Till We Have Faces Covered by Devin O'Donnell


Till We Have Faces Covered

on Masking the Human Countenance

In a Phoenix airport a mother plays peek-a-boo with her baby girl. The convenience of her cloth face mask means she doesn't need to use her hands to cover up, and the infant seems to understand that the objective of this particular game is to reach out, grab the mask, and peel it away to see her mother's face. This goes on for some time. The baby pulls her mask off, the mother reapplies the mask, but each time the baby is rewarded with the epiphany of her mother's smiling face.

The scene is touching—until we are reminded of how absurd it would have looked eight months ago. If wearing face coverings is a game of peek-a-boo, it is perhaps the most divisive game in society right now. There are those who see the mask as an attack on personal liberty. And given the somewhat inconsistent response from even the scientific community in regard to its effectiveness, it is difficult not to sympathize with the sentiment that wearing a face covering is not unlike participating in something vaguely reminiscent of medieval theater, or perhaps a Roman morality play in which the villains and heroes were immediately known to the audience.

On the other hand, voices in support of the mask grow louder every day. And they seem not only to support the imposition of face coverings but to be happy to frame it in terms of Kant's categorical imperative. In addition, many Christians, for instance, have taken it almost as universally self-evident, claiming that wearing a mask is simply how "we love others." And for some, the idea that someone could show any antipathy toward face masks is almost incomprehensible. What's the big deal? "Wear the damn mask," as the saying goes.

An Anthropological Impasse

Most people simply want to keep their heads down. But when we do find ourselves caught in the tractor beam of an impending collision on these matters, it becomes clear in thirty awkward seconds that we have either gained a friend or discovered something close to a foe, someone who looks at the world and has come to a very different judgment of things. Though we may not be able to articulate it, we sense that we have arrived at something like an anthropological impasse. That is because we have.

On this issue we are so eager to jump to something called data to arbitrate our dispute, crossing swords over who has the better grasp of science. Such knowledge is necessary in making reasoned judgments, of course, but what is often overlooked entirely is the philosophical premises regarding what a human creature is. We thrust and we parry with "studies show" and what the CDC and WHO says or unsays, and—Lord, help us—we look to the interpretation of statistics by the media. But these will only get us so far.

The fact is that no expert or governing authority has remotely suggested the conditions in which masks will no longer be required, or the metrics by which we should be led to that end. Rather, it seems that many are simply content to go along with masking the human face for what seems an indefinite amount of time. And the more contemptuous attitude of "Wear the damn mask" shows a surprisingly unscrupulous consent to bid farewell to human norms, without considering the formational and educative consequences, especially to children and the young. Anyone who spoke to school administrators or teachers, for instance—as they were all busy planning for how to reopen schools in the fall—knew that face coverings for children is one of the most divisive issues in a school community. And this is not without good reason.

The Crucial Question

Given the rising obligations and popularity of face masks in our current moment, a bit of marshwigglian pessimism is useful. Again, it's not about the effectiveness or "science" of face masks. The concern lies in the unscrupulous enthusiasm that attends the advocacy of face coverings. There is an anthropological cost. And this, I argue, is especially important for children, whose education as human beings made in the image of God depends on the ability to see the human face and to be seen by it.

I have heard elementary school teachers, for instance, raise objections over face coverings for children. But these objections come mainly in two forms: the complaints about having to police kids over face masks in the classroom, and the practical challenges face coverings will have on teaching method and pedagogy. They are not wrong, of course. After all, how can anyone teach grammar or phonemes, language or phonics with something like the "Minister's Black Veil" eclipsing the face? An obvious problem and a good question. But it is not the only problem. Nor is it the only question to consider. 

Devin O'Donnell is the author of The Age of Martha (Classical Academic Press, 2019), a book on leisure and education. He served as Research Editor for the Bible publishing project Bibliotheca (2015) and has taught and worked in classical learning for over 15 years. He writes for the CiRCE Institute blog and currently is the Director of Family & Community Education at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy. He continues to teach Great Books and write because he cant help it. He is a classical hack, who came up through the manhole covers of learned society to find wisdom.

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