The Social Alienation And Ambiguity Of Face Masks

As COVID-19 lingers, protective masks are recommended and even mandatory in certain places. But our faces are also our windows to the world, and covering them creates serious new obstacles across our societies.

Masks, the 'biggest disruption' to our daily exchanges
Masks, the "biggest disruption" to our daily exchanges
David Lebreton


PARIS — The health crisis is profoundly disrupting our social interactions. New distancing measures keep people apart — literally. Coming too close also raises suspicion, and full contact gestures like handshakes or the familiar French cheek kiss are suddenly off limits.

Ultimately, handshakes will survive. They're too socially ingrained. They'll be rare for a while, but not totally stopped because, when in doubt, it is possible to wash your hands. But once the threat is gone, regular handshaking will resume. Likewise, social distancing will fade away. Kissing, in contrast, involves a closeness of faces and a greater difficulty to erase the traces of contact in case of a possible contagion. Further, the kiss is often accompanied by uncertainty (the number of kisses is different across France) and it imposes an intimacy that is not always appropriate.

In our contemporary societies, the face is the place of mutual recognition.

But perhaps the biggest disruption to our daily exchanges are the masks. They make faces anonymous and thus have a huge impact on the social bond. Now that the lockdown has been lifted, masks are compulsory on public transport and strongly advised in professions that involve contact with others, even in shops or on the street. But this facial concealment will add to the social disorder and fragmentation of our societies.

Behind the masks, we lose our individuality and also the pleasure and consenting practice of looking at others around us. We are entering a phase of ambiguous interaction, where codes are missing and will have to be reinvented.

In our contemporary societies, the face is the place of mutual recognition. With its features laid bare, we are recognized, named, judged, and assigned a sex, age and skin color. We are loved, despised or anonymous, drowned in the indifference of the crowd. To get to know someone implies putting forth a face full of meaning and value, and reciprocating with a face that is equally meaningful.

A couple kisses with protective masks, keeping social distance, at Piazza Navona in Rome.

A couple kisses with protective masks in Rome — Photo: Marco Iacobucci/IPA/ZUMA

Social mimicking supports the resonance of our words and moderates our exchanges. The uniqueness of the face echoes that of the individual. No part of the body more appropriately embodies the individuality of the person and conveys it socially. The social and individual values that distinguish the face from the rest of the body is no more apparent than through the effort that lovers put into expressing their affection. Similar interactions with our families highlight the importance of the face.

The face gives meaning to the individual, no matter how small the addition might be. An infinitesimal difference invites us to understand the mystery that lies behind the smile, at once so close and so elusive. Its relative smallness doesn't do justice to the face's emotional possibilities. It connects to a social and cultural community through the shaping of features and its expressiveness.

Without a face to identify them, anyone can do anything.

The more a society values individuality, the greater the value of the face. While masks are essential for public health during the pandemic, they damage social relations and deprive us of the pleasure of others. The price to be paid is considerable in terms of social bonding, even if it is necessary.

Without a face to identify them, anyone can do anything. Confidence in others will undoubtedly be shaken. Masked people become invisible. No one will be able to recognize them. The forehead and eyes are not enough to identify them in a crowd where everyone wears the same mask. The uniqueness of the features is essential to establish the social bond and to assert one's presence against others.

A world without a face, lost in a sea of masks, would be a world without culprits, and also without individuals. Roger Caillois once said masks are "what remains of the bandit." We can theorize that wearing a mask provokes power struggles, harassment and incivilities. Erasing can lead to a desire for transgression, to alter your personality. It liberates you from the constraints of identity, allowing temptations you used to repress to come to the surface as you no longer feel accountable to yourself. You no longer fear not being able to look yourself in the face since you conceal your face not just from others, but from yourself.

This trivialization of the mask, which incites a systematic anonymity, creates an anthropological rupture infinitely more fraught than the reassessment of the handshake or the kiss. Even the smile will not replace them, itself hidden behind the crease of a mask.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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