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The Drama of Awareness – using Aristotle and Brecht to raise awareness: Part II

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In the previous article, we were looking for inspiration on how to raise security awareness in Aristotle’s approach to artistic communication between actor and audience. His Theater of Illusion with its catharsis momentum gave us some insights on how to manufacture communications measures in order to achieve a learning process by proxy.

In the present article, we’re going to have a closer look at Brecht’s more modern concept of Epic Theater. The German playwright strives to move away from the Theatre of Illusion, from identification and purification, towards the active re-evaluation of reality by the audience.

Brecht and Epic Theatre

382px-Bertolt_Brecht

By Yuma at it.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

With his concept of Epic Theatre, Bertolt Brecht strives to move away from the Aristotelian Theatre of Illusion towards a re-evaluation of reality and activation of the audience. His plays are designed to narrate stories rather than depict them.

In order to do so, the German author of the late 1920s works with a broader range of media and a more modern understanding of the world than Aristotle did in Ancient Greece. Brecht uses film, projection or music, as well as a more self-determined idea of humanity, for his concept of theatre.

In view of the ongoing political upheavals at the time and Brecht’s fascination with communism, the German playwright granted the proletariat more power and therefore more creative freedom. Hence, it is required to offer the audience a different approach to life and society than Aristotelian drama, in which the world and its processes follow rigid, divine rules. The audience needs to recognize that the world it lives in can be changed to the better. That’s why e.g. in the epic play The Good Person of Szechwan the gods are exposed as ridiculous, manipulative figures and their laws as pointless and impossible to obey.

In the context of security awareness, two features of Brecht’s theatre are particularly interesting. In his Anmerkungen zur Oper Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Brecht juxtaposes Classical and Epic Theatre in order to give a clearer definition of his concept. Among other things, he states that Epic Theatre activates the audience’s mind and, at the same time, conveys knowledge.

Activity and knowledge through alienation

With the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt), Brecht wanted to avoid illusionistic representation and prevent the audience from becoming emotionally involved. In this way, the spectators are capable of recognizing the contradictions of reality and a more critical and conscious perception in general. To achieve this effect, the familiar must be portrayed as extraordinary. Brecht says himself:

«Von keiner Seite wurde es dem Zuschauer weiterhin ermöglicht, durch einfache Einfühlung in dramatische Personen sich kritiklos […] Erlebnissen hinzugeben. Die Darstellung setzte die Stoffe und Vorgänge einem Entfremdungsprozeß aus. Es war die Entfremdung, welche nötig ist, damit verstanden werden kann.»[1]

On stage, this means that the music does not always match the plot, the criminal is downright likeable, the actors step out of their roles, the audience is addressed directly, the plot shows neither clear character development nor continuity. The audience is confronted with constant ups and downs, indicating the incompleteness of any development. At the end of an Epic Play, everything remains open.

In The Good Person of Szechwan the audience is invited to challenge the moral and structural fundament of society. Those who expect to be enlightened by a grand moral message will be disappointed: being good does not pay off, people lie to one another without punishment and any hope for divine justice is in vain. In the end, the audience is left without any solution or moral absolution. Instead it is confronted with the request  to take action itself. An actor steps in front of the curtain and announces:

«We feel deflated too. We too are nettled
To see the curtain down and nothing settled. […]
You write the happy ending to the play!
There must, there must, there’s got to be a way!»[2]

Conclusion: Brecht and security awareness

Looking at a familiar situation presented in a different context may reveal unknown correlations, expose contradictions and enable criticism. Therefore, Brecht’s method can provide inspiration for security awareness campaigns aimed at broader target groups outside of strictly regulated corporate contexts. Environments, such as everyday life or at a university, are contexts in which users actively and independently decide whether or not to handle their data securely. In order to convince them to do so, they need to be motivated and provided with the necessary background knowledge.

Following Brecht, we need to alienate the ordinary and reveal it in a different light. What would citizens of an oppressive regime say about the lack of respect for our (digital) privacy by Facebook and Google, etc.? How can we judge our current online behaviour from a future or past perspective? How does a criminal hacker see us as users? Methods such as gamification or genres such as science fiction and fantasy make use of this principle.

Distance encourages reflection about one’s own behaviour within given (e.g. social) structures. It spotlights one’s own role and possibilities within the existing system. Hence, if people understand that the ‘cyber’ world can and should be actively formed or adjusted by themselves, their interest or even participation in the social discourse on security may increase.

Final conclusion: security awareness using Aristotle vs. Brecht

While Brecht’s Epic Theatre can provide inspiration for security awareness campaigns addressing the public sphere, the previous blog post showed that Aristotle’s Theater of Illusion with its catharsis momentum is more suitable for activities in rule-based corporate contexts. The former is about learning through critical distance and the latter is about learning by proxy.

Our ‘Hack The Hacker – Security Awareness Experience’ makes use of both literary teaching approaches. On the one hand, participants have to take over a role that forces them to empathise with the difficult situation of a victim of internet crime. On the other hand, the game experience motivates participants to change their perspective on the actions of internet criminals and as a consequence their own role as end users.

In the end, it remains to be said that although security awareness as a communication discipline can learn from the masters, theatre itself has, unfortunately, not yet found an adaptable universal solution for transmitting convincing messages. This leaves us with an open ending, in the style of Epic Theatre:

«It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at secure ends.»[3]

[1] Brecht, Bertolt: Das epische Theater. Vergnügungstheater oder Lehrtheater?. In Brecht, Bertolt: Schriften zum Theater, Bd. 3. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 1963: 51-65. S. 54.

[2] Brecht, Bertolt: Der gute Mensch von Sezuan. S. 144.

[3] Original: «To help good men arrive at happy ends.»

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