When we look another person in the eye we don’t just see the colour of the eyes, because, as Emmanuel Levinas implied, we have the opportunity to enter into a ‘social’ relationship with that person. By ‘social,’ and I’m going to give my own thoughts on this, Levinas did not mean the same social as can be dismissed by the phrase ‘have a chat.’ Instead, the Levinasian version of ‘social’ is the type of engagement that has the capacity to recognise when an encounter with another person is taking place. The sharing of a unique moment in time and place by two equals who were able to put aside their personal journeys for that moment and be there with that other person.

Engaged, responsive, interested and respectful are all attributes of someone in a Levinasian ‘social’ encounter. When we ‘socialise’ in this manner, we emanate a sense of togetherness and equality. An example might be when I walk my dog around a lake and I notice another dog owner. At the moment, both our dogs start barking at the ducks and we each look up to see the other looking back. This is not a sexually charged moment, nor one that betrays the sanctity of marriage. This ‘moment’ is the one that comes first. It comes before all the other baggage of primitive urges, environmental conditioning, and social niceties that we drag along with us. Before all of these, we meet first as humans, as equals, and as others with the power to melt lonely existences in an instance. This only happens, however, when we look into the other’s eyes.

That I can have a conversation with another person and follow my train of thought, in a cold matter of fact way, until the moment they look into my eyes, is a unique, powerful, and secular revelation. At that moment, it is as if I’m being called into account for what I’m saying. Their eyes appear to enquire whether I really believe what I’m saying and whether I’m sincere about the subject of my conversation. At that moment, I appear to transcend my own self, with it’s all familiar territories and mundane landscaping, to instantly and effortlessly float across water, hover over foreign soil, and then deeply observe not only my own home land, but also a different culture and way of being. A new perspective is given to me about myself through this encounter.

When their eyes look at me I have to exit my self-created cultural environment and acknowledge that there is, indeed, someone else with their own feelings, thoughts, and life, independent of my stumbling into them. They are their own person and they might not actually fall into line and agree with what I’m saying. They could challenge my words and accuse me of lying, misjudgement, simplistic error, or talking rubbish. If my co-conversation engager didn’t look into my eyes, I could give myself licence to prattle on and on and deliver a mini lecture. Their opening unto mine, acts as if to check that I’m not abusing them by my statements and to ensure that I censor myself in their presence, because there now becomes an imperative to respect them as another person. Their eyes demand that I give them the same deference that I want when looking at someone else. A check to our joint humanity occurs, by this opening unto each other, before our social, in the traditional sense, customs, rules, and laws can be applied and intervene. Eyes, though, are fragile thing. They are physically delicate and need protecting from harm. However, the harm I find most disturbing is not á la Luis Bruñel’s Un Chien Andalou, where he graphically presents an eye being sliced open with a razor. The harm I find most disturbing is when eyes are simply dismissed.

Such dismissal comes, from avoidance to objectification, through to stereotyping and cold-hearted ignorance etc. It really does amaze me that such a powerful part of our lives is so little understood and overridden at every turn with no remorse, outrage, castigation, or reprimand.

The moment of recognition is so important because it is completely tied into the existence of others as independent entities from our own mind. At that moment we understand that the other is an Other. The other person is there before us observing us and interacting with us, and they are exactly like us. They are human. That moment of recognition unveils humanity to itself. It is in that moment that we know we are not alone. We know that there are others who like us desire, dream, and hope for all the same things we do.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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