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objective objection?

skindeep's picture


“Stop it. Get off me. Fuck. Just this once. Stop it.” He collapsed, into a heap on the floor, his head in his hands, shaking, yet unable to move. “I said I’m sorry…”

She got up, off her chair and sat beside him. Slowly she held him, and she began to talk, words that she had practically memorized by now, she told him he was safe, that no one could touch him now, it was going to be okay, he was going to be okay.


 3120 minutes later, he walked out of her office. He needed to get a grip on his life. He was 17 years old. And in college. There were no excuses left to make. But the therapy was helping, it was so much easier to talk to someone objective, someone who could look at his situation from a distance, someone who didn’t know him or his family, someone who wasn’t emotionally invested in any of it. The emotional disconnect between his therapist and his situation allowed him to trust her, and slowly, he was getting better.



‘Stupid bitch. You’re never going to make it. You might as well stop trying now, they’re all going to know you’re not worth it.’ His voice played back in her head as she drove home. There was no need for her to press down on the accelerator any harder, she was okay now. And that memory, for her, was just like any other.


15 minutes later she sat at home, and for the first time in a long time, she thought about where she came from. Joe was her patient, he was 17, in college and still haunted by his memories. She remembered being like that once… she remembered her dad and his anger and the images of him that she just couldn’t get out of her mind. She thought she’d never move past it, the insomnia, flash backs, it used to be normal to her.  And then she did. It was a long process but she had gotten better, a day at a time.

And now she could talk to her patients, and be objective. Because she was no longer emotionally invested in any of it, because she had dealt with her ghosts and was finally strong enough to show other people how to do the same.

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Disconnect. That was the key. She had first disconnected from her situation physically, and then mentally disconnected from herself. This gave her time and space to deal with herself and her mind. Once that was done, she was okay. And the disconnection had helped her gain perspective. Perspective and objectivity.

Can we really be objective though?

Thomas Nagal, in his novel, ‘A View From Nowhere’ argues that we cannot be objective about any situation or emotion. He believes that as we grow older, we develop a view of ourselves from the outside in, instead of just from the inside out. This view point he states, is our ‘objective’ view of the world, with us as just a minute part of it. Except that this view is not objective in the least. Nagal argues that even whilst we develop this view from the outside, we try to keep our subjective perspective, and hence our ‘objective’ view becomes just our perception.

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Therefore, according to him, the therapist in the above situation is not being objective but is instead more removed from the situation with which she is working, which undoubtedly gives her the capacity to better deal with her patient. 

In this paper, I’d like to present a slightly different perspective. I do agree that we cannot be completely objective, but not for the reasons Nagal presents. Let’s examine the situation presented above. The therapist has dealt with her past and now feels sufficiently removed from it and hence able to help others do the same. But does she lack objectivity because she has her own perspective? I don’t think so. Through her work with Joe, she grows as a person, she gains perspective and experience. But that’s not all. When she sits next to him and soothes him, she eases her mind. Her work with him heals him and simultaneously brings her peace of mind.

 houseA similar situation is visible in the episode House M.D., in which House, a skilled doctor, refuses to establish any personal connections with his patients because he cannot stand to see their pain. He cannot listen to their stories, because in them, he hears his own echo. But, he strives, harder than most to fix them, to make them okay. Because with the physical act of making them okay, he brings himself a sense of calm. He needs to not only help but heal them so that he can be alright.

It’s a circle. You feel pain. Disconnect from it. And through the rest of life and actions find a means that allows it to reverberate within you. You save yourself by saving (in one way or another) the life of someone else (be this through the role of a doctor, a lawyer or even a parent – you want to make a positive change). This could obviously go the other way and so instead of a positive cycle, you continue another negative one – in which case, there is a negative space that lives either within you (leading to depression, anxiety etc) or outside of you in your actions. 

Another example of this cycle and the proficiency with which it has been played with is visible in the series of tales ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. The history behind these tales takes us back to the rule of king Shahriyar who upon discovering that his wife had been sleeping with a slave proceeded to kill them both and then continued to take a virgin to his bed every night and kill her before sunrise. The stories begin when the king is sent Shahrazad, a virgin who entices him into listening to her stories and every night tells him a story that is continued the next day – and so she survives and the king grows to trust her, and the his killing rampant comes to a stop

Why is that part of the circle? Because she comes in, scred for her life, knowing that the king is in a state of pain, and through her stories, she takes him far away from his situation. She takes him back to the past, to a time of magic and in the midst of stories like ‘The Merchant and the Jinni’ and ‘The Third Sheykh and the Mule’ she introduces topics like adultery, hence showing the king that women have done wrong by their husbands in the past and that he is not the only one. The stories also show the king that although some women are deceitful, all aren’t – an argument that later saves her life.  

Shahrazad’s skill lies in the fact that she manages to remove the king from his state of mind and take him on a journey long enough to give him time to recover but then brings him right back where they started off. And she does this with her fear and best interest at heart. The cycle isn’t in the journey that she embarks on with the king but in the manner in which she removes herself and the king from their situations, creates a disconnect between the world of her tales and their reality, but lives the reality nonetheless in each one of stories, only to end with presenting her original case to the king.

So maybe we cannot be objective about a situation, but we definitely can create a disconnect, and sometimes, that’s all we really need – space to breathe and heal and time to recover.







1.       Thomas Nagal – ‘A View From Nowhere’


2.       Article on ‘A View From Nowhere’


3.       A thousand and One Nights




Anne Dalke's picture

Time to think?

It seems that what you've done is substitute "distanced" for "objective," in order to describe a way of being in the world that removes us from an immediate situation, and so enables us to see it differently (more fully, or just differently?). If you'd like to explore this possibility some more, with a particular attention to the different forms of language opened up by these different modes of operating, you might also take a look @ Ursula LeGuin's 1986 Bryn Mawr Commencement Address, which compares what she calls "male" ("objective, distanced") language w/ what she calls "female" ("subjective, up-close"); she urges the graduates to master both forms, in order to combine them into a new "baby language," that of art. Along these lines, see also the Serendip essay, The "Objectivity"/"Subjectivity" Spectrum: Having One's Cake and Eating It Too?

Here, too, is another take on this (or rather, the same take, another expression) from Mary Midgeley's Science & Poetry: "The formal information-systems that interest cognition scientists are abstractions--collections of dried flowers drawn from the much richer and wllder woodlands that we call states of mind....these information-systems ...are not facts or events in the world, any more than Platonic forms are...but highly simplified patterns, highly selective maps of certain aspects of experience."

I think of Midgely's description of abstractions as "dried" versions of the rich woodlands in which we live as a (poetic, and richer) version of the "dry" stories generally told by academics, the kind that you have, so far, yourself been resisting writing. So, let's look a little now @ the form you have chosen here: this is a different sort of project for you than any you've done for me before, one more grounded in research, really entering for the first time into a conversation w/ other work that has been done on your topic. How satisfying is it for you to work in this mode? Is it more "distanced," more "disconnected," offering "space to breathe" and "time to think?"