Facing Up to One Another

There is a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who said, “The relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.”

And so, whenever I see a news article accompanied by an image of an elderly person’s hand, or a syringe, or an empty hospital hallway, this quotation always comes to my mind. How different it is to actually see faces. It is almost as if seeing faces (even if only as images) is to be given a different set of facts altogether.

Why is this?

Levinas thinks that when we face up to one another, literally, then we are capable of an epiphany about the uniqueness of the person before us as well as of our own uniqueness. After all, a face-to-face encounter between two particular persons cannot be delegated without fundamentally changing the relation.

The face looks at me, calls out to me. It claims me. What does it ask for? Not to leave it alone. An answer: Here I am. My presence, of no avail perhaps, but a gratuitous movement of presence and responsibility for the other. To answer, Here I am, is already: the encounter with the face.

Without these encounters with the face, without embodied experiences in our respective uniqueness – with all the constraints and concreteness that entails – we become at a loss for understanding who, really, is our neighbour. To whom do I owe anything? To whom do I owe my very self? And why would I give it?

The problem of people becoming “de-faced”, explains Levinas (whether as pixels, as masses, or anonymized) is that this “risks transforming the sublime and difficult work of justice into a purely political calculation – to the point of totalitarian abuse.”

By facing up to one another as the embodied, vulnerable, unique, and unrepeatable persons that we are, we are more likely to act toward others with love and justice.

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