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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)


This blog is re-printed with permission from Al Etmanski's blog page.

Al has been a proud member of the disability movement since the birth of his daughter Liz. He is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is a founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact. As co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) he proposed and led the campaign to establish the world's only disability savings plan - the RDSP. Al is an Ashoka fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He was recently awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia.  

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