Friday, November 20, 2009

Deception: Some Thoughts

I have been thinking about deception quite a bit recently.

As children, we grew up in the smoke-and-mirrors world of international espionage thanks to my father’s career in the government. In that world, deception was the norm: people were never who they said they were; information was always suspect, to be double and treble checked with multiple sources before it could be believed; potential friends were treated with suspicion until they proved their loyalty.

And yet, perhaps because of the lies that constantly surrounded us, as a family we grew up with absolute honesty. Perhaps because, as my parents have since pointed out, dishonesty even in small matters like taking a detour on the way home from school to grab an ice-cream could place our lives in danger. The worst trouble we ever got into with our parents was never for the wild, crazy things we did as teenagers (generally those just made my father laugh, or worse still, worry that we were “geeks” because we weren’t raising enough hell). The worst reprimands and consequences were for those little white lies that most kids take for granted.

There was just one rule: Information had its own restrictions and so not everything could be shared by everyone at all times, but deception stopped at the main door to our home.

Over the past few months, I have thought about deception repeatedly. Why people choose to deceive each other, especially when there is no greater tactical or strategic motive? Worse, why they choose to deceive the people they are apparently closest to: family, partners, children? And worst of all, why do they choose to deceive themselves?

I can understand – and perhaps take for granted – that humans deceive each other. But perhaps like Chanakya, and thanks to my upbringing, I believe that lies told in service of a greater good have their role in society. An intelligence officer deceives the enemy, lies and cheats and betrays for the good of his/her own people and nation. Despite all talk of the global village, and nebulous ideals of brotherhood of all humanity, there is virtue in such deception, as it is carried out at great personal risk (and cost) and for very little personal gain.

In contrast, there is little virtue in lying and cheating people that one loves. And yet as statistics repeatedly tell us, people deceive and betray their spouses and partners with a regularity that is distressing. There is a special horror to this, beyond the banal but significant risks of sexual transmission of disease, and other physical ramifications.

There is the material and emotional fall out when the deception comes to light: changes in marital status with all its economic and social corollaries, the anguish of the betrayed partner, the sorrow inflicted on other members of the family. How ironic that all of these are results of ending deception rather than its continuation.

But then there is a strange added phenomenon: there is also the shattering of the self-deception that often people impose on themselves. The cheating partner must confront his/her own idiocy in believing that any deception can be maintained indefinitely and the deceived party must question their own collusion with the deception. Children of such homes learn not the honesty within relationships but rather the hypocrisy that their parents demonstrate in their domestic lives. How different from my childhood world of smoke-and-mirrors!

Deception in espionage is a game, with various parties aware of the rules and consequences. One reason for the need for utter honesty within our family was an early recognition that governments use its officials (and citizens) as pawns, to be sacrificed with ease and relative nonchalance. Perhaps, because of this, in espionage, there is also a sense of respect for the enemy: its just a game, nothing personal!

But deception in “normal” life is personal. And perhaps that is why its greatest casualty is the sense of self. The deceived must not only recognise that they have been lied to and cheated, but also question why they were not trustworthy enough to be let into the secret: Why having loved a person were they left out of their partner or parent's unhappiness? And then there are the awful doubts over what else they have been deceived about!

But perhaps because of the shattering of self-worth, self-deception is the worst of them all. Long ago, I volunteered at a hotline for women in distress. Some of the women who called were being physically abused, but many others were facing what was euphemistically categorized as “relationship issues”: partners who had grown distant and remote, who were unfaithful, or in some way had stopped making the callers happy.

I remember being shocked initially at how deeply the callers deceived themselves. No matter how unhappy they were, they would rationalise their situation with the most clich├ęd of statements: “he is a good provider,” “he is a good father,” “he really does care,” "he will never do it again," and so on.

In an early training session, one of the senior counsellors explained that our job was to just listen, not to offer solutions or advice. And over coffee, she told me that she had come to accept that most of the callers would never leave their miserable situations, preferring the safety and security of the unhappiness they knew to the uncertainty of finding something new.

I was reminded of that comment recently, while thinking of this topic. And of the time I watched animals being brought into a nature reserve in Africa. These animals were from zoos and circuses, and had lived most of their lives in cages. And yet when that door was opened, and they could see the veldt beyond, they did not leap for that freedom. Instead they cowered at the very end of the cage where they had suffered their imprisonment and possible mistreatment. Even the fear of fire or sound of gunshots would not change their instinct to remain in their cages.

In espionage, the deceiver and the deceived are like two beasts of prey, hunting, stalking, evading. But the many people who deceive themselves, not only in relationships, but also jobs, lifestyles, entire lives, are like those animals, cowering in their misery rather than taking the risk of finding happiness. Like those animals, the deceiver and the deceived cower in their cages, but unlike those animals, they can't ever be drawn out: as humans, they carry their cages with them.

Perhaps that is why I am struck by Chanakya’s idea of anvikshaki knowledge: self-knowledge. Not in an easy new-agey way but one acquired by remorselessly facing up to oneself in all our darkness and brutality. Without it, we can not only never find happiness, but shall never stop being deceived in the worst possible way: by ourselves.