Mask, a sprightly dancer at one such event passes out and a physician removes his mask. Behind the wax face of a young man, he finds a withered elderly gentleman. The old man’s wife tells the physician after he carries the wrinkled figure home, why:

“Ah! yes, why? So that the people will think him young under his mask; so that the women will still take him for a young dandy and whisper nasty things into his ears; so that he can rub up against all their dirty skins, with their perfumes and powders and cosmetics… it’s regret that leads him on and that makes him put a pasteboard face over his own.

    At their core, masks are a tool to induce disinhibition. We use physical masks to counteract the psychological masks.

    A mask might not really conceal your identity but it has a few powerful effects:

    • Makes it harder for you to be identified
    • Conceals your emotions and reduces the amount of eye contact you make
    • Lets you feel/think like a different person
    • Helps you avoid guilt, shame and embarrassment
    • Brings to the surface parts of your personality you might otherwise hide
    • In groups, masks can be dehumanising, leading to groupthink and extreme behaviour. 

    Today, we use different sorts of masks. Alcohol, for instance, does the trick. Nightclubs have much in common with masked balls. A drunk person surely can't be held responsible for their actions, so alcohol becomes an excuse for doing whatever you'd otherwise be too embarrassed to do.

    I remember when my friends at school first started drinking. They'd come into class and tell everyone about the appalling things they had done after 3 cans of beer and how terrible they felt. And then they'd repeat that, week after week. Except they weren't acting that way because they were drunk. They got drunk so they could act that way and then distance themselves from it. None of them liked drinking, they just liked the sense of freedom it gave them. Wearing a mask, in whatever form, only makes us more ourselves. 

    It’s scary , when you think about how anonymity changes us. I use the term 'anonymity' loosely, to mean the sense of detachment from your identity to the extent that it frees you from a sense of responsibility. 

    And yet, we search, in our own ways, for that sense of maskenfreiheit. We use it for good or evil, to harm or to help, to change and to enhance. But as privacy becomes ever more elusive, we miss out on opportunities to feel that freedom

      A shop I saw in Venice.

      Rosie Leizrowice