Remembering that African, Asian and Palestinian lives matter: Emmanuel Levinas


Shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jo (2020), a social worker in the United Kingdom, maintained that the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, particularly his emphasis on ‘face-to-face interactions’, might help practitioners grapple with some of the issues related to how to make the best use of video-conferencing with families. Such questions are prompted, of course, because of the diminution of‘in-person’ interactions because of various ‘lockdowns’ and social distancing measures that are in place. More pervasively, the widespread use of ‘face mask’ protection is providing a context for a range of exchanges relating to the impact of face-covering on the arts, culture, politics and relationships (BBC News, 2020d; Bullock, 2020; Subramanian, 2020, Mohammadi, 2020, Sealy, 2020). Given these developments, it might appear, therefore, that Levinas, the ‘theorist of the face’ (Alford, 2014: 250), has a good deal to offer dissenting social work (DSW) and social work more generally. However, this chapter expresses a deep unease about how Levinas could become uncritically incorporated within the social work literature. Here, one of the concerns is that an array of substantial issues central to Levinas’s philosophy and politics are currently omitted in the amplification of his work to a social work readership. We are, in fact, presented with a sort of Levinas lite, a sanitised rendering of his work that expunges its unsettling aspects. This is somewhat odd, given that the troubling facets attached to Levinas are far from hidden and have been extensively discussed within the literature of philosophy. As stated in Chapter 1, there is a need, if we are to nurture more dissenting types of social work, to critically interrogate ‘false trails’ and to try and furnish more rounded portrayals of canonical or vogueish theorists and philosophers. Certainly, this applies to Levinas, given that some of his views should be an anathema for progressive and critical social work.

The first part of the chapter looks at how Levinas may have first come to the attention of social work educators and practitioners because of Zygmunt Bauman. Clearly far from exhaustive, the second section highlights some of the key themes and concerns of Levinas: engaging with the ‘Other’, the centrality of the face and the complications resulting with the appearance of the ‘third’ [/e tiers] within the sphere of one-to-one interactions.

Beginning to dwell on the conceptual and political problems with Levinas, the next part of the chapter examines his views on the role of the state, charity and welfare. As we will see, he has only a cautious and tepid enthusiasm for the state’s role in alleviating hardship and material need and this is, of course, problematic given that most social workers operate within welfare states providing a range of services to a multitude of people relying on such support. Moreover, within his discourse on charity, Levinas’s evocation of the ‘Other’ connotes a timeless, abject and passive figure. Rarely do we have the sense of the ‘Other’ as a potentially vibrant and resisting figure. Levinas’s perceptions on this issue also hint at a certain affinity with neoliberal thinkers keen to restrict and limit the role of welfare states.

The fourth part of the chapter examines Levinas’s self-proclaimed Eurocentrism and racist condescension towards those beyond Europe. Relatedly, the fifth section concentrates on his ethnic nationalism which is manifested in his Zionism and the unequivocal support that he lends to the state of Israel. Inseparable from his Eurocentrism, it is recognised that this topic is politically fraught, but discussing Levinas and not referring to Zionism and Israel is rather akin to trying to discuss Marx and omitting to mention capital and labour. Here is it argued that Levinas seeks to conceptually erase the dignity and worth of Palestinians in a way that appears to counter his ethical commitment to the ‘Other’.1

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