I have recently been reading a lot about power and manipulation.The 48 Laws of Power emphasizes appearances and manipulation over and over again. It opens with the following ultra-cynical gambit:
To some people the notion of consciously playing power games—no matter
how indirect-seems evil, asocial, a relic of the past. They believe they
can opt out of the game by behaving in ways that have nothing to do with
power. You must beware of such people, for while they express such opinions
outwardly, they are often among the most adept players at power.
They utilize strategies that cleverly disguise the nature of the manipulation
involved. These types, for example, will often display their weakness and
lack of power as a kind of moral virtue. But true powerlessness, without
any motive of self-interest, would not publicize its weakness to gain sympathy
or respect. Making a show of one’s weakness is actually a very effective
strategy, subtle and deceptive, in the game of power.
Now I have said things like this before and I will say them again. I have made this point in the slightly different context of gossiping before. I said that the people who say that they are uninvolved in gossip are often the worst gossips of all. It is also to be noted that oftentimes some of the best manipulators are not consciously aware of their manipulation of others or even that they are using them in a very instrumental fashion.
There is one episode of The Sopranos where Tony manipulates his high school friend Artie Bucco without fully appreciating what he is doing. In that episode Tony provides a loan so that Artie can invest in French Brandy. Tony provides the loan but knowing on some level knows that the investment is bad and that he will be forced to intervene and collect the money from the Brandy importer himself. Following on from this he figures, again in a not directly conscious fashion, that at worst the debacle will result in him eating for free in Artie’s restaurant. It becomes a problem for Tony in that episode when he is forced to reflect on the underlying rationality that guided his actions.
It is this point and these sorts of references that I often revel in. The suggestion that one is but a player in an ultra-cynical game offers a form of intellectual protection. On the one hand it suggests that your sufferings are just temporary. Bad things and good things happen in cycles and it is all a game anyway. It makes you think, for example, that if you could only learn resilience techniques or some form of power that things would be okay again. This view though leads to it’s own very obvious problems. If interactions are instrumental and people all manipulative then nothing really has meaning. Nobody has value and everybody is replaceable. It is supposed to lessen feelings of guilt and the emotional difficulties involved in interactions but it doesn’t. This is a good thing really though because the system doesn’t hold up. Interactions do have intrinsic value and emotions and experience cannot be avoided.
Deep down I know that the system is not true. I know that no matter how useful a shorthand books on manipulation, psychology and power provide that there is something more to this.I may remain plagued by the vague notion that sometimes am instrumentally motivated without our even knowing it in my interactions. I may also sometimes get the feeling that I am being manipulated or that I am not cared for but I also know that this does not reflect the full picture. Even within the logic of the game there is feeling and emotion. As I said earlier for some of the best manipulation to work the manipulator has to lie to him or herself. What this suggests, however, is that there are two tracks running at the same time. Even in the most extreme examples of manipulation.
It is my belief that people can both caring and use people instrumentally at the same time. It returns me to the writings of Rollo May and his references to Martin Buber. They talk about allowing yourself to experience another person. To allow them to be in such as they can exist as more an anatomistic collection of behaviours.
It was watching Lost and Mad Men that an old idea was given new currency for me. The idea being that maybe all of those times you were being a good person you confused it for weakness.
In the 7th episode of Lost Season 6 we follow Ben Linus. He has lied, manipulated and made grabs for power since his character was introduced. It seemed natural that this episode would head in the same direction. It offered us twin plots featuring Ben in something akin to parallel universes. In one we expected Ben to return to his murdering form and kill a woman who was going to kill him and in the other we expected him to sacrifice a bright pupil’s future in an effort to blackmail the principal and take his position.
The show takes the other way though. His humanity shines through and all of that messy emotional material and that stuff that we might call weakness becomes his strength.
Either direction would have satisfied me. I would have thrilled at the power grabbing version as I do in most of the shows that I watch. That includes everything from The Sopranos and Boss to Deadwood and House MD. But the direction that they finally went with satisfied me more emotionally. It felt and feels truer. It is this same truth I felt when Don Draper decides to shed the artifice and get real in the finale of Season 6 of Mad Men.