There is a certain irony in wearing a mask when entering a bank and assuming that we would be turned away if we refused to wear one. I am pushing the effacement even further: having enjoyed Korean shows on Netflix since 2019, I wear their young men’s bangs low on my forehead. Korean hair is very black, very thick, very shiny and I only have old-lady grey hair getting a little thinner every year but so far, so good: I am brow-less. I also wear prescription glasses that turn dark in the sun. Below it all, the mask.
As I enter the bank, there is no visible skin on my face. I have been an infrequent visitor over the years and they do not know me. How can they assess the threat I might present? Would they look harder if I were six foot five inches tall and weigh three hundred pounds? This is the same bank, after all, that called the police one year ago to arrest an ordinary-looking man trying to open an account for his twelve-year-old granddaughter. Not the same branch –and they did apologize, and the overzealous teller was apparently duly chastised. So all is well and forgotten one might assume, except by the ordinary-looking man from Bella Bella and his granddaughter. But, let’s be fair: he had a lot to answer for, having acted “suspiciously” and only offering as I.D. (1) his government-issued Indian Status card, (2-3) his and the young girl’s birth certificates, and (4) her medical card. Imagine if they had been masked as well…
For me, perhaps the most startling aspect of President Biden’s inauguration last month was the small military parade that filed by. The flow of identical uniforms was accompanied this year by a similarly identical lack of faces. They passed by mechanically, their different semblances hidden by the same black masks, like an army of robots. Only their eyes showed, expressionless and fixed straight ahead except when passing the man they were meant to honour. The choice of black is no accident. Soldiers could have worn khaki, or red if on parade (red being traditionally the colour of warning, danger, and blood––with a hint of taboo) but they wore black. Women might choose it because it is elegant and it would look different on them, but elegance is not what military men seek: they want to instill a sense of danger compounded by anonymity. They want to look like dark faceless automata, safe from identification, powerful in their sameness. Simply put, black masks – en masse – are scary.
The face having disappeared, must we from now on rely exclusively on the eyes to carry our non-verbal messages? Eyes on their own do not communicate well. They need some muscular activity close by to denote moods and intentions. Even with masks, we can still crinkle a few wrinkles around the eyes to indicate amusement and the implication of a smile or summon a furrow between them to show displeasure—in other words the basic caveman communication. But how much further can we go without using our voice?
A French child, I grew up in Morocco until the age of sixteen, with veiled Moslem women everywhere around me. In northern cities, both eyes were revealed, heavily kohled, and the women were more genteel. In the south, where I lived, the more rustic Berber women used their head cover held with a hennaed hand to hide most of their faces, often showing only one eye. They were on the whole quite vocal in the marketplace where I would see them haggling, and perhaps these childhood memories where communication never seemed a problem makes me think that hidden faces do not hinder it. But, in truth, I do not remember, as these hidden faces were the norm rather than a novelty, which is still the case for us.
I was thinking about this a few days ago, while waiting in line, six feet apart, outside a Vancouver shop that only admits two customers at the time. Further along, a man was also waiting (presumably for his wife inside the shop), a small dog on a leash sitting beside him. I wondered how I could engage with the dog without using facial expressions, since we believe dogs are masters at interpreting them. My stare soon drew her attention but seemed to unnerve her a little–perhaps because it did not seem to carry any intention on my part (friend or foe? I would assume that, in nature, until one knows the answer, it’s safer not to draw attention to oneself). So, still looking at her, I simply inclined my head a little to the side, the way dogs do to express curiosity and interest. It is quite possible that they also do this to mimic us, but that is what basic seduction is made of after all: drawing the others in by acting like them. Within seconds, the little dog was pulling on her leash to get closer to me. The man released the leash but it was still too short and she could not reach me. I turned my head away to break the visual connection and the little dog sat back, presumably disappointed in her efforts to meet a compatible stranger.
Imitating the other’s motion is a well-known technique of seduction. Could this become a new ritual, a conventional short cut to show good intentions when we first meet strangers? A small dance of replicated motions to show that we wish to be attuned, used as a transcendental message to prepare the ground before we can even speak? No doubt we will develop this approach into a sophisticated code but I wish I had better observed the veiled women of my childhood.
This concern is not anodyne. There is an affliction called prosopagnosia––the inability to recognize faces. I suffer from a very mild version of it and score poorly on face recognition tests. The way it manifests itself is that I do not hold the total image but focus instead on special components. For instance, I usually recognize actors in different roles through their voices or some favourite facial expressions (I am an expert on Meryl Streep’s smiles). I also prefer shows where the characters are quite distinct and clearly defined: blond hero, dark villain. Mustaches, beards, baldness, limps, missing limbs, corpulence, size, distinctive pieces of jewelry, the arch of an eyebrow, the fold of an ear, are essential in building up recognizable personalities. However, in the real world, the distinctions are sometimes less evident, and I have only mentioned here those not hidden by a mask. The face is still the port of entry into the other’s identity.
When many features are now hidden, how am I going to maintain an acceptable level of recognition? So far, the pandemic social isolation has meant that my circle is made up of very few and very familiar faces, but were I to meet new people, all masked, how am I going to recognize them from one encounter to another? The problem is that we all think ourselves quite memorable, but without clues how can people like me manage in a world where women change hairstyles and men grow beards? With age, my vagueness will no doubt be interpreted as a sign to watch for.
More seriously, I also wonder about babies and toddlers, whose immediate world of close carers are the only unmasked faces from which to learn non-vocal communication. How extensive will their panoply of facial expressions be when reduced to the familiar/familial ones? Does the masked world––the non-close family world, the “non-us” world–– imply notions of threat as well as alien-ness? All faces are no longer equal and the majority are clearly marked as not belonging within the safety net. One wonders how they will handle the multiple levels of relationship and family configuration now partly defined by how one nana wears a mask when visiting and the other one does not.
To compound the mystery, how do the deaf manage? Gone are lip-reading and expressive features. One little detail, often ignored, is how the wearing of masks also interferes with the aging process and its accompaniments of instrumental aids. With the virus variants becoming more actively transmissible, it is recommended that we wear double masks in close quarters. So, double masks loops, glasses, and hearing aids? All three feel essential to many old people’s sense of safety but most human ears are not designed for such paraphernalia.
In such a complicated context, the perfectly understood little tilt of one’s head feels like quite a sophisticated exchange rather than a primitive performance of inter-species communication.
During the first wave of COVID-19 in the Spring and Summer of 2020, every evening at the same time – as seen on television news as much as in our city streets – we beat saucepans with wooden spoons and we also clapped. We clapped as if our lives depended on it. Not in our Vancouver building, though: we have no balconies and we are nowhere near any hospital or health clinic for gratitude to be heard or acknowledged, but we silently clapped with our hearts. COVID fatigue has now set in as we enter our second year of pandemic, and our hearts are clapped out.
If we feel fatigued as mere spectators, what can we say of those who care for us? We see the exhaustion on their faces, those men and women doubly or triply masked, wrapped in plastic from head to toe. We know taking care of others takes its toll but such a toll, and for so long, is hard to bear, yet their enduring compassion is compelling.
All will soon be well, we are told. Vaccination has already started for very old and fragile people, together with those who care for them. Others will follow, until everyone is made to feel safer. This is not true of the whole world, naturally, particularly of Africa where in one of the poorest countries only twenty-five people have been so far vaccinated. “Not twenty-five thousand, not twenty-five hundred,” the head of the World’s Health Organization tells us, “Just twenty-five.” Only 230,000 vaccines have been administered in the whole continent, in contrast to the millions of Westerners already vaccinated.
Faced with worldwide demand, manufacturers struggle to ramp up production while governments clamour for the existing supply. Anticipating this challenge and to allay the discrimination of access, several NGOs created COVAX, a plan for wealthy countries to help offer “fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” These vaccines were clearly intended for developing countries shut out of an open market––for poverty is also a pandemic. However, faced with delayed shipments and an uncertain supply chain, as well as political embarrassment, Canada decided to recover some of her share of the COVAX order and use it at home. Canada privileging her own: what could be more natural?
But privileging one’s own is not always the rule. During three days at the end of June 1859, the women of the small city of Castiglione did something we might do well to remember today. When the long lines of wounded from the nearby battlefield of Solferino started arriving, the authorities first tried to repulse the wounded Austrians, only allowing through the Sardinian-Piemontese troops and their French allies. The women of Castiglione stared them down. “Tutti fratelli,” they said. They are all brothers.
Leaving nearly 5,000 dead behind, many of the 23,000 wounded continued to arrive, their various uniforms equally stained into the same hue of mud, blood, and guts. They came, brought on makeshift contraptions pulled or carried by mules, the blind and the lame supporting one another. The women nursed them all, side by side, dragoons and grenadiers, bersaglieri and zouaves, voltigeurs and uhlans, lancers and hussars–– King Victor Emmanuel, Emperor Napoleon III, but also Emperor Franz Joseph’s men. All received their share of whatever could be mustered of water, food, bandages, and compassion.
There have been many battles but Solferino, where modern Italy was forged, remains among the bloodiest. It is said that even the horses, caught up in the spirit of carnage, fought among themselves. Yet, during the three days that followed the horrifying battle and the fury, as the wounded were triaged and first treated in Castiglione, all that prevails was organizing, tending, feeding, reassuring, caring for all.
One civilian, a travelling Swiss gentleman by the name of Henri Dunant, surveyed the battlefield of Solferino and was inspired by the women of Castiglione. He and the Red Cross he founded as a result of what he witnessed between 24 and 27 June 1859 were three times awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A monument celebrates The Courageous Women of Castiglione, who “accepted human pain beyond uniforms.”
Surely, if there is a time when these women’s message should be remembered, it is now. The message is still “tutti fratelli.” Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the smart one, for the family of man can only be safe when all its members are protected, not just those in our own household. It is also the best way to show those exhausted nurses of ours that we admire their dedication. It beats clapping.
Henri Dunant, Un souvenir de Solferino(1911), Patrick Turnbull, Solferino. The Birth of a Nation(1985).
He sits by his fireplace wearing a casual but elegant sweater, a drink on a small table by his side ––an eggnog no doubt, given the festive season. Festive? Not really: this is not the usual holiday we celebrate with family and friends. This is Christmas 2020 and we are in the middle of a pandemic, he reminds us thoughtfully. We must all make sacrifices, which means staying home, away from others, respectful of distances, protecting one another. It is a comforting message from an elected official who cares about his constituents.
The Ontario minister of finance’s video, setting an example of conduct for us all, was released by his office on Christmas Eve in a timely fashion. We learned soon afterwards that the video (along with others showing him carrying out some ministerial responsibilities) had been pre-taped and that the man was actually holidaying in St Barts at the time. The clip was replayed on the news where we also continued to hear the exhausted voices of our healthcare workers pleading with us to stay home, wear our masks and keep our distances: the very echo of the minister’s own words.
He was not the only one not to have heeded the message. Several other officials had also discreetly sneaked out of the country and spent Christmas in the sun (Hawaii, Cuba, Florida, etc.) as was later revealed when their Ontario counterpart was found out. When he returned home and resigned, so did they. Some may have misjudged their importance and it is possible that a little heartfelt contrition on their part and a small demotion might have sufficed in their case. The St Barts episode was different: what we could not forgive was the man’s craftily released videos and his crass intent to fool us.
The very exclusive St Barts must be quite pleasant this time of year, and we accept its attraction. As social animals, we recognize that we live in a hierarchy––a harsh taskmaster for some, a benign mistress for others––where some are gladly permitted to do things that others can only aspire to from afar. We are used to the sense of entitlement of the privileged few. Indeed, one such has just been released after serving time for committing fraud so their children could attend one of the best American universities. A few well-connected parents had apparently believed that what is usually obtained through natural talent and hard work could instead be bought outright. Such things always rankle but we are used to them.
However, as we are repeatedly told, these are not normal times and our very safety is at stake. For some, it means their very lives. If a deceitful high-ranking politician is willing to defy the no-travel recommendation in order to enjoy a holiday in the sun, what assurance have we that he will respect the quarantine rule at its strictest? Can we still trust his judgement and honesty? Many COVID19 cases have arisen from visitors or returnees’ lax interpretation of the word ‘confinement’.
Today what used to be mere cheating on the rules, simple queue jumping, shoving someone aside to take their place, all those irritating peccadilloes that life in society forces us to face have taken on another dimension. The wealthy Vancouver couple who chartered a flight to the Yukon community of Beaver Creek in order to be vaccinated against the coronavirus probably just saw an opportunity they could not pass. They felt entitled to it. Being far too young to receive the vaccine legitimately at home and learning that there was a small village in the Yukon where the virus had made such ravages that the adult population was being vaccinated, why not fly in, pretend to be locally employed, receive their first shot, fly back home, all within a few hours? No quarantine either way and depriving two local people from their precious doses of vaccine. Anyone capable of conceiving such a plan for circumventing the rules must have thought themselves very clever and probably still fail to understand why we only see them as liars and thieves willing to further endanger a hard-hit community to serve their own interests.
These are confusing times for us all. The rules change from place to place and time to time within the same country, the same province. Those charged with enforcing them must sometimes be as confused as we are ourselves. But, surely, one thing is clear: anything that can potentially endanger those around us is wrong, such as large private parties, lax quarantine, refusal to wear masks. All are potentially dangerous practices but they also betray a sense of entitlement that finds its ridiculous extremes in faking videos to hide being away on holidays or in passing themselves off as local workers in order to steal vaccines from people who truly need them. Piddly crimes with serious consequences. Not to mention the terrible loss of face…
What do Tik Tok, Netflix, Kermit the Frog, sweater-wearing men with deep voices, and those nearly two million people who, within five days in 2020, listened to Scottish postman Nathan Wellerman sing Drunken Sailor have in common? A taste for sea shanties. The Guardian even designated the word “shanty” (from the French chanter or chantez) as their word-of-the-week at the end of January 2021.
So, what are sea shanties? A young woman in the show Fisherman’s Friends (Netflix) flippantly defines the genre as “Rock and roll of 1752,” a definition that would certainly have puzzled eighteenth-century sailors. For them, a shanty was a working song, aligning the beat of the song to the gestures and rhythm required for many men to propel oars as one body, to hoist heavy sails in single motions, to smoothly ride the “donkey” and load cargo in unified effort—whatever the ship and whatever her identity (Navy, merchant service, whaler, pirate ship). Where a single man’s effort would have been vain, many arms working together did the job. Cooperation and coordination were key at sea, where life only obeyed the hierarchy and the elements. Known as the “wooden world,” seafaring was a singular and unique entity, harsh yet cohesive, where men’s voices soared as one with a freedom otherwise unknown to them.
A real song, with a melody, a theme, a chorus were not strictly necessary to regulate and unify seafaring activities and, indeed, very early versions often consisted in grunts uttered in unison, sometimes to the accompaniment of a violin near capstans or halliards. But the eighteenth century, followed by the naval victories of the Napoleonic Wars and the expansion of commerce when Britannia truly ruled the waves, saw an explosion of developed themes as shanties flourished on board. All dealt with what sailors loved (their ships, their women, their grog, the sea), what they feared (the sea again, the elements, the enemy, diseases, phantom ships), what they resented (the dreaded but unavoidable impressment, manic captains, greedy owners, the harsh discipline), what filled them with pride (their unique status, their ships again, victories in battle, good captains, prize money): there was no lack of topics on which to dwell in their perilous and lonely lives. One voice would hardly have been heard but, as with the utmost stretching of their arms in physical work, the united echoes of a whole crew’s chorus spoke of bonding, power, and strength.
Why this sudden interest in the sea shanties of two centuries ago? Perhaps we need to look no further than the sense of a community facing similar dangers with common goals, the harshness of the times, the often expressed sentiment that “we are all in this together,” the reliance on others to do their duty so we can be protected (as we protect them by doing ours), the willingness to help our community, acknowledging that we all benefit from its wellbeing? Together we banged on saucepans at seven or eight o’clock at night all over the world, together we watched musicians according their instruments on split television screens, together we stay masked and away. All are versions of the strength of coordinated action that seamen in the Age of Sail experienced so profoundly when they used a common voice in dangerous times.
Brian Lavery, Nelson’s Navy. The Ships, Men, and Organization 1793-1815 (1989), Monique Layton, Voices from the Lower Deck. Folklore and Folkways of the Sea (2019), Roy Palmer, The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (1986).
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.