Sunday, January 20, 2013

A certain point of view

Ben gives Luke his first lesson in Jedi subjectivism.

“Luke, as you grow older, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on a certain point of view.”

How many of you, when you first heard Obi-Wan Kenobi offer this remonstrance to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, found yourselves putting a mental question mark next to it? And how many of you were simply too caught up in the moment, in Luke’s feelings of betrayal and loss, to allow it to register? 

“After all, it’s only a movie,” he observed drily.

Movies are stories, and stories can be dangerous weapons. Torn by the pity and terror of tragedy, drawn along in spite of yourself by the drama, weeping and laughing according to its merits and intents, you may find yourself accepting as true propositions and values that, were they presented as arguments, you would question or even reject. Consider the watershed influence of Brokeback Mountain, or the quietly malign effect Atlas Shrugged (the book) has had on our view of the poor, and tell me I’m wrong.

It’s not that Ben Kenobi’s statement as worded is false or an endorsement of subjectivism. Many of the things we hold to be true are only “obviously true” by consensus; shatter that consensus, introduce a substantial party dedicated to denying or contradicting it, and its obviousness is lost.  Identities of people, institutions, and nations are built on and vested in “self-evident truths” that other people, institutions, and nations find dubious propositions at best; mental breakdowns, corporate dissolutions and social chaos follow when those truths collapse under pressure.

And yet — Kenobi’s words nag at us, for he speaks these words to justify misleading Luke. That Darth Vader “killed” Anakin Skywalker is an abstract metaphor; that Darth Vader was/is Anakin Skywalker is concrete fact, and can’t be waffled away by arguing perspective. The literal is prior to the metaphorical; if Ben’s account of Anakin’s “death” is true “from a certain point of view”, it’s a perspective that doesn’t face the facts in their ugly fullness. Considering Kenobi’s motives, for all that they’re good, his “truth” is darned convenient.

But even by his own lights, Kenobi is wrong. Vader needs his suit to survive, but it’s also a mask, a box within which he can hide Anakin Skywalker from everyone, including himself. He tries to “kill” Anakin by suppressing him in mechanics and artificiality, but Anakin still comes out in Vader’s desire to have Luke by his side when he achieves supreme power — the father’s natural desire to have a legacy to bequeath to his offspring. He tries to convince himself that he can kill his son if need be but allows Luke too many opportunities to escape the death blow. When Palpatine threatens to succeed where Vader fails, Anakin finally escapes the “Vader box” to save his son and kill the Emperor, probably knowing that he will hasten his own death in doing so.

The saga of Anakin Skywalker’s fall and redemption is fully grounded in the first principle that there is such a thing as objective truth, that it is knowable, that it is discoverable, and that we owe it a primary loyalty. Much of the tragedy and drama of the cycle stems from the individual characters’ inability to face and accept truths that are dangerous or unappealing. For instance, Han and Leia banter and squabble until halfway through The Empire Strikes Back because they fear the unknown territory of love and what it will demand of them. Far easier to engage in sexual suggestion and caustic insult than to admit they love one another. The Jedi, for all their goodness and heroism, are too amenable to compromising the truth in favor of the easier, more politic resolution. It’s this consequentialist bias that is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s fatal flaw, which Luke must resist and reject to save his father.

The centrality of truth to a just society can’t be overstated.  Without respect for and faithfulness to the Way Things Really Are, justice — the rendering to each person of that which he deserves — has no meaning.  Where deception is not only possible but expected, even de rigueur, commerce breaks down and extensive government regulation becomes a poor substitute for “good faith” bargaining. Without truth, we can’t properly “know” anything: there would be no real facts for science to discover or education to transmit.  Without objective truth — “ground truth”, the truth that’s often inconvenient or dangerous, the truth that stubbornly exists in defiance of psychological needs or social theory — promises are meaningless, trust impossible, fidelity an empty antiquity, love a shapeless heap of indefinite, self-referential emotions.

“Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” [Summa Theologica II-II:109:3 ad 1]. The virtue of truth gives another his just due. Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion. In justice, “as a matter of honor, one man owes it to another to manifest the truth” [ST II-II:109:3 A]. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2469)

Like St. John the Baptist, we’re called not only to live in the light but to bear witness to it, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Because it’s the truth that makes us free (John 8:32), we aren’t free to make the truth what we will: there is only one God, who is the source of all truth, and therefore only one Truth that liberates. “I am the Way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

We must not only discern and speak the truth, we must bear allegiance to it: we must plant our flags by it, and if necessary set our backs against the mountain and suffer or die defending it.  This means we must accept the truth about ourselves, no matter how ugly and uncomfortable it may be; this means we must speak the truth to and about others, if not regardless of consequence then at least without using those consequences to justify deception.

But it also means living our lives in such a manner that the truth about us, when spoken by others, testifies to the truth of the Gospel. Very often, we’ll find it’s also becoming to us. Only by building our own lives on the truth can we hope to build a just, merciful and loving society.