The power of masks | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.12.2019

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The power of masks

Burned barricades, batons and tear gas. When it comes to street protests, why does violence so quickly become uninhibited? A key criteria is whether or not we're recognizable.

How to correctly protest and demonstrate is something you have to learn. So you can find some practical hints on left-wing political websites.  The authors tell you how to prepare for possible riots, and at the same time they teach you how to bypass a ban on wearing face masks.

"It is better not to wear a mask. The cops won't recognize you anyway if you're dressed completely in black. The mask usually only draws attention to you and the group and can be considered a reason for arrest. But if everyone around you is wearing a hoody, you should also wear one in order to protect others and not to draw attention to yourself," the manual says. 

Moreover, you shouldn't wear a balaclava or anything similarlike that — "at most a scarf and hood or sun glasses." In Germany, there's been a ban since 1985 on wearing face masks. Similar regulations exist in many other countries.

A little piece of fabric, one great effect

This small piece of textile on the front of one's face not only protects the masked person from identification, it also puts him in a different role.

"It's about a change of identity. I am allowed to leave my normative role," Berlin criminal psychologist Hans-Joachim Clausen explains. 

When demonstrators are wearing masks, they often do it for reasons that are different than, for example, those of a a bank robber who doesn't want to be recognized.

London Million Mask March On Bonfire Night

Masking disinhibits people, like at the London "Million Mask March" against the establishment

Most psychologists and researchers agree that masking disinhibits people.

"By covering my face, I no longer mirror myself in the feelings of the other,"  theater and literary scholar Richard Weihe explains. "This is why the emotional energy discharges — regardless of the reaction of the other person. I wouldn't necessarily see it as a change in the psyche, but as a disinhibition, as a discharge and displacement of emotions." Weihe teaches theater theory and practice at the Accademia Teatro in Ticino, Switzerland. 

Clausen says that, while the human being behind the mask stays the same, and his or her psyche as well, behavior changes: "The mask can, of course, help to become decisive," he told DW. "If I conceal my identity, then I am less restrained and therefore more powerful." 

Uninhibited violence 

This disinhibition is expressed positively in masked balls, for example, where, originally, the nobility was able to escape the otherwise strict rules and enjoy themselves outside the obligatory norms and rules.

Modern sex parties function according to the same pattern and use similar means. To some extent, this can also be said for carnival, where the "fool" takes on a different role through masking or disguise and also does or says things outside the usual rules.

Anti-government protesters wear masks during a demonstration at Causeway Bay district, in Hong Kong, China October 6, 2019.

The abstract figure protects identity and strengthens cohesion

In the same way, people can live out their negative emotions behind the mask in a more more uninhibited manner, without having to take social norms into consideration.

"One is removed of the responsibility of one's own actions by creating a type or an abstract figure," says mask researcher Weihe. "I can no longer be identified, and I can no longer be prosecuted for my actions. Now my actions are, so to speak, inconsistent."

The masking thus brings about a transformation, and behavior changes. "That's not me, it doesn't fit into my self-image or self-concept," is how Hans-Joachim Clausen describes the astonishment at his own uninhibited behavior.

Protesters, all dressed in black, at a G-20 Summit in Hamburg

The mask makes you feel protected, uninhibited and powerful

Masking provides protection and security, as well. The masked person sees any opponents only through a slit. And the person on the other side is unable to recognizes the masked one's feelings.

"The opponent does not recognize my fear," says psychologist Clausen. Now, the masked person can strike without having to show his face, his feelings, his compassion or his mercy. 

Mass and power 

It's not by chance that violent demonstrators mostly appear as an undefinable group, also known as the "black block." Not only does this protect the individual, it also increases their clout. The individual is absorbed in the black block, or in the uniform mass.

"The expression is no longer the rebellion of the individual, but the choreography of the protest," Weihe says. "By bringing the figures into line, the action develops a tremendous effect, as does the effect of revolutions."

Group dynamics, Clausen says, also change the behavior of the individual. "Boundaries get crossed in such a way that one no longer has any other alternatives for action. One can no longer get out of the situation, but only tries to free oneself from it by force."

The group causes a kind of "depersonalization." The individual is no longer perceived as an individual, but as a mass. In the anonymity of the group, the individual finds social approval. "When a masked group member is attacked, each individual feels equally restricted, emotionally sharing the fate of the attacked buddy," Clausen says.

Riot Police are seen arresting a protester inside a shopping mall during an Anti-Government Protest in Sha Tin District in Hong Kong, China. November 3, 2019.

A helpless individual's struggle against Hong Kong's martial security forces

Especially since the group sees itself as fighting for the right cause. "Basically, these groups fight for a noble goal, for a morally higher goal or an organization," Clausen says. "They can, so to speak, refer to a higher authority."

Violent excesses on both sides

The security forces who oppose these demonstrators by definition also see themselves as fighting for the right cause — law and order. Ideally, they ensure security and enforce the rules.

This does not necessarily mean that they are actually justified and behaving in accordance with the law. Again and again, there are violent excesses by security forces, especially if they cannot be identified as individuals and behave, accordingly, with no restraint. 

Protected by their uniforms, martial combat equipment and protective masks, security forces can also be enticed into violent attacks if they hope or can be sure that they will not be recognized, will remain nameless and will not be held accountable. They, too, meet the demonstrators as an undefinable group — also to protect the individual and to increase their joint clout. 

Both sides, then — violent demonstrators and security forces — see themselves as a closed group, as a "we" against "the others." The group sets the direction and the rules, and the anonymous individual adapts his or her behaviour to the group.

"The frustration that has accumulated in several areas of life can finally be channelled, by both sides, during a demonstration," Clausen says, "which becomes a kind of lightning rod for aggression. No one knows who it was."

Police officers wearing numbers while arresting demonstrators

Protected, but identifiable: Police at the G20 summit in Hamburg

This is why in most countries of the European Union, for example, police officers are required to be identified by a name tag or an identification number. This is intended to protect against unlawful police violence and strengthen confidence in the police.

Creative Hong Kong: Beat violence with your own weapons

In view of the massive protests, the Beijing government in Hong Kong tried to enforce a ban on the wearing of masks. In the meantime, the demonstrators defied the ban with original ideas, like with Halloween masks, for example, that were not banned, or by wearing masks of Hong Kong's head of government Carrie Lam, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking government representatives.

Protesters clad in masks showing the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping gather for a human chain rally in Hong Kong's Sha Tin district on October 18, 2019.

Creative ideas to conceal identity remain necessary in Hong Kong

Mask researcher Richard Weihe is enthusiastic about the development. "This is a brilliant idea! Because a mask is also an image that exerts a certain effect. With such a politician's picture of the opposite party, an inhibition develops within the others to strike or to shoot."

Such creative ideas for concealing identity remain necessary, because Beijing, which is committed to total surveillance, urged Hong Kong's Supreme Court to reinstate the previously lifted ban on wearing face masks.

Traditionally, assassins also often wear masks. Not only to remain unrecognized, but also because the mask lowers the threshold for killing. Through masking, the assassin slips into the role of a merciless killing machine. Masking creates the necessary distance from the victim. It gives the assassin the power to kill without visible human emotion.

A picture of the Christchurch shooter, buarded by police. His face is pixled out to deny him publicity.

Humiliating for criminals with an addiction to prestige: pixels instead of fame.

In recent times, some assassins have deliberately refrained from masking themselves. They want to be recognized and accepted.

"They are in the center, like on a stage," says criminologist Clausen." In this way they can compensate for their lack of self-esteem. They not only exercise power, but also try to control, and sometimes spread, collective fear."

Such killers want to boast about their deeds. They seek recognition. That's why they write confession letters in advance or stream their murders live on the Internet. They drop their bourgeois mask and show their true face — part of their inhuman craving for recognition.