Share

Of all the possible superpowers, telepathy is the one most likely to double as a curse. Reading people’s minds and knowing their intentions even before they behave badly would certainly be handy, although it is telling that this scenario sounds very much like the one developed by the legendary literary paranoid, Philip K. Dick, and adapted into the Spielberg / Cruise Minority Report. Even paranoids who wish for telepathy would quickly rue the ability to read other minds.  My argument is that telepathy will just not create the hoped-for efficiencies. The temptation of rendering the lies and intentions of others transparent pales against the social chaos that would follow easy access to each others’ internal worlds.

Like the film noir femme fatale and her sap, we are bound to others by small truths, partial truths and a need to believe some lies. We need our own and others’ secrets in order to trust and forgive transgressions. The sap desperately needs the lie to be true because without the lie he has no dignity and no love. The femme fatale needs others to believe the lie to protect her false dignity and maintain status quo with the sap and, by extension, society. They both become enraged at any challenge to the lie. Their world narrows excruciatingly until, inevitably, there is no escape from facts and violence. As spectators we’re aware of the lie and we derogate both of them, the sap for his weakness and the femme fatale for her guile. Yet the irony has another layer to it. Who, in the fullness of our romantic, social, family and professional lives, has not played one or the other role? Who has not helped the lie along, protected it and nourished it in order to avoid an uncomfortable reality? Once the lie is out, repairing trust and re-aligning intentions and allegiances is a most difficult challenge. And, alas, I don’t think there is a recognized superpower of social finesse or diplomacy. (For a list of known superpowers see wikipedia.)

PAROLE MEETING ROOM

Three PAROLE OFFICERS – two men and a woman – face Hi across a table.

                          CHAIRMAN
         Have you learned anything, Hi?
                          HI
         Yessir, you bet.
                          WOMAN
         You wouldn't lie to us, would you Hi?
                          HI
         No ma'am, hope to say.
                          CHAIRMAN
         Okay then.

Raising Arizona, dir. Joel Coen, written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

It is true that without telepathy, jurisprudence must often make a clumsy compromise between rights and probabilities. However telepathy is only useful in the very immediate present or in laying bare the causes of past events, and even then it only provides greater access to idiosyncratic desires and views. Recently, an apparently stoned Miami teen appeared before a judge and, when things were not going well for her, she cursed him out and gave him the finger. The judge reciprocated with a thirty day jail sentence for contempt of court. Five days later, sober, she appeared before the judge again, apologizing tearfully and promising to be good. He released her, she went to Narcotics Anonymous and a month later appeared before a different judge who literally applauded her for staying sober. Throughout the month, telepathy would have been at best redundant as the young lady’s immediate intentions coincided completely and transparently with her behaviors. Hopefully her recovery is still going well and she has at least learned restraint. Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur did not fare so well in Gridlock’d.

PAROLE BOARD ROOM

Hi faces the same three PAROLE OFFICERS across the same table.

                          CHAIRMAN
         Well Boy, you done served your twenty
         munce, and seeing as you never use
         live ammo, we got no choice but to
         return you to society.
                          SECOND MAN
         These doors goan swing wide.
                          HI
         I didn't want to hurt anyone, Sir.
                          SECOND MAN
         Hi, we respect that.
                          CHAIRMAN
         But you're just hurtin' yourself
         with this rambunctious behavior.
                          HI
         I know that, sir.
                          CHAIRMAN
         Okay then.

Raising Arizona, dir. Joel Coen, written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

In another case in Toronto, a judge tackled the challenge of disentangling intention and desire, noting that the defendant’s “desire, however distressing, is not a crime. He can only be condemned if he acts upon his thought.”  The defendant was a teen-aged sadist who had engaged in some chilling online flirtation with a girl he had met three days prior. His lawyers characterized the boy’s explicit, violent fantasies as desires and not behavioral intentions. Nevertheless, the judge concluded that the boy’s overtures constituted threat of bodily harm and, among other things, ordered him to abstain from the internet in an attempt to address the boy’s “unhealthy obsessions that put both him and the public at risk.” The protection that the judge could guarantee the public was limited by the fact that the boy had not acted on his desires. The judge could only note that “reintegration must be incorporated into sentencing” and that “rehabilitation offers the best route for him to live a happy life.’’  Telepathy would provide no added value in this case, except perhaps as a future check on rehabilitation.

PAROLE BOARD ROOM

Hi and the same three officers.

                          CHAIRMAN
         Got a name for people like you, Hi.
         That name is called recidivism.
                          SECOND MAN
         Ree-peat O-fender.
                          CHAIRMAN
         Not a pretty name, is it, Hi?
                          HI
         No Sir, it sure ain't. That's one
         bonehead name. But that ain't me
         anymore.
                          CHAIRMAN
         You're not just tellin' us what we
         wanna hear?
                          HI
         No Sir, no way.
                          SECOND MAN
         'Cause we just wanna hear the truth.
                          HI
         Well then I guess I am tellin' you
         what you wanna hear.
                          CHAIRMAN
         Boy, didn't we just tell you not to
         do that?
                          HI
         Yessir.
                          CHAIRMAN
         Okay then.

Raising Arizona, dir. Joel Coen, written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

The third case I would like to consider is that of Robert Latimer, a father who killed his 12 year old disabled daughter, Tracy. He confessed, was sentenced, imprisoned, and, when the time came, was initially refused parole because he did not recant. The Canadian National Parole Board considered him an undue risk because he had not shown ‘insight.’ In other words, his parole application was rejected because he continued to characterize his act as a mercy killing instead of admitting that what he had done was wrong. There may be several reasons why people want a wrongdoer to see the error of his or her ways and apologize. Contrition satisfies a retributive desire to see evidence of that the wrongdoer has suffered. Contrition also provides information about future intentions, satisfying a utilitarian desire to protect others from potential harm and to use the wrongdoer’s example as a deterrent. Contrition also satisfies a deontic or ideological desire to reaffirm a certain moral order. Despite its stated utilitarian rationale, what the Parole Board wanted was for Robert Latimer to literally change his mind. However, Latimer’s act was personal and, in his mind at least, done out of compassion. Even the Supreme Court of Canada in sentencing Latimer had observed that he did not pose a risk to anyone. He was simply not on a crusade to rid the world of other disabled children. The threat that he posed to the members of the National Parole Board, and to some members of society, was a challenge to the moral order. Ironically, if Latimer had not been incarcerated, the state would not have held so much power over him just because of his views and opinions.

What value does telepathy have? Mind reading would add no value in the Miami teen’s case. In her thirty days of global infamy the world witnessed a pure and immediate link between her intentions and behavior. Her future behavior has more to do with probabilities than current intentions. The Toronto sadist was more self-consciously forthcoming with his desires and intentions.  His outcome rightly depended on the link between those statements and the probability of his future behavior. Robert Latimer was similarly forthcoming and honest about his attitudes, although he had no further intentions to act on them. His parole was initially rejected not because he would kill again, but because of what his attitudes meant to members of the National Parole Board. Telepathy is only handy when we want to ferret out a known (potentially idiosyncratic) truth from someone who is deliberately concealing it. The cost, of course, is too much truth. And I know what movie scene you are thinking about, right now.

the_truth

Post script. I found a number of websites that will determine your ideal superpower by asking you for some general information (not phone numbers or email addresses!). Mine, apparently, is telekinesis. Is that just a nice way to say I’m a couch potato?!

Share