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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Laws of Power (3)

My son Alton and I are reading Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power and sharing our responses to the readings.

Robert Greene’s 3rd law of power is:  Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions.  If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense.  Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelop them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.

The 3rd law I refer to as the “Deception is Always Good” law.  Using con artists as an example, Greene holds the con artists up for admiration and approval.  He even rationalizes the actions of the conmen as perpetrating a victimless crime since the mark was greedy and deserved being artfully fleeced.  Another example Greene uses is love and war.  He affirms the saying “anything goes in love and war” especially deception.

First, I readily agree that calculation is an ingrained part of human nature.  A frequently used aspect of this is the concept of timing.  For example, at work I may want to take Wednesday off as a vacation day.  I go to work Monday morning planning to ask my boss first thing if I can get off.  When I arrive at work, however, I find my boss deeply engaged in solving a critical computer issue.  I decide that now is not the time to ask to get off.  To ask now would be inconsiderate of the current situation.  In fact, to ask first thing with this new reality present would show disregard for my boss and the situation he is dealing with.  Deep down I realize that if I show such disregard for his present concerns, he might in return show disregard for my concern to get time off.  So I calculate that it would be best to wait to ask until after the problem is solved and my boss takes a Dr. Pepper break. Such calculation is not intended to use or exploit my boss.  To the contrary, it is based on consideration and empathy.  It’s treating my boss like I would want to be treated—the golden rule.  But, of course, not all calculation is the same.  Some calculation is intended to harm others (the opposite of empathy and the golden rule).

Robert Greene’s tendency is to point out a human trait (calculation) but divorce it from the ends sought.  He seems to say since calculation is a part of human nature it doesn’t matter if you use it ethically or not.  It doesn’t matter if you use it to harm others or to help others.  The calculations of a misanthrope and a philanthropist have equal merit.  This suggestion gives an air of worldly sophistication to his writings—an air of “this is the way it really is.”  To the contrary, fortunately it makes a great difference how a human trait (a tool for action) is used.  Like any tool (say an ice pick), it can be used for good or ill.  Never should we conclude that since it’s an available tool, it doesn’t matter to what ends we use it.

Now let’s turn to love and war.  I think of D-Day when allied troops stormed Normandy.  Elaborate calculating efforts were made in the preceding months to mislead the Nazi military as to the location of invasion.  Certainly this was good deception.  I think of love and courtship.  Though cupid has ultimate motives to continue procreation of the human race, the first date does not usually feel the right time to contemplate intercourse.  Love is more than lust, and love and intimacy usually develop over time.

Finally, the 3rd rule seems to assume we are always dealing with an enemy.  You are trying to get the enemy to act contrary to their desires or best interests.  You are out to get your way no matter at what expense or loss to your mark.  This is a view of human relationships that seems to take an instance—war—and extrapolate it to all relationships.  This I totally reject.  War is a special case.  War is the exception.  Peacetime is where I live most of the time.  Seldom are relationships entirely competitive.  I recently had to purchase a heat pump for my home.  The contractor and I were in some sense competitive—he sought the higher price, I sought the lower price.  But we were also friends—I represented a needed job for the contractor; he represented needed technology and heat for me.  There were many things we could discuss and clarify that indicated we had a shared interest.  It would have been nonproductive for either one of us to take the 3rd Law as a guide for negotiations.

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