And Brutus is an Honorable Man

Imagine this: You want to say something which contradicts the social, political, or economic power above you. If you say what you really believe, you will be in trouble, fired, imprisoned, or cancelled. You must say what is expected of you, but in doing it, you want to express the opposite of what is expected.

Let’s look at some examples.

Mark Anthony speech in the play Julius Cesar by William Shakespeare

The setting

Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March (March 15), 44 BC. His friend Mark Anthony had heard of the plot and wanting to protect Caesar came with him to the Senate. However, the conspirators anticipated this and had a politician called Trebonius intercept and hold him outside the Senate chamber.

After Caesar was killed, Mark Anthony asked permission from the assassins to give a funeral oration for Caesar in front of the people. The conspirators agreed, with one condition, that he will not attack or condemn them for their act. Mark Anthony accepted this restriction and spoke to the people.

The message

The following is William Shakespeare’s rendition of Mark Anthony’s speech. Pay attention to the text in bold.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men–

Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious
And, sure, he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Analysis

Mark Anthony is apparently keeping his word to not attack Caesar’s assassins in his speech. He even states clearly that Brutus and his companions are honorable men. How did his audience perceive his words? He enumerates facts which contradict Brutus’ contentions about Caesar, and then, in a non sequitur state that Brutus is an honorable man.  His audience know it and it is quite transparent that Mark Anthony calls Brutus honorable only to formally mollify the assassins.

Nixon speech about Vietnam in 1968

The setting

Richard Nixon was running for President in 1968 against the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. President Johnson has already announced that he will not run again but he was obviously supporting Humphrey and wanted the Democrats to win. One of the hot topics of the campaign was the Vietnam war. By that time, the majority of the American people had turned against the war.

Johnson made some announcements which indicated that he intends to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. This was supposed to help his man, Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon reacted to Johnson announcement and made his opinions public in a speech. I do not have the exact text, but I can reproduce his main points. This is what he said:

The message

I have heard President Johnson announcements regarding the Vietnam war, and I have two points to make:

First:  President Johnson announcement is very welcome. He moves us in a good direction, and I commend him for that.

Second:  I have also heard from various sources that in fact his announcement is just a trick to gain votes for the Democrat candidate. Once the election is over, he will renege on his promises and we will be back where we are now. However, I know that President Johnson is a honorable man and do not believe this rumor to be true.

Analysis

Apparently, Nixon is using the same technique as Mark Anthony. Maybe Johnson is lying about his initiative for peace. But people know that Johnson lied about the war in the past and he had a law credibility with large sections of the American society. The accusation that Johnson is lying, even if apparently denied, still has a lot of weight. On the contrary, the praise heaped on Johnson is not believable.

Avoiding Communist censorship

The setting

It is a known fact that in Communist countries the Party was exercising a strict control of the media and the published books. Most authors were aware of this and avoided anything that could fall under the rejection of the censor.

Occasionally some scholar wanted to author and publish an article or a book which contained ideas contrary to the Communist dogma. He or she had to become creative in getting approval to publish. One method was to make the text cryptic, accessible only to well-trained specialists. A non-trained censor may thus miss the real message and put his stamp of approval.

Yet another method was to include something which would mollify the censor. The difficulty was to do it in such a way as to not destroy the professionalism and prestige of the author and not to seed doubts about the central theses of the article or book.  

After so many years since Communism collapsed in East Europe, I do not have a sample in front of me, however I can make one up, based on what I saw with my eyes.

Imagine that a scholar wanted to publish a book about the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. It is a difficult subject (as far as censorship is involved) because Pascal was a profound Christian, which was reflected in his philosophy. Will the censor allow such a book? The author devises a way to get it approved. Some passage of the book may look like below (I used texts from the Wikipedia article on Blaise Pascal.

The message

Pascal is arguably best known as a philosopher, considered by some the second greatest French mind behind René Descartes. He was a dualist following Descartes. However, he is also remembered for his opposition to both the rationalism of the likes of Descartes and simultaneous opposition to the main countervailing epistemology, empiricism, preferring fideism.

As Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu has shown us at the XIX Congress of the Communist Party, we must be vigilant against any manifestation of the old ways of thinking, based on idealism and religious superstitions. We must educate the new generation in the spirit of dialectical materialism and Marxism. Only in this way our country can move to new heights of civilization, raising our people to the highest standards of living. Only in this way we can build the true Communist society.

Pascal cared above all about the philosophy of religion. Pascalian theology has grown out of his perspective that humans are, according to Wood, "born into a duplicitous world that shapes us into duplicitous subjects and so we find it easy to reject God continually and deceive ourselves about our own sinfulness"

Analysis

The text in bold letters does not fit either in style or in ideas with the rest of the fragment. Why would an author suddenly jump from a respectful and admiring evaluation of Pascal to the stupid ideas of a despised dictator? Yes, the censor may be enchanted by this inclusion, but any cultured person will immediately understand that the praise of Ceausescu is not sincere and was introduced only to have the book approved for publication.

TODAY

Our culture is moving to a form of soft totalitarianism. Certain ideas are accepted and encouraged by the media and by the politicians, while others are rejected. Many times, any public statement which contradicts the official theory, it is attacked, and its author is isolated or “cancelled.”

A few years ago, I travelled to UK and visited a large company. On one nice summer day, I was invited to an outdoors party for the people working at that location. As we enter the courtyard, we all received a flyer which stated the company policy regarding discrimination. The flyer asked that all employees must immediately report if any co-worker makes a critical or ironical remark about transsexuality.

I was unpleasantly impressed for two reasons. First, because the company was attempting to stifle opinions which did not conform to its ideology. What the employees believed was not the company’s business. Why in the world was the management doing this? But the second problem was worse: they asked the employees to rat against their co-workers. I have grown under the Communist regime, and I absolutely hated the practice of encouraging people to rat on their neighbors.

The company policy, as stated in the flyer, did not concern me as I was not an employee. However, I tried to imagine what could possibly happen to me if I were an employee. What if my boss asked me to talk about such “company values” in front of other employees? If I refused or said something against the company’s “values,” I would probably be fired.

I believe the future will more and more bring such morally difficult situations. If it happens to you, remember Mark Anthony’s speech. Use the art of non sequitur. Fill your speech with facts which contradict the official line, then state that the official line is correct. The facts will be convincing, and the conclusion will not. You can always hide behind the conclusion, but he who has ears will hear the truth.

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