The ethics of a face

There is a 2-year-old baby  in our house.  No, she is not the child of any of our children.  She is the daughter of one of the maids.  She got pregnant and her boyfriend would not marry her.  We told her maybe it was just as well since they were both too young, but that she was welcome to stay with the child.

That was 3 years ago.  This morning, the child Carla — that’s her name — came to the sala and took a seat beside me while I scanned the papers.  She called out my name and smiled.  I wasn’t in a particularly friendly mood, but her voice was playful, her eyes so trusting and her face a mirror of  innocence that  inattention would have been vicious.

She was talking.    She called out my daughters’ names, prefixing these with “Ate”.  She called my wife “Inday”, the affectionate and deferential nickname by which the maids call her.  But she called me by my first name, to the eternal embarrassment of her mother who was, in any event, horrified to see her invading social space as she took a chair beside me.

She was in a bright mood and she was staring  at me as if waiting to start up a conversation.  Without turning my face away from the newspaper I was holding, I stole a glance  at her from the corner of my eye and she caught me. She laughed triumphantly, pointed a finger at me and repeated my name.  I smiled reservedly and kept quiet, while her mother nervously called out to her to come quickly to the kitchen.

But she wasn’t bothering anyone, this little girl.  She was just communicating with another human being without any consciousness of  status, age, gender, or class.  I guess only children are capable of doing that — while they’re young.  Thereafter they are subjected to a lifetime of education in the art of discriminatory social mapping and the distorted communication of unequals.

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On my way back to Manila from Baguio the other week, I sat through a 7hour bus ride without exchanging a single word with my seatmate.  We were strangers to one another, and therefore the rules applicable to such relationships in the modern world — those of civil inattention — governed our non-interaction.

I was sleepy and it is how I preferred it.  He was absorbed in the movies being shown on the bus betamax, and did not seem passionate about a conversation.  But as I sat quietly beside this stranger, physically near but socially distant, I was also sure that if he suddenly had a heart attack or fell off  his seat, I would be the first to come to his aid.

More and more, human encounters in the world we live in follow this process of inclusion and exclusion from social space.  In the presence of others, we quickly map the situation, and sort out people into those we know and don’t know, and those we care to know and those we choose to ignore.  It is an unavoidable feature of modern living.  But all too often, the perspective we bring into such encounters is mostly utilitarian.  We don’t bother ourselves with people who are not useful or potentially useful to us in some ways.

“The objects of cognitive spacing are the others we live with.  The objects of moral spacing are the others we live for”, said the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Those we choose to consign to the margins of our cognitive social space —  “strangers” — also tend to be insignificant or non-existent in our moral space.  As Bauman put it:  “In the cognitively mapped social space, the stranger is someone of whom one knows little and desires to know even less. In moral space, the stranger is someone of whom one cares little and is prompted to care even less.”

That is why we recoil when tragedy happens to those we know — our relatives, our friends, our neighbors or our idols — yet we pay scant moral attention to the misfortune of those who lie outside the boundaries of our social maps.   This is specially true in parochial societies like ours where significance and relevance are determined by the traditional feudal attributes of status, power, class, ethnicity and gender.

Most of us are incapable of plain civility, the one virtue that makes it possible for strangers to live with one another.   We continue to conduct our lives according to the outmoded social maps of small communities that are becoming rarer and rarer in the modern world.  Out on the streets of Manila, we will not hesitate to give way to the vehicle of a neighbor, but to a “stranger” we will not accord  the same courtesy.

It is what we need most to learn if we are to survive as a people in the postmodern world.  What the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the “ethics of the face” or “responsibility for the Other”.  “It is difficult to be silent in someone’s presence,” said Levinas.  “It is necessary to speak of something, of the rain and fine weather, no matter what, but to speak, to respond to him and already to answer for him…. It is the presupposed in all human relationships.  If it were not that, we would not even say, before an open door, ‘After you, sir!’  It is an original ‘after you, sir!’ that I have tried to describe.”

Someone taught me how to drive away streetkids who knock on your car window: knock back.  Since reading Levinas I have found it impossible to do that and not morally acknowledge the presence of faces peering through the closed windows of cars on the streets of Manila.


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