Black cards, love, lies, and Force Majeure

Speaking of Black Mirror, here's a relevant interview titled Black Cards: All the Lies You Need to Love. A wife interviews her husband after he publishes the book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love.

Recall what Venkatesh Rao said about such lies we tell ourselves and each other in his critique of Black Mirror:

In each case, the technological driver has to do with information  — either knowing too much or too little about yourself and/or others.  Each technological premise can be boiled down to what if you knew everything about X or what if you could know nothing about X. In the episodes so far, there has been no simple correlation between choosing ignorance or knowledge and getting to good or poor outcomes.  That’s what lends the show a certain amount of moral ambiguity.

White Christmas, the first episode of Season 3 is more complex, wandering into moral luck territory via gaps between intentions and consequences. Gaps deliberately created by consciously chosen ignorance of the block-on-Facebook variety.

This is promising. Hopefully, the show will explore this more, because the straight-up value collisions are not that interesting. They are merely shocking corner-case hypotheticals of the torture-one-terrorist-to-save-humanity variety, in futurist garb. But with moral luck, you have more going on. Where knowledge is the default and ignorance must be consciously chosen, rather than the other way around, the consequences of ignorance becomes less defensible. Especially when you are in a position to choose ignorance for others.

Can't exist when the lies that make for civil society are punctured by technology? Grow up.

In the Black Cards interview, the husband Clancy Martin argues the opposite, specifically when it comes to love. Lie to your lover, and lie to yourself. Truth is the opposite of an aphrodisiac.

Amie: What should a woman do if she has cheated on her husband, whom she loves. She did it impulsively, and it didn’t mean anything. Should she tell her husband, or not?

Clancy: I don’t think she should tell her husband immediately. She might feel better briefly after telling him, but she’s giving him all of her guilt to carry around. And she certainly shouldn’t tell him in anger—as an attack during a fight, or as a response to some mistake he’s made.

Could there come a time when she should tell him? Yes, I think when she can see that the caring thing to do is to admit that this happened. Or if this starts to become a pattern, she’d better let him know that they need to see a therapist and then, in that moderated context, “come clean.” But she’s already done some harm with this one-night stand—don’t exacerbate it. 

Amie: Okay, but that’s what everyone says, and your thesis is that people in love have to lie more often than we admit. So shouldn’t you be coming down hard on the necessity of the lie? That a cheater should never tell? 

Clancy: Deny, deny, deny is the standard wisdom for men—and maybe for women too. That’s not—

Amie: For cheaters, let’s say.

Clancy: Yes, for cheaters, and this woman has cheated. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that caring should be her goal—and that caring might sometimes require carrying the burden of a lie for a while. Later, caring might require telling the truth. We have to be subtle epistemologists if—

Amie: Okay, okay.

Clancy: Can I just finish my sentence? We have to work hard to understand each other if we want to be good lovers.

Martin reverses the usual thinking on honesty; to him, it's a form of weakness to tell the truth.

I suspect a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma when it comes to relationships or marriages and truth. The optimal outcome is for both people in the relationship to select truth or lies (which of those you select depends on your philosophy), but the temptation is for one or the other person to defect to obtain the moral high ground at the cost of harmony in the relationship.

The interview contains a fascinating analysis of the Swedish movie Force Majeure which I saw at TIFF last year and found to be amusing in an acerbic and, well, Swedish way.

Amie: That reminds me of the movie we saw the other night, Force Majeure. A family on a ski trip is hit by a controlled avalanche. The smoke from the avalanche pours over their table at lunch on the mountaintop. But as it’s coming, the smoke looks like snow, and they think they are going to die. The mother wraps her arms around her children. The father picks up his gloves and his iPhone and runs. The two spend the rest of the movie dealing with the “truth” that has been revealed. And it seems manifestly true: the man is a coward and the woman has seen clearly. When friends try to encourage her to see it differently, suggesting for example that they are all okay, and that maybe they should move on, she is intractable. In the final scene, they are on a bus going back down the hillside, and the driver is taking sharp turns and having trouble with the gears. She forces him to stop so she can get off, and everyone on the bus follows her. But then on the roadside, night falls, and thirty people are on foot in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go. For the first time in the movie, it is manifest that this woman does not know what to do. That she has been alarmist. That she has caused a ruckus over nothing. It was a movie that presented two equally valid “truths.” And showed the way the self-righteous adhesion to one truth could tear apart a good marriage.

Clancy: For me the question becomes: When we learn things about our loved ones that cause us to dislike—or even to hate—those loved ones, what should we do? It will vary from case to case, which matters: there shouldn’t be one simple answer to the toughest questions about relationships. One friend says in Force Majeure, when the married couple has left the room, “They need therapy!” People always say, “Go to therapy!” We have become very simpleminded in how we think about love, and yet it matters to us more than anything. But here’s my answer: the woman in the movie thought she was seeing the naked truth. She even had it on video. But I would ask her, “Are you being as tough on yourself as you are on your partner? Can you withstand the same withering scrutiny? Look at your own motivations: Do you admire your motivations?” It’s a very good case study, because this woman in the movie, like many of us, was completely blind to her own failings. Forgiveness, care, commitment: that’s what we demand from our parents, what I hope we offer to our children, and I think ought to give to our spouses.

Once the avalanche occurs, the movie is a bit on the nose for a good long period. It's funny, but it's blunt, and it beats the same punch line with a hammer in scene after scene.

But then the movie ends with that scene on the bus driving down the mountain, the most oblique and intriguing part of the film. It's no coincidence that the one woman who stays on the bus is the same woman who had spoken openly about the many extra-marital affairs she's had. She rides the bus down the mountain uneventfully while all the others in the bus walk down the mountain, resigned by their (bourgeois) caution to a suboptimal outcome.

If the entire movie had that concluding scene's sly, understated sense of mystery, that would have been something.