Saturday, November 21, 2009

My take on Deception

In a review of Ziyad Marar's book Deception which I wrote recently for the online, I must confess I held back a bit. Deception on my part? No; prudence. It was my first effort for the website and I didn’t want to make it my last. I said nothing false. But I did stop short of opining on its theoretical basis to any great extent. I feel a book review should be just that – a thoughtful summary of the contents, not a personal polemic as to whether the reviewer agrees with the conclusions or would have stated things differently. I do not set out to rewrite others’ work. However, I made copious notes while I read Marar’s latest entry to Acumen's The Art of Living series and, as befits the career student I seem to have become, I feel the need to use those reflections to write a longer, more personal response.

The debates surrounding deception, honesty, lying, truth and Truth have long held a fascination for me. Since my high school philosophy teacher introduced the idea of absolute truth I have searched for that impossible nugget. My studies at Antioch McGregor offered the chance to immerse myself in the evolution of that concept, from Plato and Aristotle through Kant, Hegel, and my personal favorite, Emerson. I don’t claim to be any closer to an answer, to Truth, but I do have more of an awareness of the nuances of truth as it relates to the day-to-day life we call reality. The root of my argument with Marar’s work: his statement that “There is no undeceptive way to live” (148).

Marar opens Deception with a quote from Jerome Bruner which labels mankind Homo Credens, due to a supposedly innate desire to be found credible and to have pat answers to the often torturous questions of life. “We can delude ourselves with great ease, especially when the temptation to console ourselves is high” (17). He adds, “If I am to give you credit, I need to find you credible, while avoiding the risk of seeming credulous in giving credence to your discreditable account” (8). Marar offers studies which claim deception – of others and of our selves – is an evolutionary outcome necessary for survival. A desperate need for security can lead to delusional beliefs that could in many cases be called self-deception, but that route is by choice.

For all his heavily cited and documented text (I stopped counting at 49 references to philosophers, scientists, writers, etc., halfway through this compact 152-page effort), it seems Marar’s struggle is not with deception, but with duality and ambiguity. He stresses the difficulties human beings have in facing both, and it often seems he is speaking of himself. Marar lurches from “Truth-telling, for all its fragility, is valued by society as a whole, and is the foundation of trust” (66) to “Too much self-knowledge and realism are not healthy for good living” (141). He also surprises at times with comments such as: “A tolerance for ambiguity comes at a high price...Yet I believe it is worth the effort…Along the way, we arrive at a somewhat better understanding of what we want and have more hope of tackling our bad habits and compulsions” (61). He admits there is “much to gain” if we avoid the pitfalls of the deceptions which he continues to maintain are inevitable (132). But again, Marar switches tack and ends with a particularly chilling statement: “There are loyal lies and honest betrayals…We can see how the unavoidable fact of our deceptive natures can be used to inform a more subtle, complex but potentially more robust self-image” (151-2, emphasis added).

His ambiguity is showing! And I believe that’s a good thing. If you truly believe a delusion, no matter how false it may be, are you lying when share it with others or base future actions on its merits? From a purely legal standpoint, for culpability (guilt of the accusation of deception) there must be intent (a plan to deceive, self or others). For all Marar’s efforts to reduce fickle human behavior to deception, I think his error is in the definition, not the action. Immaturity, uncertainty and ultimately if we’re fortunate, growth and learning all lead to contradictory manifestations which he (erroneously, I believe) labels deception. “We are many people wanting many things and are forced to live one life in one body, and so struggle to explain the actions we regret but cannot resist” (47). Lack of self-discipline or motivation, certainly, or possibly unacknowledged or feared desires, but deception?

I agree that deception and hypocrisy can also be characteristics of human behavior, but I part ways with Marar at believing they take overwhelming prevalence. I found his book to be disheartening for its pessimism (and this from a confirmed pessimist!), disturbing in its sometimes callousness, and thought-provoking in its occasional flash of insight into human behavior. But for all that, I recommend Deception to anyone seeking truth, even though Marar insists, “We are not designed to seek the truth…but to create meaning.”

Recent studies showing an individual’s tendency to find pattern in chaos support that contention. I think we can do both – without deceiving ourselves.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls…

I just heard some disturbing news – a neighbor of ours died of a heart attack several weeks ago. But his death wasn’t the disturbing part, at least not totally. I hardly knew him, probably never exchanged more than half-a-dozen words in the almost three years we lived across the street from his family in our tiny southwest Ohio town. There was no fuss at the house, no gathering of vehicles to mark an assembly of family mourning his passing. I learned of it fourth hand, from a student of my husband’s who used to live in our village. Even the neighbors we do occasionally chat with, however superficially, never mentioned it.

What is so disturbing is our increased isolation, of our loss of community. I remember when I was growing up in Toledo, a much bigger city than where I live now, and I busted out my front teeth falling on the pavement during a game of tag. The neighbor lady three houses down mopped up the blood with her dish towel and all but carried eight-year-old me home. I doubt if I knew her name, but she knew me and took care of me without hesitation. And again probably twenty-five years later, when my son rode his bike into the chain link fence at the end of our street, the entire block turned out in response to his cries, one neighbor corralling the other kids, another picking up the bike while this time I mopped up blood (what would we do without dishtowels?).

Would that happen today? I’m not so sure. We are so sheltered, so busy with our personal crises that we barely take time to learn our neighbors’ names, much less care for them when they need a hand. We’re paranoid, anxious, fearful of strangers – all fueled by non-stop media assaults blaring the horrors of the world into our homes 24/7. And I think we are all the poorer for the separation. It’s much easier to despise the “others,” to call the police on the neighbor’s barking dog rather than make a personal plea, when those faces we see every day don’t have names.

I’d like to offer my condolences to the family, but it’s a bit late now. And I don’t know their names.

Maybe that’s where I need to start…