The Face of the “Other”

I wrote recently about the importance of making face-to-face connection a priority if you want to make the world a better place. This shifts the focus of social activism, innovation and entrepreneurship from something abstract or statistically verifiable to something more powerful, a relationship. A genuine relationship, with the “Other,” with people you don’t know or know only slightly.

In other words, justice has a face and a name associated with it. So does poverty, homelessness, climate change, exclusion, overdose, abuse. And every other social, economic and environmental challenge.

There’s a stream of philosophy centred on the belief that our ethics i.e. our responsibility to each other and to our earth, stems from a gentle and respectful face to face encounter with the ‘Other.”

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that the face of the other makes a demand on us that is more urgent and more fundamental than the pursuit of knowledge or abstract notions of a just society. His philosophy centres on the wisdom of love rather than the love of wisdom.  It precedes any “objective searching after truth”

The more removed we are from the dilemmas, predicaments and conditions people face, the more impersonal our relationships and the more dehumanizing our institutional and advocacy responses. We can create perfectly designed solutions without having to stay around to experience the consequences over the years. We can rely on others to implement solutions who are even more removed from the actual circumstances. We can overshadow those who directly experience the challenge and then leave them to pick up the pieces. We can walk away whenever we want.

There is a big difference between an image of suffering and the real thing. Torontonian Mary Jo Leddy writes compellingly about the distinction between the emptiness and powerlessness of intellectual concepts and having your heart cracked open in her remarkable book, The Other Face of God – When the Stranger Calls Us Home.

Here’s an excerpt:

Poverty had a face and a name.
I realized how wrong it was to refer to people as “the poor.” They were persons who were at this time in their lives, in economic distress. Their immense complexity and the particular story of their lives could not be reduced to a social problem called poverty, to a category of concern or contempt. My desire for justice became focused, and I knew I would be faithful. It was no longer a hobby, a part of my life, an issue that I could walk away from when I wanted to. It would mean giving press conferences to empty rooms, being crushed by the casual indifference of political leaders, dismissed as easily as Teresita had been. Justice has a face and its name was Teresita.
(Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God, p. 18)

Social innovation doesn’t have to be about ever more ingenious ways to ‘sample’ a problem experienced by a group of people. It could be about committing to the mystery and complexity of our relationship with the “Other.” Methods, design, statistics, data, programs, causes and professionalism are all enlightened by that kind of love.


We can’t feel an obligation to another unless and until we see that person as vulnerable, as open as ourselves to pain and suffering. This seeing, in turn, requires a special capacity of the mind: moral imagination.  (Mark Kingwell)

Musical selection this post Grown Up Things by Jessica Mitchell. Purchase her music.


Systems Change Won’t Happen Without a Resurrection of the Ordinary

Don’t Leap so Far Ahead of the Parade, You Can’t Hear the Band

History’s Omission – Caregivers

Jean Vanier – Bearer of the Beams of Love

Tend to Your Garden of Values

Working With not Against the Status Quo

Artists Aren’t Ahead of Their Times, the Rest of us are Behind

The Hidden Geniuses Who Always Figure Things Out

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  1. Richard Faucher

    Great blog Al… Very much appreciated!


  2. Steven_ved

    The major difference between Buber’s account of the I and Thou relation and the ethics of the face-to-face encounter is the application of Levinas’ asymmetry towards the other. For Buber, ethical relation meant a “symmetrical co-presence,” while Levinas, on the other hand, considers the relation with the other as something inherently asymmetrical: the other as they appear, the face, gives itself priority to the self, its first demand even before I react to it, love it or kill it, is: “thou shalt not kill me”. Such a demand for Levinas is prior to any reaction or any assertion of freedom by a subject. The face of the other in this sense looms above the other person and traces “where God passes.” God (the infinite Other ) here refers to the God of which one cannot refuse belief in Its history, that is the God who appears in traditional belief and of scripture and not some conceptual God of philosophy or ontotheology .

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