Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Masks and Men

I've cross-posted over at

A friend just emailed me the following excerpt from a New York Times piece called "Behind the Masks" by Thomas L. Friedman:

Why were both the Hamas and Fatah fighters wearing ski masks? (And where do you buy a ski mask in Gaza?) These masks are worn by fighters who wish to shield themselves from the gaze of their parents, friends and neighbors, for there was surely an element of shame that Palestinian brothers were killing brothers, throwing each other off rooftops and dragging each other from hospital beds. The mask both protects you against shame and liberates you to kill your brothers - and their children. In our society, it's usually only burglars, rapists or Ku Klux Klansmen who wear masks. The mask literally says: "I don't play by the rules."

Appropriately, Emmanuel Levinas happens to say that the face, literally, says "Thou shalt not kill." For Levinas, face and discourse are tied. "The face speaks," he says. The covering of the face, then, shuts down the possibility for discourse and dialogue. How fitting that Hamas would wear masks. The face is also what calls us into ethical responsibility, and so it follows that any move to cover the face, particularly in the context of an act of violence, is a shirking of the infinite responsibility to which we are called.

I recently did a presentation (at the North American Levinas Society conference) on one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films -- A Short Film About Killing. In the film's murder scene, in which a transient youth randomly kills a taxi cab driver, the killer stops in mid-murder to cover the face of his victim with a shirt so that he does not have to answer its gaze. It's the most intense moment of the film -- even more intense than the actual murder, which takes twelve minutes.

But Hamas and random murders are extreme examples of the significance of the face. On a more basic, day-to-day level, I think about the way our behavior differs when we can see someone's face, as opposed to when we cannot. On the road, for instance, it is easy to be impolite to other drivers -- to cut them off, curse at them, make obscene hand gestures, refuse to let someone into your lane -- simply because all we're looking at is a vehicle as opposed to the person driving the vehicle: a person with a face.

On the other hand, when pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store, even the rudest and most aggressive drivers tend to be much more polite. It's rare, for example, to see shoppers cutting each other off with their carts and waving their middle fingers. The reason for this is obvious: when you have to look someone in the face you are confronted with your own responsibility to behave decently and to recognize your own humanity in the face of another human being.

And then there are metaphorical masks . . . such as anonymous commenters who keep their identity veiled precisely so they can launch verbal assaults for which they don't have to take responsibility. I've heard of such things.

But aside from all of philosophical musings about masks, faces, and concealed identities, aren't masks just creepy? I much prefer the days when villians stretched women's pantyhose over their faces to distort their features -- now that's classy.


Casey said...

Imago Dei. Good fundamental principle for ethical thinking -- what I like most about it is that it is not purely philosophical. That is, the face does not literally say "Thou shalt not kill" -- but it does seem to say as much.

And I don't mean to lean too hard on the issue of "literally," but Friedman uses it akwardly as well: the Klansman's mask does not literally say "I don't play by the rules," but it doesn't have to. For me, this shows that what is not literal can be more powerful than what is literal. The symbolic white hood may precipitate more horror than an explicit (literal) statement of violence.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Good post Monica. Recently I was discussing V for Vendetta with someone--we were talking about the significance of the final scene (in which the populace dresses in masks and then takes them off at the climactic moment). I think v presents us with an interesting case: someone who dawns the mask to inspire revolution (especially since the mask contrasts to the exxageratedly large vision of the dictator's Hitler-ish face).

I mean only to suggest that, while the mask can hide the exocutioner, the face can represent something despicable as well. People often dawn ideological masks much more powerful than any material one. Meeting the other face-to-face, acknowledging our consitutive debt to other and Other, means actively attempting to deconstruct one's own mask, attempting to suspend the inevitable imposition of identity.