In The Soul of the World, philosopher Roger Scruton writes: “I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me. My face is a boundary, a threshold, a place where I appear as a monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”
How many of us are truly present in our faces? In our daily lives, most of us are looking downward, preoccupied with the technologies in our hands. We are absorbed in our own carefully curated worlds of communication. We look down, away from the faces of others, a posture in denial of every thou that passes us by. We prefer to address the faceless mass of others on the internet rather than the mass of faces around us in reality. While we are absorbed in the masquerade of social media, we cannot address the other. When the face is obscured by a mask, we can merely interact as objects, it-it. To address someone is to implicitly recognize the other as a thou.
While masking ourselves is suitable in certain situations—in a game of poker, for instance—in relationships the mask can be a device for deception. We do not enter into true friendship, love, or marriage wearing a mask over our face. Scruton writes: “Perhaps the most concentrated of all acts of nonverbal communication between people is that of lovers when they look into each other’s eyes.” In days of old, lovers leaned over a candle and a glass of wine to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. Today, lovers lean over glowing screens, longing for validation from strangers.
Perhaps we have retreated behind our masks because the risk of genuine communication is too high. “The gaze of another person is disturbing,” Scruton explains.” Over decades of technological advancement, we have become like Adam and Eve: acutely aware of our nakedness before the gaze of others, we rush to cover our faces with masks before we risk exposure of our true selves, in all our ugliness and human imperfections.
Smartphones, Social Media, and Dating
These days, if we are asked on a date at all, one or both of us are usually on our phones, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook feeds, checking the weather, and reading emails. I recall vividly a Sunday in which my date and I enraged a restaurant manager because of our cell phones. We walked in, phones in hand, checking them as we waited in line to be seated. We apparently missed the visual cue from the host, as he frustratedly motioned for us to follow him. “Hello!?” he uttered, visibly insulted by our distraction. He led us to our table, shaking his head, mumbling under his breath on the way to our table.
While I was perturbed by his over-the-top reaction, he had a point. Since then, I’ve become increasingly aware of the behaviors of restaurant patrons around me. It is unusual to see a table where every adult does not have a cell phone laid before him. Most couples—young and old alike—are both on their phones simultaneously, absorbed in the scrolling content on the Internet and neglecting the content behind the face of the other. I’ve started to make a conscious effort to put the phone away when I’m out with others. I made a strong point of this in my last relationship, after Twitter started competing with my captivating musings over escargot and champagne one evening. He took the hint and put his phone away. Yet, the minute we left the restaurant, he was back on his phone, his eyes glued to the glowing screen.
I came to realize that behind my disappointment with my boyfriend’s retreat to virtual reality is, in Scruton’s words, a longing to be recognized, to be truly known: “Each [lover] is looking for, and hoping also to be looking at, the other, as a free subjectivity who is striving to meet him I-to-I.” The modern retreat behind the masks of impersonal communication—texting, Facebook chatting, tweeting—cripples communication between the sexes. It doesn’t simply change our dating rituals. It objectifies the other person, effectively pornifying the communication between lovers.
If “all rituals impose discipline on the face,” as Scruton suggests, then our lack of dating rituals in contemporary culture fosters no discipline of our faces. Teens are no longer dating but “talking,” which has been described as the period of monogamous communication between the sexes before a relationship is established. But they are in fact not talking. They are most often texting, exchanging an endless stream of short phrases and emojis. When communication tapers off, the “talking” has failed to lead to an established relationship, and the parties become silent. Rather than a direct rejection, boys and girls merely stop texting, and hope the other gets the hint. There is no intentionality or direct decision-making in these “courtship rituals.” Instead, they make an exchange at the lowest possible cost in time, effort, and emotional investment. This is not communication: it is a commodification of human sentiment.
They say we teach others how to treat us in relationships. Perhaps it’s time to start really teaching others—and ourselves—how even to be in a relationship. Relationships necessitate relations between persons—not emojis.
A Digital Carnival
The artful crafting of an identity on Facebook, the artistic rendering of everyday life on Instagram, the selective personal musings on Twitter, the sensual scrolling on Tumblr, and the Barbie dream house boards on Pinterest—the ways in which we digitally mask ourselves can seep into every aspect of our lives, virtually unnoticed. This masking of the self, however, is not a new human inclination. Scruton writes:
In the Venetian Carnival the mask traditionally served two purposes: to conceal the everyday identity of the person, and also to create a new identity in its place—an identity bestowed by the other. Just as in the theater the mask wears the expression projected onto it by the audience, so in the Carnival does the mask acquire its personality from the people all around.
In today’s carnival, our masks are digital. We display artistic renderings of ourselves, enhancing the good and obscuring the bad. No matter how close our profile photograph might be to our true face, our avatar can never be a substitute for the face. Our “friends” are merely interacting with a mask, which removes the real risks of human encounters.
I have been in relationships in which the majority of serious discussions and attempts at conflict resolution have occurred via text message. At the time, this felt like a safe space for rational discussion of differences of opinion. I didn’t realize that the abundance of serious text talks served as a retreat from the reality of genuine conflict resolution until it was too late. Once you’ve established or accepted certain rituals in courtship, it can be difficult to create new ones—especially when these new rituals lead to a deeper vulnerability, calling us to risk more of ourselves than we are comfortable with.
Tame Me: What the Little Prince Can Teach Us about Love
In his masterpiece The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery includes an extraordinary dialogue between the Little Prince and the fox:
“I am looking for friends. What does that mean—tame?” asked the Little Prince.
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“To establish ties?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
Only when we step out from behind the screen can we begin to understand and to accept the responsibility of love and the ties of real relationships with others. Becoming tamed by love saves us from narcissism, for when we give of ourselves to others we are saved from the selfishness inherent in ourselves.
But we can only create ties with real persons and real communities. While your Twitter feed might feel like the bar in Cheers because everybody knows your pseudonym, no one knows your face. Your thoughts might captivate your followers, but you cannot tame them, for you are nothing more than a handle among a hundred thousand other users that flicker across a screen.
In contrast, the real ties you create through a relationship with your beloved rose—in the physical world beyond the screen—are unique in all the world. Taming enables us truly to love, drawing us beyond ourselves to embrace accountability and our obligations to others that we accept because we chose to love. For, according to the fox, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”