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Let’s Face Us

Updated: May 13

The custodians of Enlightenment increasingly betray its maxim, “Dare to Know!” We must revive its double foundations, and first, to “dare,” we should learn to face each other; The Clotting of the Academic Mind, Part I [an extended version of my post in Psychology Today]

 

It is said that the origins of the game “Truth or dare?” go back to the early 18th century. In one confirmed incident, in early summer 1734, when the seven-year-old Maria Elisabeth took the first spin of the bottle, its mouth ended up facing her brother, the ten-year old Emanuel. Upon asking him “Truth or dare?” Emanuel muttered, collapsed, and never recovered.

Luckily, the incident was only confirmed by my own delirious mind. Young Emanuel, whose 300th birthday we celebrate today, was never disintegrated by the “truth-or-dare?” dilemma. Instead, he got to learn Hebrew, changed the spelling of his name to Immanuel, came up with a couple of cool ideas, and crystallized Enlightenment’s motto, substituting the game’s “or” with “and,” its question mark with an exclamation point: Sapere aude! (“Dare to Know!”).


I try. After all, truth and dare should go together. And so, about ten years ago, I entered my seminar at Tel Aviv University, telling my students that “I have a confession to make. Please bear with me as I’m telling you this. I have studied the Holocaust thoroughly, going through scores of studies, scrutinizing many historical records, and concluded it’s a fabrication: there was no genocide.” A silence fell. They were shocked, some stared at me, others looked away. Later, a couple timidly asked for clarification, but none protested, no one accused me of being a “holocaust denier,” though clearly, they thought so, and clearly, I was. After five minutes that felt like forever, I finally disclosed it was a ruse, an educational snare: the Holocaust did happen, but we should think well about what just happened in class. They looked relieved, and I certainly was.

Academic freedom can, at best, lower the costs of daring to know but it can’t make us courageous.

None of us should have been relieved. If my quasi-cruel snare worked it was partly because I failed, as a person: my students could actually believe I am a holocaust denier. They too should have been concerned: if the presence of a professor is enough to scare them into silence, what chances do they, do any of us, stand in the face of fiercer pressures? After all, academic freedom can, at best, lower the costs of daring to know, but it can’t make us courageous. Academic freedom also can’t assure the rare blend of “truth” and “dare” into individual bravery of intellectual integrity; it cannot, by itself, forestall rampant self-deceit of conformist conceit.


Fast forward a decade, and two months ago: Ithaca College invited me to join a “Side by Side” discussion with Nizar Farsakh, the Chair of the Board of the Museum of the Palestinian People, to deliberate “Conflict, Hope, and Change in Israel and Palestine.” The response of the College’s “Students for a Free Palestine” (ICSFP) was brisk and resolute: “Uriel Abulof does not deserve a place on this campus” trumpeted one Instagram post, “a violent genocide denier” accused me another.


A third post explained the ICSFP rationale. Citing my own words at the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, the students decoded: “and here he is, in his own words, attempting to downplay the reality of Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people and painting it as a matter of political zealotry instead of what it is: the result of a violent, racist, colonial, and genocidal political ideology being enforced and supported by western imperial powers.”

ICSFP posts. Curiously, some of these posts were deleted.

When it comes to knowing people, a key risk facing us is facing them.

Though ICSFP said what my TAU students did not dare, I doubt the former epitomizes Sapere aude. In this post, the first dealing with Enlightenment’s motto, let’s focus on the “dare” – what’s really there?


Oxford Dictionary suggests the verb is about either “courage” or “challenge,” which the noun entwines: “a challenge, especially to prove courage.” To dare, therefore, seems to be less about having, more about showing, courage; by defiance.


I doubt that’s what Kant had in mind. His aude was about boldly taking a risk. ICSFP hardly did, I believe. When it comes to knowing people, a key risk facing us is facing them. Unlike my TAU students, ICSFP didn’t face me; in fact, they demanded the exact opposite: to not face me. More painful still, for me: they attempted to ban me from facing them. I could look at each of my TAU students’ eyes, but the ICSFP spoke in anonymous unison; they sought to become a collective mass, a monolith, a faceless body politic. ICSFP risked nothing. I imagine some believed they’d be taking a risk not to join the call. Ultimately, as a friend suggested to me, it may be that it’s not the lack of dare – but of desire – to know, which really underpins the students’ behaviour. Or perhaps, worse still: a desire not to know.


As I was reading ICSFP students’ plans for a sit-in boycott against me, I daydreamed about joining them before the event, sitting with them on a chilly Ithaca wintry day, side-by-side, mainly to listen, and if I dare, to ask some questions. Alas, the event was run online.

For us, putative enemies living in Jerusalem, atop the world’s detonator, coexistence is a daily, lived experience. We dare do what ICSFP students demand we don’t: face each other.


Throughout the conversation, I spoke from my hometown, Jerusalem, over which peoples of all possible persuasions have shed each other’s blood for ages – and also where putative enemies do literally live side-by-side, even today. Living in Jerusalem, atop the world’s detonator, coexistence is for us a daily, lived experience. Be it in holy sites, schools and universities, supermarkets, hospitals, the light rail, restaurants or the dinner table – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, Israelis and non-Israelis dare do what ICSFP students demand we don’t: face each other.

If the dread of face-to-face drove the boycott of “side-by-side,” we might learn a thing or two from another Emmanuel – Lévinas, the French Jewish philosopher, who built much of his ethics around the face-to-face encounter. While Kant sought infinity in the ideal of universal, pure, reason – whose knowledge he dared us pursuing – Lévinas saw the experience of infinity in its finite form: the face.

The burden of Lévinas’s face-to-face responsibility seems unbearable. No wonder we prefer to look away.

If you happen to read this next to someone, lift your eyes to look at their face. For Lévinas, this moment is what it’s all about. By meeting the mortal face of another human, not the immortal faceless God, we are invited to transcend ourselves. Your bare, fragile face strips away my egoism, and while it may tempt me to murder you, it orders me not to: “The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill’.” Facing the other, “in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes,” I find that “to recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give.”


This hunger is perhaps most intelligible in a baby’s big-eye clinging gaze. No other organism is as needy as the human infant. No other gaze better demonstrates, viscerally, what it means to be human; forever cast between being bonded and bounded. And while we may outgrow our infant phase (unfortunately, not all do), our hunger remains. Looking at one’s eyes – docile, demeaning, demanding or otherwise – we face their hunger and our own.


Norman Rockwell, The Gossips, 1948
Norman Rockwell, The Gossips, 1948

For Lévinas, recognizing this interdependency means responsibility, which is “the word of God.” While we typically read responsibility as a universal principle of accountability for chosen actions affecting others, Lévinas saw the face’s call for responsibility as infinite, irrecusable and asymmetrical: “I am responsible for a total responsibility, which answers for all the others and for all in the others, even for their responsibility,” and moreover, “I am responsible for the other without waiting for reciprocity.” The burden of such responsibility seems unbearable.


If that’s what face-to-face means, we can readily understand why we all, not just ICSFP, often look away. Should we be surprised that people have been ripping down posters of Israeli hostages? Or that Israeli media hardly shows the suffering faces of Palestinians in Gaza?


People tearing down posters of Israeli Hostages, London’s Leicester Square, 24 October


The Hebrew “face” (פנים) alludes to “interiority.” Like God, we too like keeping our innermost hidden. We dread shame, we fear losing face – our sense of self. And so, to save face, we hide it, from ourselves, and from others.

Passover is upon us, and while Shopping for a Passover gift, I met with a Jerusalemite who picks rocks for his wife’s art. She decorates them with drawings and with words mostly taken from the Jewish tradition: blessings for home, family and love. Like the rest of his family, he turned religious decades ago, and before departing he gave me a Hasidic booklet. I opened it and the first sentence I encountered read: “When you fall, follow the maxim ‘you covered your face, I was cowed’ and refuse the fallen darkness.”

Back home, taking a step back, I’m reading the chapter from which the verse is cited: Psalm 30 speaks of God’s pendulum, capriciously swinging people between pit to peak, sickness and health, darkness and brightness, woe and joy; the author (King David?) confesses one such moment: “Feeling at peace, I believed it shall forever last, then you erected colossal mountains before me, you covered your face, I was cowed.”


And so are we. We often feel like playthings in the hand of greater, faceless forces. According to the bible, Moses came as close as possible to God, but even he did not see him face-to-face; God allowed Moses to behold his manifestation (the burning bush), even his exterior sides (well, literally His divine butt…), but not his face: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus, 33:20).

Pavel Filnov, Faces, 1940
Pavel Filnov, Faces, 1940

Tellingly, the Hebrew “face” (פנים) also alludes to “interiority.” God kept his innermost by hiding his face from Moses too, and I’m left to wonder about His expression upon showing Moses the Promised Land, which Moses, upon God’s order, labored so hard to get his people to – then He smacked him dead. Did God have tears of regret in his eyes? Did He grin?


People do. At times the capricious forces that swing us seem quasi-cosmic, but at other we are played by fellow humans, who treat us like things. Shame on them, shame on us, which we can spend a lifetime running away from. And so, we can understand why, like God, we too like keeping our innermost hidden; we dread shame, we fear losing face – our sense of self. And so, to save face, we hide it, from ourselves, and from others.

The facial cloak can be literal and forced like religious veils, but the main, volitional, facial hideaway is the façade

Unlike God, we can hardly hide our face to eschew our responsibly. Face is the hardest, and usually the last, to go undercover. Still, we try. Sometimes the facial cloak is literal and forced like religious veils that reveal, by trying to conceal, how they treat women like dangerous objects of forbidden desire. Islamic veils, for example, span a spectrum, and up the ante – from Hijab, to Chador, to Niqab, to Burqa – gradually defacing women so as to absolve the shameful desire, the shaming look. While Hijab and Chador at least save the face, the Niqab targets it, but spares the eyes. What’s it like to see through, and be seen as, faceless eyes?

The Burqa (Abaya) takes the final step. It grasps that the gravest danger lurks in the eyes, thus caging them behind a window mesh, leaving for the woman but a dark blurry vision on the world, which seems all too fitting.


Still, our main facial hideaway from responsibility is more volitional and elusive – the façade. We don’t need Burqa to hide our thoughts and feelings. In fact, we can use the faculties of our face, the very thing that can disclose our interiority, to disguise it. As any good poker player knows, a facial façade is the best deceit. Still, sometimes, the façade does not hide the face, but its lack – there’s no interior self to begin with. The façade then becomes a substitute for a face, a cœur lost in décor.

If we dare not face others, how can we ever face ourselves? Conversely, without fully facing ourselves, how can we ever hope to understand others?

Starting with a fictional tale and false confession, I might as well wrap up with a genuine exposure, of The Sixth Sense sort: I see faces!... everywhere, even where there aren’t; my most recent finding is our bathroom tile. Can’t you see her?



Scientists call it “face pareidolia,” and nearly all people seem to have it. The evolutionary mechanism is clear enough – we seek our own – but the variation puzzles. Some studies suggest high pareidolia results from high levels of creativity and oxytocin, being low on the autistic spectrum, but it can also be a hallucinatory indicative of dementia. I would like to see a study of historical trends – do humans see more, or less, faces these days, compared to a century, a millennium, ago? Is there an interplay between face pareidolia and our society and its politics? Do hikikomori (social withdrawal), pandemic hyper-masking and “social distancing” or growing political polarization suggest a growing avoidance of face-to-face encounters, and responsibility?


Vilen Barsky, Face 1965
Vilen Barsky, Face 1965

“The face resists possession, resists my powers,” writes Lévinas, and explains in complicated words that resist my own meager power of comprehension. But this I know from my own experience: looking at someone’s eyes, I try to sense and seek their frailty and freedom, and my own. When we look at each other, at one and the same time we mirror each other face-to-face nakedness as well as the capacity to choose how to responsively respond to it. Here the dare is not simply to stare – but to see, others and yourself. After all, if we dare not face others, how can we ever dare face ourselves? And conversely, without fully facing ourselves, how can we ever hope to understand others?


Truly trying both, I think, while falling far short of Lévinas’s “word of God,” is a joint responsibility we can, and should, shoulder. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” opens W. B. Yeats his 1914 collection of poems. It’s in daring better dreams and becoming responsible for them, that we can imagine – nay, create – a world where we can not only stand side by side, but face to face, and then, if we’re braver still, hand in hand. This, indeed, will be a dare.


Postscript

Israel’s self-designated royal couple, PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, posted their picture from Passover eve (April 22) at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. Standing side by side, Bibi rests his red right hand on a poster featuring the faces of the 133 hostages held by Hamas. I wonder if, throughout the months following Oct7, the couple truly took a moment to look at the faces they solemnly presented before others, in order to look better themselves. That Sarah so crudely doctored her own photographed face is just another demonstration of their callous priorities.



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