We tend to associate distance with safety. We even have a phrase for it: “a safe distance.” When you were little, mom would say “Be careful. Stay away from X.” The danger might have been traffic, fire, a particular person. Mom’s advice was, in effect, to keep a distance. But there is a problem with separation that isn’t usually mentioned: that, at a distance, we can be safe, but others are more easily harmed.
A troubling thought? Perhaps you won’t continue to read, and thus distance yourself from that which is bothersome.
I suppose it started with the bow and arrow. Or maybe just a rock and some strong-armed caveman. It was doubtless easier and less messy to fell an enemy 50-yards away than to have to grapple with him hand-to-hand, pit your strength against his, smell his breath. No fun to hear his voice and his bones both cracking, and be fouled by his blood.
The machinery of death has only gotten capable of greater distancing since then. Missiles and torpedoes and drones allow men and women to avoid even the sight of those they injure. The infliction of death has become a computer game, but without colorful imagery.
We distance ourselves from violence in other ways, as well. Our volunteer army fights our fights. Our own hands don’t get dirty or injured; we don’t see the gore, except on TV. Wars become easier to start and continue if someone else’s children are fighting them. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, “…violence has been taken out of sight, rather than forced out of existence.”
We distance ourselves from illness, too. Doctors still made house-calls when I was a little boy and the sick did most of their suffering at home where families watched close-up. Now we go to the MDs alone or with one other person and, even worse, to hospitals for treatment. True, visitors are allowed, but they only see the pain and suffering in small doses. Other people (doctors, nurses, and aides) do the caretaking. Mortality is kept neatly shrouded. No wonder that so many of us act as though we will live forever.
We have created institutions that make it easier to avert our eyes from the first-hand observation of death, with its personal message about our fate and fatality. TV, another modern intermediary between us and life, adds its message that death is something that is acted, not experienced; that tomorrow, today’s dead movie character will get up from the floor and take a different role in another fictitious life.
The business world is not free of this distancing. A CEO can fire people she has never met. She doesn’t see the children who no longer have decent meals to eat. She won’t observe the sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression of the mother she dismissed; the one whose life she diminished with the stroke of a keyboard.
That same keyboard lets us shatter the lives of a loved one with impulsively expressed anger or a cowardly, antiseptic message of rejection. Email missives become missiles, targeting hearts to be broken, protecting the sender from the faces that dissolve into waterfalls of tears.
Our distancing, both psychological and physical, allows those who represent us to do damage for which we hardly feel responsible. In ancient Greek city-states like Athens, all the citizens had a direct hand in making decisions; that is, legislating. There, a real democracy existed, (although women and slaves were excluded).
In our much larger democratic-republic, we elect people we have never met to act in our name. These days, few who are paying attention are happy with the result, but many behave as if politics is somewhere else, someone else’s problem. Better not to think of it, they say. And, once again, the damage comes with our remoteness from the nitty-gritty of governance.
Sometimes the distance does cause us damage rather than those faraway. Say you buy something over the internet. No human contact involved, quick, and easy. But just try to contact customer service. Now you want human contact. How many telephone prompts are you willing to endure? Is it even possible to get to someone who might have the authority to remedy your situation? You have been distanced into virtual helplessness.
Small businesses in our nation’s antiquity existed when people worked for themselves at some craft, on a farm, or in a “mom and pop” store. When you purchased something from them, you dealt directly with the persons who made or supervised the making of the product or the growing of the produce. Now the business owner is most often unseen and might have no idea how his products are actually manufactured; no first-hand experience.
It is said that the distancing influence of bureaucracies and factories enabled the 20th century’s greatest crimes: the well-organized and systematic attempts to destroy entire ethnic groups like the Jews and Gypsies of Central Europe. Indeed, the Holocaust required a level of remoteness and the employment of interconnected systems of manufacture that couldn’t have been imagined at any earlier time in history. Countries other than Germany had greater and more violent histories of anti-Semitism, but none were so advanced technologically and so organized bureaucratically.
The assembly line that made cars easier to produce made the destruction of humans easier, as well, and required as little passion. The person at the far end of that assembly line hardly had any sense of what he was contributing to.
The Nazis learned that they risked push-back from the part of the German public that was upset by seeing pogroms against the Jews in their neighborhoods, as happened on Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in 1938. They came to realize that the worst of their crimes had to come in a place where they could not be seen. And, that “out of sight” soon meant “out of mind” to most Germans, a point made in Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, an important book upon which this essay draws significantly.
Distance also enabled those involved in a small piece of the giant Nazi killing machine to miss the moral implications of what they were doing. Without the factories to build the railroad cars, the everyday laborers who laid the railroad tracks, the clerks who kept transport schedules to bring the human “cargo” for “special handling” (a linguistic distancing) to the death camps, the atrocities could only have happened on a smaller scale.
Without the architects and engineers who designed the crematoria, and scientists who created and manufactured the poison gas — all at a great remove from the actual act of committing the murders — the genocide of millions in less than four years would have been impossible.
Remember, too, that the Nazis took away the names of their victims and assigned them tattooed numbers, still another form of distancing that made their targets easier to treat inhumanly. Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers in history, understood the distancing effect of numbers very well: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”
Xenophobia lives most comfortably at some distance from the alien objects of its dislike. How many anti-Muslims in the USA have ever had a conversation with a Muslim except for a few seconds in a check-out line? Or a similar exchange with an immigrant from south of the border?
In the absence of interaction that is personal and intimate we can imagine anything we want about others. We mentally take away their individual characteristics and make them uniform members of a category. Our fantasy and fear can transform them into bomb-throwers or economic leeches, as we choose. And, if a prejudice-based effort to keep them away fails, what else is there to do but aspire to live in a gated-community where the self-imposed distance is maintained by walls and security guards?
There is an old saying, “to have a heart.” That is, to be capable of pity — to be sensitive to the hurt in our fellow-woman and fellow-man. But the heart is an organ that is best engaged by what can be seen and what can be touched. In effect, we are more often touched by what we can, quite literally, touch. The world today removes that opportunity much too often.
There is no going back, of course. By that I mean that we cannot return to ancient Greece and have each citizen (now, thankfully, including women) vote on all matters of civic importance any more than we can get rid of remote-controlled missiles and the impersonality of email communication coming from someone higher-up or faraway. But we should be aware of what has been lost and try, as best we can, to recreate a personal, intimate concern for people. We can look into the eyes of those potentially affected by our actions at close range. We can fight a kind of last-ditch stand against a further erosion of the compassionate contact that is necessary in any life worth living.
The top image is a mileage sign on Highway US 41 to Gowers Corner, FL by Dan TD, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.