The Epidemic of Facelessness

Stephen Marche in the New York Times: “….Every month brings fresh figuration to the sprawling, shifting Hieronymus Bosch canvas of faceless 21st-century contempt. Faceless contempt is not merely topical. It is increasingly the defining trait of topicality itself. Every day online provides its measure of empty outrage.

When the police come to the doors of the young men and women who send notes telling strangers that they want to rape them, they and their parents are almost always shocked, genuinely surprised that anyone would take what they said seriously, that anyone would take anything said online seriously. There is a vast dissonance between virtual communication and an actual police officer at the door. It is a dissonance we are all running up against more and more, the dissonance between the world of faces and the world without faces. And the world without faces is coming to dominate…..

The Gyges effect, the well-noted disinhibition created by communications over the distances of the Internet, in which all speech and image are muted and at arm’s reach, produces an inevitable reaction — the desire for impact at any cost, the desire to reach through the screen, to make somebody feel something, anything. A simple comment can so easily be ignored. Rape threat? Not so much. Or, as Mr. Nunn so succinctly put it on Twitter: “If you can’t threaten to rape a celebrity, what is the point in having them?”

The challenge of our moment is that the face has been at the root of justice and ethics for 2,000 years. The right to face an accuser is one of the very first principles of the law, described in the “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but reaching back through English common law to ancient Rome. In Roman courts no man could be sentenced to death without first seeing his accuser. The precondition of any trial, of any attempt to reconcile competing claims, is that the victim and the accused look each other in the face.

For the great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the encounter with another’s face was the origin of identity — the reality of the other preceding the formation of the self. The face is the substance, not just the reflection, of the infinity of another person. And from the infinity of the face comes the sense of inevitable obligation, the possibility of discourse, the origin of the ethical impulse.

The connection between the face and ethical behavior is one of the exceedingly rare instances in which French phenomenology and contemporary neuroscience coincide in their conclusions. A 2009 study by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained the connection: “Through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel. By being able to feel what other people feel, we are also able to respond compassionately to other people’s emotional states.” The face is the key to the sense of intersubjectivity, linking mimicry and empathy through mirror neurons — the brain mechanism that creates imitation even in nonhuman primates.

The connection goes the other way, too. Inability to see a face is, in the most direct way, inability to recognize shared humanity with another. In a metastudy of antisocial populations, the inability to sense the emotions on other people’s faces was a key correlation. There is “a consistent, robust link between antisocial behavior and impaired recognition of fearful facial affect. Relative to comparison groups, antisocial populations showed significant impairments in recognizing fearful, sad and surprised expressions.” A recent study in the Journal of Vision showed that babies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months recognized human faces at the same level as grown adults, an ability which they did not possess for other objects. …

The neurological research demonstrates that empathy, far from being an artificial construct of civilization, is integral to our biology. And when biological intersubjectivity disappears, when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted.

The new facelessness hides the humanity of monsters and of victims both. Behind the angry tangles of wires, the question is, how do we see their faces again?