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Skyboxification and Emmanuel Levinas

Skyboxification and Levinas
by Rabbi David

 In the May 12 New York Times, Tom Friedman comments on Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The part of Friedman’s comments that most jumped out at me is Sandel’s invention of the word “skyboxification,” as in “the skyboxification of American society.”

 What Sandel means by the term, if it doesn’t immediately jump out at you, is that the rich (the 1%) have enabled themselves to be so removed from the rest of society so as not to have to rub shoulders with it or see it. Where ballparks did indeed have preferred seating in the past, that seating was not so removed so as to make impossible the mingling between classes. Skyboxification can also be seen in the many ways that the rich insulate themselves such as by gated communities.

 I believe that Emmanuel Levinas, the French-Jewish philosopher, would have had some things to reflect about this phenomenon – or perhaps I’m just projecting.

 Levinas proposed that the moment of ethical responsibility arises when one becomes aware of the Other. That once the Other is perceived, the perceiver has an ethical obligation in regard to the one perceived. One can always disregard this obligation, but that act of disregard is itself a choice with ethical implications. To extricate oneself from a sense of responsibility to the Other is only possible before one has perceived the Other.

 This is one way to understand the effort by the rich to self-insulate as a means not to have to perceive the reality of the 99% and to enable themselves to formulate and actuate policies that enrich themselves without the burden of a sense of responsibility for the damage caused to others by those policies. But the very effort to extricate oneself of responsibility by self-insulation is itself a choice that despite every effort to not see the Other, is a choice taken while fully cognizant of the existence of the other in a vain hope to avoid responsibility. In short, making oneself not to see can only be understood as happening after one has already seen.

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