Masking humanity: Emmanuel Levinas and the pandemic

A mere free community cannot flourish. A thriving community certainly needs people who respect each other’s freedoms, but they also need to understand and respond to their responsibilities – responsibilities like honesty, fairness, and even some level of compassion. One of the most fascinating portrayals of this responsibility in the 20th century can be found in the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the face is primary. Finding responsibility in the face is a fascinating philosophical insight in itself, but in the midst of a pandemic it finds particular resonance when people regularly put on masks before entering the public square.

Levinas was born in Lithuania in 1906 and his family suffered a dislocation during World War I. Eventually he began university studies in France and Germany, published his Strasbourg dissertation on Husserl in 1930, and became a French citizen in 1939 at the start of World War II, but was captured and spent much of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. His internment contrasted dehumanization by prison guards with the uplifting power of human appreciation by a highly unlikely comrade:

Around the middle of our long captivity, for a few short weeks before the guards chased him away, a wandering dog entered our lives. One day he met this rabble when we were returning from work under guard. He survived in a wild spot in the region of the camp. But we called him Bobby, an exotic name like you do on a cherished dog. He would show up at the morning meeting and wait for us when we got back, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him there was no doubt that we were men.

After the war Levinas worked in French science, including at the University of Paris. There he developed his view that human relationship and responsibility arise from a revelation that takes place mainly in personal encounter. In works such as his “Totality and Infinity” from 1961, he argues that the face is the place where we find the vulnerability of another human being, and commands us neither to hurt the other nor to leave them to suffer. If we do something wrong, Levinas argues, it is not primarily by violating rights, but by justifying someone else’s pain and suffering.

Soldiers know that seeing the enemy as faceless can be helpful in reassurance that they will kill. They must do their best to forget one of the core lessons of Homer’s Iliad – that every fighter, no matter how famous or anonymous, has once groomed on their mother’s chest and jumped onto their father’s knee. Bureaucracies usually do the same, trying to destroy any sense of personal relationship or responsibility by formally treating everyone as officials, consumers, or prisoners. This view suggests that if motorists could look each other in the face, we would run into much less traffic.

For Levinas, other attributes such as social status, economic class, race and gender take a back seat as soon as we see someone else’s face. The Bible, he argues, is mostly not made up of history, literature or myth, but of faces, and most importantly, when we look at a face, we encounter the divine.

In the face is the highest authority that commands and I have always said that this is the word of God. The human face is the channel for the word of God. There is the word of God in the other, speech without subject.

We do not feel responsible by some abstract ethical principle or moral law, but by meeting one another face to face. There it becomes visible what would otherwise have turned out to be invisible – the imprint of the divine in every other person.

A strictly libertarian account could indicate that we are free to go about our own affairs, turn away from the sight of another person in need, and remain deaf to someone else’s requests. Such indifference is a prerequisite for all kinds of tyranny. But once we hit the face, we become aware of our responsibility whether another person withers or thrives, argues Levinas. The divine is not in a distant place, above the clouds or completely outside of space and time, but in the person who is in front of us. We cannot dispose of this person, no matter how convenient it seems. Instead, we need to look and listen, even when we don’t want to see and hear.

For Levinas, situations in which people treat each other facelessly represent moral danger. Until we can see others, we may not treat them as anything but members of different classes – mere salespeople and salespeople, bosses and clerks, and even mere data points. Humans as a whole are nothing more than statistics. We do not exist simply because we occupy space, metabolize or think, but because we are called by someone else’s face. To be is to be in relationship, and to be cut off from any relationship is the same as not to be. We become human in and through relationships with other people.

Some commentators have complained about the undetectability of Levinas’ works, but the widespread use of masks during the pandemic provides practical evidence of his point. If the face is critical to our human identity and moral responsibility, decreased personal interaction is expected to take a toll. Examples of such reductions are quarantine and isolation, the transition from face-to-face to online meetings, and the widespread practice of wearing masks. A decline in face-to-face encounters would inevitably require a moral and political price.

The widespread wearing of masks promotes a social ethos that is more in line with Thomas Hobbes’ so-called natural state, in which people look out for themselves and fear others.

Consider wearing a mask that inevitably contradicts the primacy of the face. In most cases, the top of the face, including the eyes, is still visible, but the nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin are hidden. Hiding the lower part of the face not only worsens the ability to see demographics such as age, gender, and race, but it also makes knowing someone else’s full personality worse. As a result, wearing masks can lead to a lack of interpersonal engagement and responsibility. Perhaps the ubiquity of the mask wearing helps explain the sad state of politics during the pandemic.

There is a neurological condition called “prosopagnosia,” sometimes called face blindness, in which people can see objects and have no mental impairment, but have difficulty recognizing faces, including their own. Part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus is activated when people see faces, and in normal people it provides a far greater ability to recognize faces than other objects. Prosopagnosiacs have suffered damage in this area. Normal people record a face “at once”, but those affected have to resort to cumbersome recognition strategies from feature to feature.

There’s a reason bank robbers are often masked – they make it harder to remember and identify, hide their own emotional state, and protect themselves from moral responsibility by making it harder for others to engage with them on a person Person level. They take over some of the undetectability of HG Wells’ “Invisible Man”. Something similar is likely to happen if the wearing of masks becomes widespread in a community.

The mask is hidden, but also sends a message. It fosters an ethos of distrust, the feeling that we need to be on guard. This is true not only in the obvious sense that one person could infect another person with a communicable disease, but also because it is more difficult to tell what another person is thinking, feeling, and intending to do.

The widespread wearing of masks promotes a social ethos more in keeping with Thomas Hobbes’ so-called natural state, in which people look out for themselves and fear others. To counter this tendency in an age of mask-wearing, Levinas could encourage the use of transparent masks and, where this is not possible, the wearing of photos that depict each person’s full face. Such approaches have been used in a number of healthcare facilities I know. To be fully responsible for each other, Levinas would say we have to look each other in the face.

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