Coram Homine: An Ethic of the Face

In 1984, Soviet Russia was waging war in Afghanistan, leading millions of Afghan refugees to flee into neighboring Pakistan. A young, 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun orphan had fled to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Steve McMurray, a photographer working for National Geographic, was walking through the refugee camp when he heard children’s laughter and stumbled upon a make-shift classroom for an all-girls school. He was struck by the piercing green eyes of Sharbat and asked if he could take her picture.

Sharbat, a devout muslim, wore a burqa and when McMurray rose his camera to take her picture she immediately put her hands in front of her face, uneasy about this strange man wanting to take her picture.

Her teacher, however, told her to drop her hands, “so the world would see her face and know her story.”

She did and McMurray captured what has come to been known as “the most iconic picture in the world“: Afghan Girl.

The picture became National Geographic’s most popular cover-photo ever and has widely been recognized as one of the most influential photographs of all time, serving as an emblematic picture of the plight of many Afghan children, and particularly young Afghani women.

But why was the second photograph, not the first, the most iconic? Sharbat’s eye’s, arguably the most iconic aspect of the photograph, are clearly visible in both. Why did the teacher assume that the world would understand her story better if they could see her face? Because we all intuitively realize that it is through someone’s face that we really encounter them as a person; the face becomes a medium of presence.

Count the Cost

While there was some confusion at the beginning of the pandemic, the messaging has been fairly consistent: wear a mask. My state has been under an indoor mask mandate for virtually the whole of the past two years (with a brief month or so interlude last Summer). However, many other states have recently begun to announce that they are dropping indoor mask mandates due to the steep decline in cases following the omicron surge. Notably, all of these recent states are overwhelmingly Democratic and have followed covid measures usually very stringently. This is occurring despite the CDC continuing to recommend masks while indoors, especially in school settings.

And it is that setting that now seems to be drawing such controversy. Some states which are dropping mask mandates are continuing to recommend their use in schools–despite the continued evidence that children continue to be both the least at risk of serious disease and the least likely to benefit from wearing masks (i.e. masks are often not made for children; children rarely wear them properly).

Interestingly, there has been a collection of recent op-eds in left-leaning publications that have begun pointing out the considerable cost to continue to require masks for school children. Back in late January, The Atlantic published a piece written by an infectious disease expert, a professor, and a doctor titled: “The Case Against Masks at School.” Here are few fascinating excerpts:

To justify mask requirements in school at this point, health officials should be able to muster solid evidence from randomized trials of masking in children. To date, however, only two randomized trials have measured the impact of masks on COVID transmission. The first was conducted in Denmark in the spring of 2020 and found no significant effect of masks on reducing COVID-19 transmission. The second is a much-covered study conducted in Bangladesh that reported that surgical masks (but not cloth) were modestly effective at reducing rates of symptomatic infection. However, neither of these studies included children, let alone vaccinated children.

...In Tennessee, two neighboring counties with similar vaccination rates, Davidson and Williamson, have virtually overlapping case-rate trends in their school-age populations, despite one having a mask mandate and one having a mask opt-out rate of about 23 percent...Another recent analysis of data from Cass County, North Dakota, comparing school districts with and without mask mandates, concluded that mask-optional districts had lower prevalence of COVID-19 cases among students this fall. Analyses of COVID-19 cases in Alachua County, Florida, also suggest no differences in mask-required versus mask-optional schools. Similarly, the U.K. recently reported finding no statistically significant difference in absences traced to COVID-19 between secondary schools with mask mandates and those without mandates.

The article then goes on to warn us about the potential consequence that long-term mask wearing will have on children, from everything to speech development, to impeding emotional recognition in both adults and children, to further adding complications for students with special needs and speech and hearing disabilities.

Recent prospective studies from Greece and Italy found evidence that masking is a barrier to speech recognition, hearing, and communication, and that masks impede children’s ability to decode facial expressions, dampening children’s perceived trustworthiness of faces.

The entire article is full of lots of other well cited information that demonstrates (1) the science on the effectiveness of masks, particularly with children, is not as rock solid as we once thought and (2) the psychological and educational impact on our society, and kids especially, of perpetual mask wearing is considerable. Back in December I wrote about the multi-faceted cost of covid measures, particularly on children, but had not considered the psychological impact, the alienation children experience when all of their peers are masked.

Face as Presence

Covid measures are complicated, but we should always realize that all measures come with some cost. Early on in the pandemic, I met with a couple in my church for marriage counseling. I felt a slight tickle in the back of my throat so I decided to wear a mask for the duration of the counseling session. Throughout the session, with the bottom half of my face entirely covered, I suddenly realized how much I rely on facial expressions to communicate. When one spouse was sharing something painful, how do I telegraph that I am sympathizing with her frustration? Through my face. When the husband responds with his side of the story, how do I tell him Ah, I see what you mean, without interrupting him? Through my face. But with the mask on, I couldn’t do that. I could nod my head and raise my eyebrows, but there was something significant that was lost. The absence of the hundreds of subtle variations of my face, the muffled voice, the impersonal look of a masked face are not nothing when it comes to communicating, to relating to others.

If our faces seem to be the epicenter of our persons, where our relational presence is most clearly communicated, then that means when we “out of an abundance of caution” shroud part of it, what we are doing isn’t neutral. We have often heard that wearing a mask is a small price to pay to keep others safe. And it does seem like a relatively insignificant inconvenience that anyone should be able to abide by. But what is reasonable temporarily may not be so permanently. There are children who will be going into 2nd grade next year who will potentially have never seen the face of their teacher in person. Compound that with all the other upheavals of the last two years (school closures, quarantines, the fear of living in a pandemic, etc) and we may have a mental health crisis on the horizon for the next generation that we have never seen before. That is not insignificant.

Of course we can think of scenarios or circumstances that would require us to once again put on a mask. Wearing a mask in the right situation is an imminently wise and loving thing to do. But a culture of indiscriminate mask-wearing? A lifestyle where masks are expected to be worn whenever we are out and about, where our impulse is to default to mask wearing, where people are ostracized or shamed for not doing so, is not worth it. If presence is most clearly mediated through the face, then we shouldn’t think that something that hinders that as “value-neutral.” It comes with a cost.

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