Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Cassandra Complex and the Better Part of Valor

There was a time when I believed that expressing my feelings in writing always served a useful purpose, that somehow all of the problems of the world could be solved if I could just express my informed opinions clearly and communicate with kindred spirits who shared my concerns. I haven't completely shaken that belief, but I don't embrace it the way that I once did. What I now embrace instead is a rather fatalistic world view in which the more I know and the better I communicate my knowledge with others, the more anguish I experience and the more futile all of my efforts seem to be at effecting positive change, . . . a Cassandra Complex, if you will.

For those of you who are not familiar with Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophet of doom who was herself doomed to foresee a future full of tragedies that she could not prevent because no one would believe her predictions or heed her warnings. Unlike Cassandra, I am not gifted with the ability to foresee the future. In fact, I am seldom very certain that what I know of the past or present is substantially accurate. What I do know for certain is that getting my facts straight is seldom a panacea because the truth as I see it is seldom recognized as the truth by others, and even when the truth that I see is recognized by others as the truth, it is (likewise) not a panacea.

What people do with the truth makes all the difference in the world. To wit, there are some very obvious situations where telling the truth to others (i.e., candor) creates more problems than it solves. For instance, consider the utilitarian response to Immanuel Kant's belief in telling the truth as a categorical imperative. To wit, if Anne Frank was in your attic, and the Nazis were at your door, should you tell the Nazis the truth about Anne Frank's whereabouts? Kant would say yes, . . . and Kant would be wrong. (More about this in a future blog post.)

And then there's the anguish of knowing that you are in the right but being powerless to do anything about it because an uncaring and unsympathetic authority figure is enforcing the rules, or rather an uncaring and unsympathetic authority figure is *NOT* enforcing the rules. I am reminded of the scene in the movie My Cousin Vinnie where Fred Gwynne's character tells Joe Pesci's character, "Counselor, that was a valid objection, lucidly stated. . . . Overruled." That type of situation is much more common than most people would like to admit. Indeed, after very careful consideration, I came to the conclusion long ago that there is an ongoing, worldwide conspiracy of ignorance and incompetence that reaches from the highest levels of government to the lowest levels of petty bureaucracy.

Notwithstanding the apparent futility of knowing the truth and/or communicating the truth to others, I still want to know the truth when the truth is knowable. Moreover, I still want to communicate the truth to others, other things being equal, because I believe that knowing the truth and speaking the truth are, generally speaking, good things; even better is knowing when to speak the truth and when to refrain from speaking at all. This better virtue is known as discretion, and as I have been wont to say for at least the last decade or so, "I am under no obligation to save anyone from his or her ignorance, and I have no desire to do so."

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