Facing a maskless future together

I am my face, and you are yours. We need to see them in order to relate to each other as humans.

(Image: Elizabeth McDaniel/Unsplash.com)

Are masks coming back?

Let us hope not.

A few weeks ago, I began to notice stray stories about how face coverings might make a return. We were told that cold and flu season was nearly upon us, and this year it might be accompanied by an uptick in cases of the endemic coronaviruses. Then it started to happen. A public elementary school in Maryland brought back masks for some students and staff after “three or more” people were reported to have tested positive for that scourge of yesteryear. The Hollywood studio Lionsgate Films briefly brought back masks too, along with a two-week mask requirement at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and new mandates in a few other places including Kaiser Permanente Health Care in California.

Seeking to nip a new mask-mania in the bud, Senator J.D. Vance recently attempted passing a bill by unanimous consent that would have prohibited future federal face-covering requirements. The bill was blocked by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who worried that not allowing the State to impose masking would “silence and hamstring public health experts.” Markey is not wrong, and that’s Vance’s point. Some of us on the fringe have come to regard masks as the vestment of the cult of technocracy, and we would sooner go to the stake for heresy than ever don one again.

But these days, even a lot of normies are a little wary of what the experts say. We all wore masks and we all got the virus and its variants, most of us multiple times. So even if masks are not completely pointless—and that’s a big if—the downside of the dehumanizing hassle far outweighs any benefit of wearing them over the long term. Anyway, decide for yourself.

More important now than litigating the scientific data again, however, is the fact that shabby hypothetical moral cases for masks continue to be foisted on the public instead of a deeper exploration of overarching first principles and concerns for future social outcomes. Few have dared to ask in the philosophical sense “What are masks for?” And while cries of “You could kill grandma!” have mostly dissipated, the general public does not seem as disinclined as they should be to allow area-specific wonks to moralize by fallacy and fiat.

It is time now to hear from phenomenologists, not epidemiologists.

Advocates of masking have said and may still say that not seeing each other’s faces is the surest way not to kill each other. But the great twentieth-century Catholic-friendly Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who greatly influenced St. John Paul II, offers a different perspective. In the following passage from his seminal 1951 essay “Is Ontology Fundamental?” included in the magnificent collection Entre Nous, Levinas builds upon Heidegger’s notion of being, locating concrete human interaction in the face:

The being as such (and not as an incarnation of universal being) can only be in a relation in which he is invoked. That being is man, and it is as a neighbor that man is accessible: as a face.

Simply put, I am my face, and you are yours. We need to see them in order to relate to each other as humans.

Levinas said in an interview with Philippe Nemo in a broadcast on French radio in 1981, “the face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill.” It is precisely in the vulnerability of the face-to-face encounter that we are able to live with each other as subjects—not only to avoid physical conflict, and not even just to tolerate one another before retreating to our private homes, but to thrive alongside each other in the public square. I, for one, certainly began to think of my fellow masked man during the pandemic as an anonymous object, and to feel more hostility to him. We were supposed to be saving each other’s lives, but we were killing each other with impersonality instead.

We all know that the face is what makes movies worth watching, and movies are where the best philosophizing happens. Whether it’s Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Orson Wells in The Third Man, Giulietta Massina in La Strada, or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, faces convey the depth of humanity on screen.

Thus, with a few exceptions, the close-up is every director’s most important story-telling tool. Where a mask is used, as with Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask in the Friday the 13th films or Hannibal Lecter’s mouthguard in The Silence of the Lambs, the covered face conveys monstrosity and inhumanity. It is no accident that at the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader asks for Luke’s help to remove his helmet and mask so that he can turn back into Anakin Skywalker and die, having abandoned his robotic self to be redeemed in his human identity.

A directing duo that makes expert use of showing and not showing faces to convey philosophical and theological meaning in their films are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Little known in the United States outside of arthouse circles, the Dardenne brothers are avowed disciples of Levinas and advocates of humane, realist cinema that bears the indelible marks of Europe’s Catholic heritage. Watching their films leaves the strong impression that looking at each other’s faces is non-negotiable to establish and maintain virtue in society.

In 1996, the Dardenne brothers made their first feature, La Promesse, set like almost all of their successive films in the industrial town of Seraing, near Liège, Belgium. La Promesse is a sad but redeeming tale, which Luc Dardenne described in a journal entry as being directly influenced by Levinas’ “interpretation of face-to-faces, of faces as the first conversations.” La Promesse depicts a crisis in the young life of a boy named Igor, whose father, Roger (played by Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet), makes a living exploiting illegal immigrants, putting them to work as unlicensed construction workers. Igor, who is frequently taken away from his apprenticeship as a mechanic to help his father with illicit schemes, befriends a young African mother named Assita, whose husband, Hamidou, works for Roger.

When Hamidou subsequently dies in a job-site accident, Igor is distressed until the end of the film about what to tell Assita, and he consistently avoids face-to-face encounters with her. In the same journal entry from January 1996 quoted above, Luc Dardenne noted that the relationship between Igor and Assita is “an attempt to finally come face-to-face.” In April of the same year, he elaborated, “in all the scenes where Igor/Assita are looking at each other, Igor is always the one to look away first. Igor can’t look at Assita’s gaze because there lies the pressure of the moral commandment he cannot follow. Except in the final scene.”

The Dardenne brothers’ 2002 film The Son explores the importance of face-to-face encounter in an even more startling way than in La Promesse. The Son again features Olivier Gourmet playing a father, but this time an honest, hard-working man wrought with grief. His son has been murdered. When we meet Gourmet, whose character’s name bears his real first name, Olivier, he is estranged from his wife and teaching carpentry to at-risk boys at a reform school, trying to make sense of his life. The Son is perhaps the Dardennes’ most Catholic film, as Olivier represents a St. Joseph figure who is given an array of quasi-foster sons to form in a trade and in virtue. But one day, Olivier’s son’s murderer shows up as a student, ignorant of the fact that his teacher’s brokenness is the result of his own tragic adolescent crime.

For most of the film, we see the young man, Francis, only from behind or the side, and we size him up with Olivier as a criminal, a killer. Not looking at his face, we keep Francis at a distance as an “other,” a non-person. Here the Dardenne brothers dramatize a particularly striking passage from Levinas, again from “Is Ontology Fundamental?”

In killing, I can certainly attain a goal, I can kill the way I hunt, or cut down trees, or slaughter animals—but then I have grasped the other in the opening of being in general, as an element of the world in which I stand. I have seen him on the horizon. I have not looked straight at him. I have not looked him in the face. The temptation of total negation, which spans the infinity of that attempt and its impossibility—is the presence of the face. To be in relation with the other face to face—is to be unable to kill.

Olivier repeatedly acquires sharp objects, clearly contemplating the practicalities of his revenge, and awkwardly refuses to look at the boy despite working in close proximity. Finally, Olivier drives Francis to a remote location on the pretext of acquiring some wood for carpentry projects. En route, he goes into the bathroom of a snack shop and meticulously washes his eyeglasses with soap and water, dries them, and carefully puts them on again. He is ready to see clearly. Will he finally look at the subject, or will he kill an object? In the astonishing final scene of The Son, we find out.

The films of the Dardenne brothers almost all involve the importance of face-to-face encounter, especially where it is emotionally or physically risky. And with the duo’s explicit attachment to Levinas’ phenomenology of the face, their work is particularly apt as we consider as a society how to weigh the costs and benefits of concealing ourselves from each other in the months and years ahead.

For my part, I say masking can have no permanent place in Western society, come what may. Let us remain forever face-to-face.

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About Andrew Petiprin 17 Articles
Andrew Petiprin is a former Episcopal priest, and is the author of the book Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself. He came into full communion with the Catholic Church with his wife and children on January 1, 2019. Andrew is a lifelong Christian, was a Marshall Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford from 2001-2003, and was a Fellow at the Word on Fire Institute for several years. Andrew and his family live in Plano, Texas.


    • Russell. Some high-level politician rejected Covid 19 saying it would “just go away”. “All you have to do is take any household cleaning liquid”. That may have the darkest moment in modern history. Other elected state officials misdirected the public by bloviating to discard masks.

      Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, said “his hospital is seeing about 40 Covid patients a day, compared with about 10 per day earlier in the summer”. That computes to a 25% increase.

      I just hope we do not under estimate our life-threatening pandemic. “Right to Life”?

      God speed

  1. We moved to a different province during the pandemic, with the result that for the first year we were living in our new town, the people we met in social situations — in church, at the library, in choir — were all wearing masks. We became acquainted wearing masks. We became friends wearing masks. And when the pandemic finally died down and we took off our masks, we still recognized our new friends, and they still recognized us.

  2. Well, I don’t think voluntary face covering such as the Japanese do as a courtesy when they are unwell is a bad thing. Ive been coughed and sneezed on in church and public places before.
    Making masking mandatory is a whole different thing. At this point in time it’s evolved into a political ploy much more than a health precaution. And used as a way to control people.

  3. I’m a medical technologist MT(ASCP) who worked for over 40 years in the hospital microbiology lab. I worked with microbes daily. We did some of our work under a biological hood to protect us from aerosol infections from microbes (e.g., TB), but most of our work was done at the bench while maskless. Bacteria don’t jump off of agar into our eyes and noses. And speaking of eyes, we learned that most respiratory infections enter our bodies through our EYES, and we were advised to never rub or touch our eyes! So when will be told to start wearing full face masks with eye covering? Hopefully never, and hopefully all required masking of the public is not going to happen. But my reason for responding to Mr. Petiprin’s piece is to suggest that many younger people don’t care about seeing faces, as they do most of their communication with their fellow human beings ONLINE, where they don’t see the face. I know plenty of young people who only go out of their homes for extreme reasons. They order their food, clothing, and everything else online and have it delivered to their doorsteps. All their friends are online, and they even attend church online (if they are religious). They go to school online, and although they see a teacher’s face, they don’t see it in real-life. I find this disturbing, as I love being out and about and talking face-to-face with real people–even my bank (Chase) recognizes me when I walk in, as most of their clients visit them online only for their transactions and questions. But for many people, the online world is their real life, and the idea of not seeing faces because of masking doesn’t upset them in the least.

    • Thank you, Mrs. Whitlock for your informative and authentic comment. I always appreciate it when people describe their actual experiences. We can talk about theories and principles all day, but a dose of real-life experience is the leaven that is needed. God bless.

    • That’s not a good thing when youth don’t want face to face contact – more depression amongst youth now, right? (maybe someone in that field knows the stats)

      The point being we do something just because they tell us to is not good enough. Hotshot Gavin doubled down on the mandate then went to rich folks’ party with no intention of face covering.

      The disparity in enforcement was a joke. You had that priest in IL? that told the mother of 7 that if she didn’t pull her mask up he was calling the cops, while some of the old folks in plain site had the mask under their noses. I was in an airport early AM and as I was loading for the security scanning a worker told me I had to have my mask up over my nose, “federal mandate” he said. I saluted him and complied. As I followed the family with the teenage girl ahead of me he never said a word about her mask being below her nose.

    • It means that everyone obscuring their faces 24/7 is similar to having visual disturbances.
      If you’ve ever experienced that visually, even temporarily it’s a very strange thing.

    • I’ve been considering that. I’m not sure that Levinas discusses it, but it occurs to me that touching faces would be very important for a visually impaired person who can’t see them. And touching a masked face would be a little impersonal, I think!

  4. Mask wearing became an art form, persons seemingly seeking to establish an identity. At my parish altar servers, priests were inventive. Or was it the parishioners who made them, seemingly with some hidden meaning?
    It brings to mind Verdi’s A Masked Ball, based on the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III. “One of the most talented of the enlightened despots, Gustav instigated reforms that included limited religious tolerance, a reduction in the number of capital offences. He welcomed the praise of the French philosopher Voltaire. In Rome in 1783, Gustav called upon Pius VI and attended a Christmas Mass at St Peter’s to publicize his tolerance of Catholics in Sweden. An aristocratic conspiracy led to the mortal wounding of Gustav by Johan Jakob Anckarström that month. At midnight on 16 March 1792, at the masked ball in the Stockholm opera house, Gustav, identifiable by his breast star of the Royal Order of the Seraphim, was mortally wounded by gunshot” (Prof Jeremy Black Holland Opera Park).
    I don’t intend, unless required at the medical center I visit to wear a mask. Neither would I wear a designer gift mask from a parishioner. I wouldn’t wish to risk a mistaken identity.

    • Dear Father. We are in our mid 80s with underlining conditions, especially respatory. When the CDC issues a COVID 19 pandemic warning we had little choice, we must use a KN-95 mask. Statistics show that deaths in the US from the pandemic are 1,143,197 and the plague may never go away, even by taking household cleaning fluids! “Right-to-life” we are? See…

      Thank you and God bless.

  5. I wore a mask and I didn’t get Covid. The only freedom I gave up was the freedom to spit. I was willing to do anything I could to minimize the affects of this pandemic. I am not a doctor but I have faith in our medical system. By wearing a mask I might have saved someone’s life—-that’s being pro-life.

    • I did whatever I could to minimize mask wearing and I still haven’t caught COVID.

      In fact I remember when, in the first couple of months of the outbreak, the chief of the CDC (or was it the NIH?) stood at the microphone and told people *not* to wear masks.

      He said that wearing masks could actually *increase* your chances of contracting the infection.

      One of many contradictory dictates.

      I’m convinced that the masks’ only effects are psychological.

      • you may have had it and not known it; lots of people had no symptoms

        One thing I found they do work well to protect your face from the cold air in the winter; esp when you first go outside

        • My granddaughter’s godfather is a pulmonologist. He said that the virus has become so infectious that virtually everyone has caught it in some form by this time. Thankfully as it became more infectious it also became less lethal. Fingers crossed that remains the case.

    • That’s actually being quite delusional. Your actions didn’t save anyone. And your unquestioning faith in the medical establishment was clearly unwarranted based on what we know now.

  6. I wish I could trust a medical establishment that removes the breasts from a teenage girl and the external genitalia from teenage boys and infuses their bodies with all sorts of hormonal chemicals but I do not. Similarly, I wish I could trust government to advise/control my health care needs; I do not. But I leave it to others to defer to the medical establishment and/or government the welfare of their lives as they see fit.

    • Yup, Deacon Edward. I was having a conversation about this recently with a family member who’s married to a physician. My daddy knew just enough about medicine to teach us to be very cautious & skeptical.
      A little medical knowledge can be a dangerous thing but so can utter trust in a system that endorses the sort of horrors you describe. These are the same folks who brought us eugenic sterilizations & promote euthanasia today.
      Modern medicine & antibiotics can be a great blessing. Praise God for most medical advances but we should always remain watchful for social engineering under the guise of better health.

    • Dear Deacon. It appears that you are sifting, once more, through societies plagues to determine not to use a mask. “infuses their bodies with all sorts of hormonal chemicals”. That is surly painting with a broad brush! ALL of government? I assume you speak of the CDC. How about Dr. Anthony Fauci? He watched silently as Trump offered household cleaning fluids like Clorox to “make it go away”.
      We are old enough to be placed in the most exposed group in fear of getting COVID19, specifically raspatory infections. Who do you trust?

      God bless

  7. “Seeking to nip a new mask-mania in the bud, Senator J.D. Vance recently attempted passing a bill by unanimous consent that would have prohibited future federal face-covering requirements. The bill was blocked by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who worried that not allowing the State to impose masking would “silence and hamstring public health experts.” Markey is not wrong…”

    Markey is wrong. Not permitting experts to make law based on their extensive knowledge of one factor, and thorough ignorance of the other thousand, neither silences nor hamstrings them. They still have exactly that power that they ought to have: the power to talk to people and advise them, and the power to talk to each other and figure out what is going on.

    The only power taken from them, is the power to force others to do as their hypotheses and speculations seem to indicate might be a good idea. And they shouldn’t have that power. That is why informed consent is the basis of medical ethics, and why you are allowed to fire any kind of advisor that you hire, whether that’s a financial planner, a plumber, a lawyer, or a doctor, rather than being assigned one and subjected to him.

  8. I interact on a daily basis with a number of people who have serious health concerns, especially respiratory health concerns. They understood that for me to wear a mask was a sign of my concern and love for them. For me to wear a mask brought us closer together. Those who work with them all wore masks. And none of them got Covid, and all of us were more reassured than if we had not worn masks. As St. Augusitine said, “In what is necessary, unity. In what is questionable, liberty. In all things, charity.

    • I have no trouble wearing a face covering out of charity if someone with a serious illness requests that. At the very least I won’t be sneezing on them. But that’s quite a different thing from govt. mandates.
      I visited a friend & her son a couple years ago in the middle of Covid. They are both facing very serious health troubles, one had a terminal diagnosis almost 3 years ago & is still hanging on. We opted to meet outside at a park & share lunch, minus masks but if I’d been asked to I certainly would have done that to make them feel better. Even though I doubt it would have made much sense infection-wise.
      I’m weary of the Covid wars & I hope we’ve learned something from the ridiculous govt. overreach & fear. The denial that there actually was a virus quite harmful to certain people-I’ve been to a couple of funerals connected to that. And from the general lack of charity shown to each other.

    • I don;t think they;ve ever proven that masks stop the virus; I wear glasses and they immediately fogged up with a tight cotton mask; I’m thinking, how will this stop the virus.

      Droplets I understand – but I was flying for work in mid to late 20s/21 and 22 and there was almost no sneezing or coughing on the airplanes

      • I was at a meeting and one of the participants looked upwell but didn’t say anything. She hugged us all when we separated. None of us wore masks. About a dozen of those whom she hugged came down with Covid, myself included.
        I enjoy swimming against the current and I have never been either politically or religiously “correct”, but it seems to me that to refuse to wear a mask primarily to make a political statement when doing so puts those who are already vulnerable at greater risk is thoughtless at best and uncaring of the common good.

  9. Really? The next time you go into surgery tell the surgeon and the team not to bother with masks. On second thought, tell them not to bother washing their hands or putting on sterile gloves. Maybe you should pass this on to your dentist also. You seem to know more about how viruses spread than the M.D.’s who spend a life time studying this. How arrogant and how irresponsible towards our vulnerable people in our midst with low immune systems.

    • Pollen, dust, and other allergens are large enough particles to be stopped by a piece of cloth, which is why people in large cities in China wear them routinely – the air pollution is so bad that it annually raises the risk of cancer about as much as standing outside Fukushima Daichi while the reactor melted down.

      Bacteria are smaller than dust, but still larger than the holes in surgical masks, which is why surgeons wear them. Your skin would generally protect you, but not if a surgeon has cut through them. The mouth happens to contain more bacteria than any other orifice, save one. Which is also why you should go to an ER if someone bites and breaks your skin. The bacteria in there can kill you, or cause you to lose an appendage.

      Viruses are far smaller than the holes in any mask, including N95s. The ebola virus, which is an order of magnitude larger than Covid, was never protected against with a cloth mask, but with a separate air supply, because there’s simply no other way to keep a virus out.

      There have now been 4 randomized controlled studies on the effectiveness of masks, all of which have concluded that they do nothing. The Cochrane Institute (a well-respected group of medical researchers) did a metastudy examining those studies and others to sort through which were good, which were bad, and what could actually be concluded (rather than speculated by bureaucrats and PR “scientists” parroted by media personalities and influencers). The people who actually make their living doing research concluded that there is no evidence that masks did anything useful.

      Adjusting your behavior in response to new information might bear a resemblance to following the science.

  10. We live in a world of ‘know it alls’ who like to dictate how everyone else ought to live their lives. Actually, it’s the definition of totalitarianism.

  11. There are circumstances where masking is appropriate, such as in medical facilities, around vulnerable people, etc. we need to use common sense. Refusing to wear a mask around vulnerable people is not striking a blow for freedom.

    Medical science is not perfect, but following the direction of anti vaxxers and other kooks is dangerous.

    • I’m all for medical science, when it actually accounts for the data and science involved. So, for example, the recently updated Cochrane Report/Review titled “Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses” (Jan 30, 2023):

      Medical/surgical masks compared to no masks

      We included 12 trials (10 cluster‐RCTs) comparing medical/surgical masks versus no masks to prevent the spread of viral respiratory illness (two trials with healthcare workers and 10 in the community). Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks (risk ratio (RR) 0.95, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.84 to 1.09; 9 trials, 276,917 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence. Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza/SARS‐CoV‐2 compared to not wearing masks (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.42; 6 trials, 13,919 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence). Harms were rarely measured and poorly reported (very low‐certainty evidence).

      N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks

      We pooled trials comparing N95/P2 respirators with medical/surgical masks (four in healthcare settings and one in a household setting). We are very uncertain on the effects of N95/P2 respirators compared with medical/surgical masks on the outcome of clinical respiratory illness (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.10; 3 trials, 7779 participants; very low‐certainty evidence). N95/P2 respirators compared with medical/surgical masks may be effective for ILI (RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.03; 5 trials, 8407 participants; low‐certainty evidence). Evidence is limited by imprecision and heterogeneity for these subjective outcomes. The use of a N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks probably makes little or no difference for the objective and more precise outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza infection (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.34; 5 trials, 8407 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence). Restricting pooling to healthcare workers made no difference to the overall findings. Harms were poorly measured and reported, but discomfort wearing medical/surgical masks or N95/P2 respirators was mentioned in several studies (very low‐certainty evidence).

      … The pooled results of RCTs did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks. There were no clear differences between the use of medical/surgical masks compared with N95/P2 respirators in healthcare workers when used in routine care to reduce respiratory viral infection.

      And what do you say about following the direction of financially and politically motivated government officials and experts (“experts”!) who have been shown, repeatedly, to lie, deny, deflect, change directions, and otherwise flush the science down the toilet? So, yes, let’s follow the science–the real science–as well as the money, the power, the influence, the political nepotism, etc.

      • So we should take Hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin and other quack cures pushed on conspiracy theory social media? Your last paragraph has more than a whiff of conspiracy theory to it. Are you against vaccination?

        • Is it *all* government officials and experts who cannot possibly be motivated to take bribes or tell lies to preserve their jobs? Or just the ones you agree with?

          Please recall that large numbers of government officials and experts in multiple departments backed the notion that there were WMDs in Iraq. Later it turned out that maybe their information was misinterpreted
          or not *quite* as conclusive as they had led everyone to believe. Or is that a conspiracy theory?

          Somehow, everyone knew, in the US government and news media, that the USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine. At least until the war ended – there’s been no consensus since. But would it be a conspiracy theory to suggest that maybe a lot of experts who came to ostensibly solid conclusions regarding the perpetrator might have been speaking with just a tad more certainty than they had reason for?

          Area 51 is a favorite of conspiracy theorists of the alien inclination. But for conspiracy realists, there’s the part where the federal government admitted to running a deception campaign on US citizens to convince them that the tests of experimental airplanes were not happening, and that anyone who claimed to see something
          weird was – get this – a crazy conspiracy theorist who believed in aliens.

          And then there’s the other conspiracy theory that says one Dr. Anthony Fauci lied about masks – wait, that’s not it, Dr. Fauci said he lied about masks, and would do it again. The conspiracy theory is that he approved the testing of HIV drugs on foster children (primarily minorities) who did not have HIV/AIDS and who were in sufficient pain from the drugs that they tried to avoid taking them, and who were not given patient advocates. Oh, wait, that’s a BBC documentary. Huh.

          To label something a conspiracy theory isn’t an argument, it’s an insult. And not a particularly impressive one at that. All it says is that you haven’t bothered to charitably read your opponents sufficiently to argue based on facts and reason.

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