Donate to RNS

I cannot see your face on Facebook

I am not having this argument. Except, if it is over a cup of coffee. Then, maybe.

The national civil rights organization Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit against Facebook, claiming the platform failed to remove anti-Muslim content. Image by Simon from Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Imagine this scenario.

You are having a political conversation with a friend on a busy urban street. As you are talking, a stranger taps you on the shoulder, interrupts your conversation, weighs in on the topic, and then keeps on walking.

Bizarre, right? Perhaps, even, unhinged?

Welcome to Facebook and other forms of social media. That is exactly what happens. People are talking, and others, even though they do not know the interlocutors, must jump in and give your opinion.

And then, someone gets to trash someone else’s opinion, their reputation and their standing in their community.

That is why I recently demurred to comment on a Facebook page, when someone asked me to opine on a currently controversial issue in the Jewish community.

I remained silent. Because I have tried to live by the adage in Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to be silent, and there is a time to speak.” I have learned, quite adeptly, the art of staying silent.

I have tried.

Mostly.

True: I will post my own opinions on social media; post my own writings; and quote other people’s writings. Why, then, do I increasingly refuse to engage in deep, political conversations on Facebook? 

Because this is what I know about real conversations.

Real conversations require a relationship. Unless I really know you — or, at least, I am beginning to know you — I have no context for understanding what you are saying.

When we are in a conversation of any depth, there are many other “conversationalists” who are participating in the conversation: your past, your background, your experiences, your own emotional life and the ups and downs of our own relationship.

If I do not know you, I cannot factor those things into our discourse — and those things are precious, perhaps even holy.

But, more than that: real conversations require the face.

I will never fail in my endless fascination with the Bible with the notion of “face.” In particular, I think of the presence of “face” in the story of Jacob, which ends with this week’s Torah portion.

  • Jacob cannot see the face of the woman whom he was supposed to have married — Rachel — because his father-in-law, Laban, concealed her in the dark. Jacob wound up with Leah, and must work extra time for his beloved Rachel.
  • On the eve of his reunion with his his estranged brother, Esau, after years of mutual hostility, Jacob wrestles with a nameless stranger, whom he believes to have been a divine being:  So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Gen.32:31)
  • When Jacob finally meets Esau, he said: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” (Gen. 33:10)

To see the face is to have a relationship, and vice versa.

The Hebrew word for face is panim, which in Yiddish is punim. True: panim is in the plural form, which is not to say we are all two faced. It is even better or worse than that. Each of us is a plurality of faces, and we decide how we are going to present our faces to the other, and to the world.

It is only through the face that I see anything of you. It is only through the face that I accept you as the Other, and through your face I find myself responsible for you. In the words of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.”

(And, at a time when so many are still conducting services on Zoom, or in-person/Zoom hybrids, we have come to understand the massive spiritual significance of being able to see the face.)

If we already have a relationship, then we can have a conversation about difficult subjects on the phone, or via text message. Perhaps.

But, especially if we are not friends — especially if I do not know your face in real time — it is difficult to have political and ethical conversations without seeing you, person to person. I need to see your body language. I need to hear your tone of voice. I need to see how you hold yourself.

I need to see your face.

That is why, increasingly, I am walking away from difficult political and religious conversations on Facebook.

You want to have that conversation?

In the words of Proverbs: “As face answers to face in water, so does one person’s heart to another.” (Prov. 27:19)

Call me. If at all possible, let’s do lunch.