Masking Humanity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Pandemic

A merely free community cannot thrive. A thriving community certainly needs individuals who respect one another’s liberties, but it also needs them to understand and act on their responsibilities—responsibilities such as honesty, fair dealing, and even a measure of compassion. One of the most intriguing 20th-century accounts of such responsibility is found in the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the face is primary. Locating responsibility in the face is a fascinating philosophical insight in its own right, but it takes on special resonances in the midst of a pandemic, when people regularly don masks before entering the public square.

Levinas was born in Lithuania in 1906, and his family suffered dislocation during World War I. He eventually commenced university studies in France and Germany, publishing his Strasbourg dissertation on Husserl in 1930 and becoming a French citizen in 1939. He joined the French army at the onset of World War II, but was captured and spent much of the war in a prisoner of war camp. His internment juxtaposed dehumanization at the hands of the prison’s guards with the uplifting power of human recognition by a most unlikely comrade:

About halfway through our long captivity, for a few short weeks, before the sentinels chased him away, a wandering dog entered our lives. One day he came to meet this rabble as we returned under guard from work. He survived in some wild patch in the region of the camp. But we called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, 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 academia, including at the University of Paris. There he developed his view that human relationship and responsibility spring from an epiphany that occurs primarily in the face-to-face encounter. In works such as his 1961 “Totality and Infinity,” he argues that the face is where we find another person’s vulnerability, as well as commands neither to harm nor abandon the other to suffering. If we do wrong, Levinas argues, it is not primarily by infringing on rights but by justifying another’s pain and suffering.

Soldiers know that to inure themselves to killing, it can help to see the enemy as faceless. They must do their best to forget one of the core lessons of Homer’s Iliad—that each combatant, no matter how famous or anonymous, once nursed at his mother’s breast and bounced on his father’s knee. Bureaucracies tend to do much the same, seeking to deflate any sense of personal relationship or responsibility by treating everyone formalistically as functionaries, consumers, or prisoners. This view suggests that we would encounter road rage with much less frequency if motorists could see each other’s faces.

For Levinas, once we see another’s face, other attributes such as social status, economic class, race, and gender fade into the background. The Bible, he argues, is made up primarily not of history, literature, or myth but of faces, and it is above all in beholding a face that we encounter the divine.

In the face lies the supreme authority that commands, and I have always said that this is the word of God. The human face is the conduit for the word of God. There is the word of God in the other, speech without a theme.

It is not by any abstract ethical principle or moral law that we feel responsible, but in meeting one another face to face. There, what might have otherwise proved invisible—the imprint of the divine in every other person—becomes visible.

A strictly libertarian account might suggest that we are free to mind our own business, turn away from the sight of another person in need, and turn a deaf ear toward another’s pleas. Such indifference is a prerequisite to all kinds of tyranny. But once we have encountered the face, Levinas argues, we become aware of our responsibility for whether another person withers away or thrives. The divine is not in some far-off place, above the clouds or entirely outside of space and time, but present in the person who is before us. We cannot dispose of that person, no matter how convenient it might seem to do so. Instead we must look and listen even when we do not want to see and hear.

For Levinas, situations in which human beings deal with one another facelessly entail moral peril. So long as we cannot see others, we may find ourselves treating them as nothing more than members of various classes—mere vendors and sellers, bosses and employees, and even mere data points. People in the aggregate resemble nothing more than statistics. We do not exist simply because we occupy space, metabolize, or think but because we are called by the face of another. To be is to be in relation, and to be cut off from all relation is the same as not to be. We become human in and through relationships with other human beings.

Some commentators have complained about the inscrutability of Levinas’s work, but widespread mask wearing during the pandemic provides practical evidence of his point of view. If the face is crucial to our human identity and moral responsibility, then reduced face-to-face interaction would be expected to take a toll.  Examples of such reductions include quarantine and isolation, the move from in-person to online meetings, and the widespread practice of mask wearing. A decline in face-to-face encounters would inevitably exact a moral and political price. 

Widespread mask wearing promotes a social ethos more in line with Thomas Hobbes’ so-called state of nature, in which people look out for themselves and fear others.

Consider mask wearing, which inevitably conflicts with the primacy of the face.  In most cases, the upper portion of the face, including the eyes, is still visible, but the nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin are hidden. Hiding the lower portion of the face degrades not only the discernment of demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, and race, but also recognizing another’s full personhood. As a result, mask wearing can create a deficit of interpersonal engagement and responsibility.  Perhaps the ubiquity of mask wearing helps to explain the sad state of politics during the pandemic.

There is a neurologic condition called “prosopagnosia,” sometimes called face blindness, in which individuals can recognize objects and suffer no intellectual impairment yet have difficulty recognizing faces, including their own. A part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, is activated when people see faces, and in normal people it grants far greater facility in recognizing faces than other objects. Prosopagnosiacs have suffered damage to this area. Normal people take in a face “all at once,” but afflicted individuals must resort to cumbersome feature-by-feature recognition strategies.

There is a reason that bank robbers are often masked—they make themselves more difficult to recall and identify, hide their own emotional state, and shield themselves from moral responsibility by making it more difficult for others to engage with them on a person-to-person level. They take on some of the inscrutability of H.G. Wells’ “Invisible Man.” Something similar is likely to happen when mask wearing spreads widely in a community.

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

Widespread mask wearing promotes a social ethos more in line with Thomas Hobbes’ so-called state of nature, in which people look out for themselves and fear others. To counter this tendency in a time of mask wearing, Levinas might encourage the use of transparent masks, and where this is not possible, the wearing of photographs that depict each person’s full face. Such approaches have been employed in some health care facilities I know. To be fully responsible to and for one another, Levinas would say, we need to see each other’s faces.



Deadly Tradeoffs

The question is not the existence of tradeoffs, but whether the necessity of making tradeoffs will be honestly acknowledged or dishonestly denied.