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Coronavirus

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

-Essay-

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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