In the mid 1930’s, the German playwright Berthold Brecht became familiar with a particular staging effect while visiting the Soviet Union that involved distancing the audience from an emotional connection with the characters on the stage. The goal was to force a conscious and intellectual understanding of the dilemmas faced by the characters, who were most often not portrayed sympathetically at all, and not let our compassion short-circuit the reasoning process. Given the many ways that our heart gets us in trouble from time to time [1], it would make sense that some sense of comic or ironic distance would allow one to preserve the illusion of an objective and unbiased view, and given the fact that this is the characteristic hipster response to life in general, it is little surprise that this stagey dramatic pose springs from the world of 20th century leftist art, with its smug belief in its own rationality and objectivity and its tendency to desire inducing a judgmental attitude towards others.

Let us not forget, though, that it was the absence of heart that has characterized the worst excesses of human history. Whether we are condemning the atrocities of Hitler’s Holocaust, the Communist terrors of the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia, or whether we are looking further in history to castigate the Inquisition or the Muslim or Atlantic slave trades, the root cause of these problems is the same. If it must be conceded that the heart can be deeply and tragically unwise, it is also true that the absence of heart, the lack of compassion and empathy towards our fellow human beings is what makes catastrophe possible on a massive scale. Once we cease to see other people as human beings like us, and see them as others, then the only limit to the cruelties and injustices we inflict on them is our dark and easily corrupted imaginations. When we pit the head against the heart, both are losers, because the heart is left unwise and prone to being manipulated by emotional appeals and the head is left arrogant and cruel and smug in its judgmental criticism of others and unaware of its own need for grace and mercy.

How are we to provide ourselves the distancing necessary to make wise decisions but without losing compassion and empathy for those whom we deal with? In many ways, the perspective of the head and the heart is like my favorite type of Gestalt drawings [2], where looking at the same image different ways provides a different result. Yet both drawings are real and true, and it is only the change in perspective that changes our judgment of the drawing. Far from contradicting a viewpoint of objective truth, the existence of multiple true perspective affirms a belief in ultimate truth that also affirms the importance of context. It is here where being a critic can be detrimental to being a good human being. As someone who for a variety of reasons spends a lot of time critiquing art and politics and culture and being part of a generation that is particularly and similarly critical, it is easy to overstate the importance of criticism to a good life. It is an easy temptation to fall into to enjoy criticism too much, especially if one is very analytical by nature and skilled at critiquing, and one can fail to recognize that the worth of any critique is helping to encourage others to behave better by showing how one’s work falls short of what is ideal or what is acceptable.

Many times, distance is unhelpful to this goal, at least permanently. Distance provides the space to reflect for a time, so that we can return and engage, having profited from the reflection. Rather than think that it is in distance alone where wisdom lies, we would be better served to recognize that both closeness and distance provide different aspects of insight, and without both we are going to be missing part of the picture. It is in taking the time to get to know others, to build up intimacy, that we see what is worthwhile about having someone in our life, even if they present challenges to us. However, it is maintaining at least some sense of distance that allows us to see them as they are and not as we want them to be, and also that allows us the ability to see where they may fall short, where they may struggle. Yet regardless of our desire to be close to them, they may simply not see our compassionate and kind hearts, and likewise, they may reject our insights that we have gathered from reflection regardless of how worthwhile those insights are. Our need to wrestle with the tension of distance and closeness is for ourselves, so that we may be both wise and compassionate souls, for we cannot guarantee that our wisdom will be treasured or that our compassion will be recognized and appreciated. All we can do is be the best we can, and treat others the best we can, and hope that it will eventually be enough to keep us from being trapped either in being too far or too close, but that allows us to find the right distance where we might know both the big picture, as well as the view from up close.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Verfremdungseffekt

  1. Pingback: Where Nobody Ever Goes | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Papa, Tell Us About The Bible | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God | Edge Induced Cohesion

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