“All warfare is based on deception.”
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I have always wondered why it’s considered taboo for a journalist or fellow politician to refer to any politician as a “liar.” In 2004, during the democratic primary debates, only Al Sharpton would directly address the issue of whether George W. Bush (George W. Bush, seriously!) was a liar: “Clearly, he lied! Now, if he is an unconscious liar, and doesn’t realize when he’s lying, then we’re really in trouble.” I mean, I’m not even talking about the kind of political spin-talk and non-stating that is standard issue in the political arena, but I feel like someone who tells a blatant untruth knowingly and with the intent to deceive surely should be confronted with words even harsher than “liar.” Strange prohibition there.
(In no way is this meant to endorse, say, a fellow like Joe Wilson calling the president of the United States a liar while the latter was speaking to a joint session of Congress. The issue here is not the content of the accusation but the venue and the lack of class.)
That doesn’t have all that much to do with what I have to say for this week’s “Gear-Up Monday,” but since I’m talking about lying I felt it might be my only opportunity to say that. I’ve been wanting to say it for a while.
I’ll segue, entirely without grace, into our ongoing theme related to the battles we face—whether we like it or not—by saying that, in addition to a disposition of peace, this wizard does advocate for an approach of openness and honesty. Lies and secrets make us die like little cancer-bubbles on our souls. Or something like that. I speak flippantly, but I mean it. Life is difficult enough without us further handicapping ourselves with the unneeded weight of being shady.
But if we go with the assumption that occasional war is necessary and life, and if we take as truth the quote above about warfare and deception, we must conclude that we have to be liars sometimes—which sounds incredibly shady.
Maybe so. But I put forth that the navigation of our lives always requires some degree, however small, of mendacity. It’s one of the things I dislike about the nature of our particular society, but my distaste hardly frees us from the requirement of participation to some level. In more ways than I have time to detail, expressing the straight truth via either words or deeds can get us fired. A thin little undercurrent of molecule-sized lies runs through our entire lives when we are forced to subdue, tone down, or turn off aspects of our personalities and spirits to keep a job. That may seem clear-cut or even dramatic, but some of our other “lies” might be considered more innocuous in that they are required for the smooth function of a society in which labor is specialized. I apologize, but I can’t remember (and don’t feel like looking up) whether it was Jung or the later Campbell who first discussed this concept in terms of “masks.” For example, a judge in his robe and behind his bench is wearing a different mask than that same judge later on riding the subway, when he wears a different mask than that he’ll don at the dinner table with his family, which is different from that which he will put on at the golf course on Saturday. It’s not lying in any way we normally mean so much as the playing of roles—the roles of judge, subway traveler, parent, and country club member—subtle demeanor changes required to fit the different areas of one’s responsibility and life within a broader society.
For some, these masks represent starker contrasts than those of others, but we all act differently depending upon circumstance, and this is not inappropriate or traditionally dishonest. At least in this current age, it’s how humans relate to one another and the whole world can keep going round. There’s another way to look at it, too. The first line of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching is often translated, “The Tao that is written is not the eternal Tao.” It’s a funny, winking first line for a text that describes the nature of the Tao in writing. The meaning is that pure truth exists hanging out there in non-dual space, and once you’ve nailed it to a verbal definition—even if you are correct, even if your prose is of the highest and most accurate inspiration—which is less complete and less pure than the truth itself. It’s a cloudy reflection rather than a clear image.
Again, maybe it is only the current age, but that is all we know, and what is current society but an endless series of definitions and labels? I’m not criticizing the system offhand, I’m just describing it. Definitions and labels are useful. There are times when they can be harmful (those related to gender and sexuality come immediately to mind) but mostly they are so innocent that you don’t even notice them. It’s all fine. But because they’re definitions, they can’t avoid clouding or disguising the essence behind the manifestation.
So we’re all liars. Maybe we endeavor to craft our many masks to be very similar to one another, such that our persona and outward spirit is generally consistent as often as possible. Certainly we are not out to fool everyone as to who we are and what we represent, to falsely boost our statures through made-up stories, or to engage in extreme “double-lives” at the expense of those we love or are otherwise standing near us.
But let’s not think of ourselves as these cherry-tree George Washingtons. It’s true, whether it’s shady or not—war is sometimes required of us, war is deception, so deception is sometimes required of us. And if we must fight for legitimate reasons established in mental clarity, don’t we want to win? Sun Tzu gives us a few general suggestions as to employing tactical deception when it is required:
“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”
—The Art of War
There’s a lot there, I know. Each line above carries its own heft and weight, and most of them will likely require discussions all their own. The point is that we can be hippies and truth-tellers all we are able, but we still need to direct our minds towards the methods we need to employ to achieve (relative) security when extraordinary measures are required.
Going forward with even the most basic and loose concept of this kind of strategic thinking puts you far ahead of nearly everyone you encounter—or at least makes you, right off the bat, a more formidable adversary than anyone is counting on. That’s the way we win.
More on this in the weeks to come.