Masking Humanity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Pandemic

A merely free community cannot flourish. A flourishing community certainly needs individuals who respect one another’s liberties, but in addition, it requires them to understand and act in their responsibilities–responsibilities like honesty, fair dealing, and just a measure of compassion. One of the most intriguing 20th-century accounts of such accountability is seen in the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the facial skin is main. Locating responsibility in the face is really a fascinating philosophical consciousness in its own right, but it takes special resonances in the midst of a pandemic, when folks regularly don masks before entering into the public square.

Levinas was born in Lithuania in 1906, and his family suffered dislocation during World War I. He started university studies in France and Germany, publishing his Strasbourg dissertation on Husserl at 1930 and becoming a French citizen in 1939. He also joined the French army at the onset of World War II, but had been seized and spent a lot of the warfare at a prisoner of war camp. His internment juxtaposed dehumanization at the hands of their prison’s guards using the uplifting power of individual recognition by a most improbable comrade:

About halfway through our lengthy captivity, for a couple of short weeks, before the sentinels chased him away, a drifting dog entered our own lifetimes. 1 day he came to fulfill this rabble as we returned under guard from work. He lived in some crazy patch in the area of the camp. He would appear at morning assembly and has been awaiting us as we returnedjumping up and down and barking in joy.

Following the war, the Levinas worked at French academia, such as at the University of Paris. There he created his view that individual relationship and responsibility spring from an epiphany that occurs primarily in the face-to-face encounter. In works like his 1961″Totality and Infinity,” he argues that the face is really where we find another individual’s vulnerability, as well as commands neither to harm nor abandon another to distress. When people do wrong, Levinas argues, it is not mostly by infringing on rights but by justifying another’s pain and distress.

Soldiers know this to inure themselves to killing, it can help see the enemy just as faceless. They need to do their best to overlook one of the core lessons of Homer’s Iliad–that each combatant, no matter how famous or anonymous, and once nursed at his mother’s breast and bounced on his dad’s knee. Bureaucracies often do substantially the same, seeking to deflate any sense of personal relationship or responsibility by treating everybody formalistically as functionaries, customers, or offenders. This view implies that we’d strike road anger with much less frequency if motorists could observe one another’s faces.

For Levinas, once we see the other’s face, additional features like social status, economic class, race, and sex fade into the background. Even the Bible, he argues, is composed mostly not of literature, history, or myth but of faces, and it’s over all in beholding a face that we encounter the divine.

In the face establishes the ultimate authority that orders, and I have always said that this is the word of God. There’s the word of God in the other, speech with no theme.

It is not by any subjective ethical principle or moral law which we feel accountable, but in fulfilling one another face to face. There, what could have proved undetectable –the imprint of the divine in each other person–becomes visible.

An only real account may suggest that we are absolutely free to mind our own company, turn off from the sight of another person in need, and turn a deaf ear in the other’s pleas. Such indifference is a prerequisite to all kinds of tyranny. But when we’ve encountered the encounter, Levinas argueswe know our responsibility for whether another person withers off or thrives. The divine is not in some far-off location, over the clouds or entirely out of space and time, but within the person who is before us. We cannot dispose of that person, no matter how convenient it may seem to do so. Rather we have to try to listen even when we do not wish to watch and hear.

For Levinas, cases where human beings cope with yet another facelessly entail moral peril. Provided that we cannot view other people, we may find ourselves treating them as much more than associates of various classes–mere vendors and sellers, supervisors and employees, as well as mere data points. Individuals in the aggregate resemble nothing more than statistics. We do not exist because we occupy space, metabolize, or believe but since we are called by the face of another. In order to be compared , and to be cut away from most relation is the same as not to be. We become person in and through connections with other human beings.

Some commentators have complained about the inscrutability of Levinas’s work, but widespread mask wearing during the pandemic offers practical proof of his perspective. If the face is crucial to our human identity and moral obligation, then reduced face-to-face interaction would be expected to have a toll.  Examples of such discounts include quarantine and isolation, so the move from in-person to internet meetings, and the widespread practice of mask wearing. A decline in face-to-face experiences would inevitably exact a moral and political price. 

Widespread mask wearing promotes a social ethos more consistent with Thomas Hobbes’ so condition of nature, where people search for themselves and dread others.Consider mask wearing, which inevitably struggles with the primacy of their face.  Typically, the upper part of the face, including the eyes, is still visible, but the nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin are concealed. As a result, mask sporting could create a shortage of social engagement and responsibility.  Maybe the ubiquity of mask wearing helps to explain the unhappy state of politics during the pandemic.

There’s a neurologic condition called”prosopagnosia,” occasionally called face blindness, where folks can recognize objects and suffer no intellectual disability yet have difficulty recognizing faces, including their own. A area of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, is activated when people watch faces, and in ordinary people it grants far more center in recognizing faces than other items. Prosopagnosiacs have suffered harm to the area. Regular men and women take at a face”at the same time,” but affected individuals have to resort to cumbersome feature-by-feature recognition plans.

There’s a reason that bank robbers are often concealed –they make themselves difficult to recall and identify, conceal their own emotional condition, and shield themselves from moral duty by making it more difficult for other people to engage with them on a sub-par degree. Something similar is likely to happen when hide wearing spreads broadly in a neighborhood.

The mask hides but in addition, it sends a message. It promotes an ethos of suspicion, the sense that we need to maintain guard. That is true not just in the clear sense that one person may infect another having a communicable illness but also since it’s more difficult to tell what the other man is thinking, believing, also planning.

Widespread mask wearing encourages a social ethos more based on Thomas Hobbes’ so condition of nature, where people search for themselves and fear other people. To counter this trend in a time of mask wearing, Levinas can promote the use of translucent masks, and in which this is not possible, the wearing of photographs which depict every individual’s face. Such approaches are utilized in some healthcare centers I understand. To be completely responsible to and for one another, Levinas might say, we need to see one another’s faces.