Why a sword of truth and a book of secrets?

January 7, 2013

When Euripides has taken Herakles to the scene of Hera’s final revenge (for his father’s infidelity), he has his friend Theseus find him there, and speak to him with great compassion, knowing few things will bring a man so reduced by grief to his feet:

Theseus: “Is this the all-heroic Herakles talking?”

Herakles: “Not all-heroic. There has to be some limit to pain.”

Is this the final judgment on violence, power exercised through brute force – that all will come to ruin, and our greatest heroes will despair? We have had over two thousand years to think about it since this writing. Why else would our gut feelings favor unselfish fairness? The body knows it has to eat.

It would be nice to think the gut takes the long view, detached from mere questions of opinion, and remembering that we are social animals. Maybe the trouble is that the cognitive dissonance that comes from pretending not to know better isn’t just a private demon – it undermines your ability to trust others, even when they propose to make themselves helpful, instead of acting as your enemies.

Hypocrisy fear drives us to look for all sorts of alternatives to assuming strangers are negotiating in good faith when they make promises. Shell games have the potential to be the most profitable ploys on the market. What could beat getting something for nothing? Claims on expertise are indistinguishable from shell games until the results of acting on the paid advice are in – the product is bought unproven, and usually comes without guarantees.

Then there is an infinite series in the scope for rebounding hypocrisies: when caught we may naturalize or rationalize what were actually intentionally misleading claims as though they were accidental errors, without even knowing how many of those we’ve been lying to were only pretending to not hear the tell in the lie.

Faked susceptibility to lies is actually rather commonplace, so one risks being tricked into believing one’s own lies are believed by others all the time.

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The pervasive and easily downplayed normalization of hypocrisy helps explain how the professional witnesses of war crimes at the ICRC can begin to earnestly second-guess whether it is appropriate to report on atrocities that were staged precisely to exploit the mass media’s interest in certain types of atrocity photos. If the soldier is allowed to face death saying “shit life,” the humanitarian faces work in the crossfire or nearby with the epithet hyper-désagréable.”

Threat credibility is a bloody retreat from the intellectual. The value of verbal threats to signal credibility is diminished whenever “brave words” turn out to be nothing more than that (#NotIntendedAsAFactualStatement), but those who would trade on the reputation of a “straight shooter” restore its value arbitrarily on impulse, brawling on slight pretext and then priding themselves on mere willingness to follow through on a bold if-then threat whenever put to the test.

It makes them seem more predictable than those who try to get what they want with promises of what they would do for you in return. And if they aren’t that predictable, at least they’re not insulting your intelligence.

Anti-heroes like Harvey Dent win us over by bluffing as a rule, to make a secret of having a personal commitment to restraint, and still better intimidate especially dangerous foes than an honest pacifist. The Two-Face origin story in The Dark Knight captures the danger in this seemingly noble hypocrisy.

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“Covenants without swords are but words.” – Leviathan

The threats he made on a coin toss turned out to be a slippery slope into flagrant use of force that has a momentum of its own, as game play, long after the devotion to duty has died. And cruelly, through the game he relives the trauma of losing that love and self-respect.

So an action hero will be quick to warn against bluffing with respect to violence. Use of deadly force is not threatened lightly, simply because a credible threat would motivate the opponent to contemplate a preemptive deadly counterstrike, to prevent you from carrying out your threat.

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