The Facelessness of Facebook: A Few Lessons from Levinas

Enter the world of Facebook–over 400 million users with 60 million status updates per day. The average face on Facebook has 130 “friends.”1 You can be whoever you want to be, as long as you categorically submit to the pre-determined sections of interest. You begin your virtual life by putting your best foot (or rather, face) forward. Post the picture of the “young you” photo-shopped in on a Caribbean cruise liner: tanned, strong, happy, and fulfilled. Your hobbies can be anything you wish to list: skydiving, windsurfing, tennis, or relaxing by the pool in your vacation home on the Italian Riviera. Your former high school sweetheart, or nemesis, will see you and weep with jealousy. You create a description of life that shows you to be talented and successful in all that you do. Your next job is to collect “friends.” Then, your “friends” can see your other “friends”–both the really “important” ones and the not so important ones. The one with the most friends, pokes, posts, or farms at the end (of what?) wins.

My wife recently heard from a young lady who said that she identifies her true friends as those who faithfully communicate with her on Facebook. Really? Is this what it is coming to? A couple of years ago, best friends were those who “texted” you from across the room; now best friends are those who make you their friends on Facebook. You can now become friends with those that were mere acquaintances, while your former, Facebook-less friends are demoted to acquaintances. Of course, if you don’t have a computer or a cell phone, you can’t be anyone’s friend.

When somebody asks to be your friend on Facebook, we all know that this really means they want to be your voyeur. Well, why not? It gives you a chance to show off what you’ve got. Your new “friends” will peer into your life, your family photos,   Facebook fosters a non-social addiction of feigned friendships, accompanied by the pursuit of vainglory or the nagging call of jealousy.   your musical tastes, and virtually all of your likes and dislikes–or at least all of your virtual likes and dislikes. They get to hear about what you had for dinner last night (whether it’s a juicy steak or a Hot Pocket), where your cousins are going on vacation, and when you need to make your next dentist appointment.

But I am worried about Facebook, and you should be too. It promises relationships and connections to friends, but I think it is deceiving us. This week I have heard of two friends that deactivated from Facebook because it was overwhelming them with impersonal obligations. It fosters a non-social addiction of feigned friendships, accompanied by the pursuit of vainglory or the nagging call of jealousy.

Incarnate Communication

As you probably guessed, I am out of touch and naïve. I confess, I don’t do Facebook. I am behind the times; I don’t even blog. I use ordinary email. I have learned the little I know simply by peering over the shoulder of another working the Facebook screen or by stumbling across the front page of folks I have been looking for while doing a Google search.

Some join Facebook as a way to keep in touch with friends suffering from illness. This allows them to get the word out fast, so that true friends can pray in “real” time. Of course, this is a good thing. It is a redeeming quality that I would be remiss not to mention. Unfortunately, many end up substituting the impulsive twitter chatter of Facebook for compassionate phone calls or personal correspondence. By the way, whatever happened to the telephone? Or, heaven forbid, meeting a friend for a meal and displaying our real face before the face of a friend?

Maybe I’m being overly cynical and obnoxious about all of this. Several of my friends and colleagues don’t agree with me. They tell me Facebook has revolutionized their means of communication and networking. They can dispense more information to the masses in a much quicker manner. They can professionally engage others more efficiently. Ok, point taken. But I’m still not convinced.   The other person provides a window into the face of God, so we must long to be put continually and constantly before the face of others.   Communication theorists tell us that a great percentage of our communication takes place non-verbally through intentional expressions and unintentional micro-expressions. I wonder how much of ourselves (and our faces) we are actually losing in our plethora of virtual friendships on Facebook. If our emotional and social energies are fully poured into this online world of networking, we may be inadvertently depleting our resources for true face-to-face friendships.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some anti-modern pietistic traditionalist that goes on tirades against technology and culture. It’s not that I think using Facebook is a sin or some kind of device of the devil. But it is a tool that seems to promise something it will never be capable of fulfilling. Rather than giving us faces of friends that can peer into our souls with compassion, encouragement, and godly reproof, as only a true friend can, I fear it is depersonalizing us with everyone’s mundane narcissism and luring us in towards an illicit desire for things completely other than personal. It is de-facing our faces.

In a truly Christian agapeic fashion, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas spoke of our ethical obligation to the “face of the other”–the other who beckons us to act, respond, and care beyond any expectation of reciprocity. The “face” for Levinas is the metaphor of the particular person before our eyes, rather than the faceless, depersonalized, collective populace. There is some Christ-like wisdom found in this post-Holocaust thinker. Levinas calls for a sacrificial, giving love that does not seek to dominate, categorize, or subsume the other person according to our pre-fashioned models of existence, knowledge, or expectations.

Unfortunately, Facebook is all about expectations. If someone asks to be your “friend,” you are expected to accept them. If you refuse, you are put in an awkward position. You hardly know this person, but they want to peer into your life and, in effect, they are inviting you to peer into theirs. Facebook is about symmetry in relationships. You see my life only if I can see yours. If you poke me, I will poke you back. If things don’t go well, I may de-friend or block your access to certain information. Of course, we will never talk about it, it all happens covertly. You think you have access to all portions of my life, but in (virtual) reality you only see the parts for which I have given you permission.

Face and Christian Faith

Levinas experienced the de-personalizing horror of World War II. He served in the French army, was captured and forced to work for five years in a German camp, and lost family members who were murdered at the hands of Nazis in Lithuania. He witnessed first-hand the violence that occurs to others when they are enveloped into a faceless horde. His ethical philosophy almost seems to be an expression and call for forgiveness on one hand, and on the other, a challenge not to lose the other amidst “the others.” We must remember that people have faces. If we forget that people have bodies and blood and real faces that frown, show pain, and smile, we can be tempted with the same anti-Semitic- like dehumanization of the other. When the real person is simply and superficially seen as a curriculum vitae, a web page, a blog, or just a Facebook friend, I cannot help but wonder if we approach a similar mistake. We would do well to learn these lessons from Levinas.

Levinas believed that human faces are marvelous things. The other person provides a window into the face of God. Indeed, if that is true, we must long to be put continually and constantly before the face of others. Rather than looking for God in the clouds, in preachers, or in purpose-driven church programs, we must turn our eyes toward the other before us. It is through a radical compassion and sensitivity toward our fellow human beings that we must find traces of the face of God. I am not borrowing from Levinas to advocate a flat anthropological theology. I am not suggesting the divinization of humankind. Rather, I am calling us to reconsider how we discover, see, feel, and grow in our understanding of the Triune God who created humanity and through whom his image is made manifest.

Jesus calls us look after “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40) among us. When we look after the hungry and thirsty, the poor, or the orphans and widows (James 1:27), then we are looking toward Jesus himself. Levinas says we find the least of these in the face of the other. This is what transcendence is about, because that is where the trace of the transcendent God is truly revealed.

Is this not what an incarnational theology is all about? Face-to-face vulnerability? We live our theology before people, making ourselves vulnerable before their ethical demands on us as their eyes meet ours. Jesus lived among us; he practiced and experienced the epitome of human vulnerability–face to face with hurting people in their misery–while experiencing the misery of suffering from those who shunned and hated him. He touched the sick, held the children, ate with the unlovable, and he looked into the faces of those who hated him while looking back into their eyes with the eyes of a forgiving friend. He experienced the painful hatred of those who scourged him and pounded nails into his flesh, and the sadness from his own friends who cheated and betrayed him. Yet his face was still before them, expressing anger and reproof, compassion and understanding, but always displaying and granting undeserved and unconditional love. Jesus’ embodied practice of love displayed the type of love we are to manifest to others as the living body of Christ today. This is how we “image” God to the world. But to do this means our hands, bodies, and faces will get dirty in the mire of life.

Nice notes, blogs, and email are fine, but I’m wondering if the Facebook craze is causing us to neglect genuine human touch and compassion–not only with “the least of these,” but even with those we consider our closest friends. We are becoming bodiless interlocutors in a matrix-like virtual web. But our bodies were intended to show real acts of interaction with visible and dynamic expressions of the face, before the face of others.

Levinas got this right. Let’s make sure we do too.

ENDNOTES

1 www.facebook.com/press/infophp?statistics. Access date, March 2, 2010.

Ronald T. Michener is chair of the department of systematic theology at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium.