Masking Humanity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Pandemic

A just free community cannot flourish. A flourishing community surely needs people who honor one another’s liberties, but it also requires them to understand and act in their responsibilitiesresponsibilities like honesty, fair dealing, and just a measure of compassion. Among the most fascinating 20th-century reports of such responsibility is present in the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the face is main. Finding responsibility from the face is really a fascinating philosophical consciousness on its own right, but it takes special resonances in the midst of a pandemic, when individuals regularly don masks prior to entering the public square.

His internment juxtaposed dehumanization in the hands of the prison’s guards using the uplifting power of human recognition with a most unlikely comrade:

1 day he came to meet this rabble because we returned under guard from your work. He survived in some crazy patch in the area of the camp. However, he called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a beloved dog. He’d appear at morning assembly and has been waiting for us since we returned, jumping up and down and barking in joy.

After the war, the Levinas functioned in French academia, including in the University of Paris. There he created his view that human connection and obligation spring out of an epiphany that occurs primarily from the face-to-face encounter. In works like his 1961″Totality and Infinity,” he asserts that the face is the place we locate another person’s vulnerability, in addition to commands neither to hurt nor abandon another to enduring. When we do wrong, Levinas asserts, it isn’t mostly by infringing on faith but by minding a person’s pain and suffering.

Soldiers know it to inure themselves to killing, it can help see the enemy just as faceless. They must do their very best to forget a few of the core classes of Homer’s Iliad–which each combatant, no matter how famous or anonymous, and once nursed in his mum’s breast and back on his father’s knee. Bureaucracies tend to do much the same, trying to deflate any feeling of personal connection or obligation by treating everybody formalistically because functionaries, consumers, or offenders. This view suggests that we would strike road rage with much less frequency when drivers could see one another’s faces.

For Levinas, once we see the other’s face, additional features like social standing, economic class, race, and gender fade into the background. The Bible, he asserts, is made up mostly not of history, literature, or myth however of faces, and it is above all in beholding a face which we encounter the divine.

From the face lies the supreme authority that orders, and I’ve always said this is the word of God. There is the word of God from another, speech without a theme.

It isn’t by any abstract ethical principle or moral law that we feel accountable, but in meeting one another face to face. There, what could have proved undetectable –the imprint of the divine in every other person–becomes visible.

An only real account could suggest that we’re totally free to obey our own business, turn away from the sight of another individual in need, and also turn a deaf ear in the other’s pleas. Such indifference is a prerequisite to all sorts of tyranny. But when we’ve struck the face, Levinas argues, we know our obligation for if another individual withers away or thrives. The divine isn’t in certain far-off place, above the clouds or completely outside of space and time, but within whoever is . We cannot dispose of the individual, no matter how convenient it may appear to achieve that. Rather we must try to listen when we do not need to watch and hear.

For Levinas, scenarios in which human beings deal with one another facelessly entail moral peril. So long as we cannot view other people, we may find ourselves treating them as much more than associates of various classes–only sellers and sellers, bosses and workers, and even mere statistics points. Individuals in the aggregate resemble nothing more than figures. We do not exist because we occupy distance, enhance, or believe but because we’re called by the surface of another. To be is to be in relation, and also to be cut off from all relation would be exactly the same as not to be. We become human through and in relationships with other human beings.

Many commentators have complained about the inscrutability of Levinas’s job, but widespread mask wearing during the pandemic provides practical evidence of his viewpoint. If the face is crucial to our human identity and moral responsibility, then decreased face-to-face interaction could be expected to have a toll.  Examples of these reductions include quarantine and isolation, so the move in in-person to internet meetings, along with the widespread practice of mask wearing. A decline in face-to-face encounters would necessarily exact a political and ethical cost. 

Widespread mask sporting promotes a social ethos more in line with Thomas Hobbes’ so-called state of nature, in which people search for themselves and dread others.Consider conceal wearing, which necessarily conflicts with the primacy of the face.  Typically, the upper portion of the face, including the eyes, is still visible, but the lips, nose, mouth, and chin are hidden. Hiding the lower portion of the face degrades not just the discernment of demographic characteristics, like age, sex, and race, but also realizing the other’s complete personhood. As a result, mask sporting could create a deficit of social engagement and responsibility.  Possibly the ubiquity of mask sporting helps to explain the unhappy state of politics during the pandemic.

There is a neurologic condition known as”prosopagnosia,” sometimes referred to as face blindness, in which folks can recognize objects and suffer no intellectual handicap yet have difficulty recognizing faces, including their own. A part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, is activated when people watch faces, and from normal people it unlocks much more center in recognizing faces compared to other items. Prosopagnosiacs have suffered damage to this area.

There is a rationale that bank robbers tend to be concealed –they create themselves difficult to remember and identify, conceal their own emotional state, and shield themselves from moral responsibility by making it harder for other people to participate with them on a sub-par level. They take on some of the inscrutability of H.G. Wells'”Invisible Man.” Something similar is likely to occur when hide sporting spreads widely in a community.

The mask hides but it also sends a message. It encourages an ethos of feeling, the feeling that we will need to be on guard. This is true not just in the clear sense that one individual may infect another having a communicable illness but also because it is more challenging to tell what the other person is thinking, feeling, and planning.

Widespread mask sporting promotes a social ethos more based on Thomas Hobbes’ so-called state of nature, in which people search for themselves and anxiety others. To counter this trend in some time of mask wearing, Levinas can encourage the usage of translucent masks, and in which this isn’t feasible, the sporting of photographs that depict each person’s face. Such approaches have been employed in certain health care facilities I understand. To be completely accountable to and for one another, Levinas might say, we need to find one another’s faces.