By Mathias Maurer, December 2020

At the time that we still had to queue patiently in front of shops observing the appropriate distancing, the following scene unfolded before me. An older girl was holding a small child by the hand who was joyfully taking their first steps.

Then the shop door opened and a young saleswoman in a mask rushed towards the small child with open arms. The small child turned anxiously away. They only recognised their mother when she took off her mask. This image has remained in my mind because it clearly shows what human encounter and communication is all about: the view of the uncovered face.

Something that is experienced in an elementary way by a child gradually wanes with increasing age because the head thinks along. Adults have their reasons for wearing a mask which the child, however, cannot follow. The latter experiences a profound insecurity. It lies in the nature of masks that one cannot, indeed should not be recognised as an individual. The person disappears behind the mask and become anonymous. When human facial expressions become invisible, the perception of the authenticity of the other is reduced. Every person, no matter what their age, experiences more or less consciously the change which occurs when they encounter themselves or another person with a mask on.

Teachers and pupils, parents and their children change their behaviour in subtle ways when they wear a mask. Some wear their mask like armour, others as a fashion accessory, others again fearfully use it to hide behind – as if the mask, as in Greek drama, enhances the character of a role behind which the individuality of the actor is concealed. The masks representing a role have from time immemorial served social and cultural integration, social control and the regulation of political power. The masks we are currently asked to wear – rejected by some as a symbol of subjugation, welcomed by others as effective protection – seem totally out of place for children from an educational perspective.

Which brings us to the theme of this issue. German health minister Jens Spahn, when he was still a secretary of state, felt free to claim in the context of the debate about the wearing of burqas that using the veil was “a statement to all those around me: I am isolating myself, distancing myself, am withdrawing from the gaze of others and am thus refusing one of the most basic forms of human communication. I am denying my interlocutor the possibility of seeing me in the truest sense of the word” ... That was difficult to envisage and the opposite of an open, democratic society, he added (FAZ, 18 August 2016). What he considered impossible with regard to cultural integration has become the social norm for everyone today.

Through its worldwide distribution, the coronavirus has, on the one hand, made us conscious of our single humanity and connected us but, on the other hand, divided us more than ever from one another, country to country, region to region, city to city, person to person.


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