Friday, April 10, 2009

You Can't Lasso the Truth with the Lasso of Truth.

I'm going to make a bit of a liar out of myself.

Though I'm backdating this to appear to have been written on April 10th, the fact is that it's real early in the AM on the 19th as I'm typing away. I had one more thing to say, but I didn't want to mess up my "final" so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish post by plopping in one more thing after I'd just said "that's all folks". So with the magic of Post Options I'm shuffling the deck just slightly. It's not intentionally a trick (I'm explaining it, after all), but if you didn't read things closely you might be fooled into thinking this post was written earlier than it actually was.

How appropriate, then, that this post is about Truth.

Perhaps you have (like me) been following Noah Berlatsky's essays on Wonder Woman. Not sure I entirely agree with all his conclusions to date, but there's certainly an intriguing insight into the character going on there. One of the things he's posited lately is that Wonder Woman's lasso worked best when it was an all-purpose device for controlling people and not just a kinky lie detector. (And I'm not sure when the change happened, myself, but I suspect it could have been gradual. If you have total control of a person, supposedly you could compel them to tell the truth, and that might have morphed over time, the other aspects of control ignored and eventually forgotten.)

What should come up in his latest post on Wonder Woman but a mention of Bluefall's response to his truth vs. control musings, and having just been reading a different Bluefall post for my "previous/last" entry, I was curious enough to see what was up.

Here is a highly edited selection of her comments:

I know there are people out there who don't like the Truth thing. That's because, like this guy, they don't get the Truth thing. It's a peculiar sort of blindness for an internet generation, but there you go.

First, it's entirely ridiculous to say that self-knowledge is in any way related to purity. You know who's probably the most famous example of complete, vigorous, thorough self-knowledge in Western culture? The friggin Devil. That guy always knows exactly who he is.

Self-knowledge isn't about purity.

It is, however, the very essence of self-control. This, anybody who's spent ten minutes in psychotherapy can easily tell you. If you ever hope to stop yourself from doing something, you must know that you're doing it, and you must know why, so that you can know when you're about to and stop yourself before you start. What's the very first thing you have to convince an addict? That he has a problem. This dude mocks Diana's self-analysis in League of One as navel-gazing purity, and would prefer her commanding herself not to abuse her power. Seriously, how do you not notice what she's asking herself? It's right there on the page - "am I abusing my power"! Look at that, Diana struggling with self-control!

As for that power itself... again, I don't understand how anybody who's ever met the internet can fail to understand this, but knowledge is the foundation of all power. Secrets win and lose wars. Propaganda can build or destroy entire economies, and widespread dissemination of the truth brings entire religions (or cults) to their knees. Technology does not come from people exerting control - rather the other way around - and to bring us a bit back on topic, Batman does not win with prep time, Batman wins by knowing everyone's weaknesses. Truth is the most powerful thing there is.

Batman breaks your finger, big fucking deal. It's just pain, and your hatred can help get you through it; you were Willie the Snitch before he broke it and you'll be Willie the Snitch once it heals. But Wonder Woman makes you see yourself... how do you recover from that? How do you survive having your actual sense of identity completely shattered? You were Willie the Snitch yesterday, sure, but you can't be tomorrow, or ever again, not now that you've had to acknowledge what Willie the Snitch really is. And that is a far more horrifying prospect than some temporary mind control bullshit that goes away once the lasso is gone.

Truth is everything. Control over the Truth, over what is known and to whom, is the single most powerful weapon humanity has ever known. All an atom bomb can do is destroy. Control of the Truth can make something never have existed in the first place, or make something utterly unlike it used to be, or create something entirely new.

Reading this I had a flashback to some old arcade video game, the kind with plastic guns, where you try to shoot the bad guys who keep popping out of doors and past windows, and you've got a bead on the last bad guy, you pull the trigger and WHOOPS the lady with the baby carriage strolls in front of your virtual .45 Magnum to regrettable splattering.

There's a lot right about what's being said, but at the same time there's some truths missing from the equation.

But, back up: I always wondered if anyone had ever written a story where some crime boss tried to game Wonder Woman's lasso of truth. Suppose he tells his minions that he's going to be at a series of locations at specific times. In actuality, he's flying to Mexico or somewhere totally removed from the action. Wonder Woman, tracking him, shakes down a few of his thugs and uses the lasso to find out where he's gone.

They don't really know, but they think they know, so maybe they tell her where he'll be, but what happens is that she rushes to these various locations and meets instead horrible deathtraps or even just bombs set to go off at the aforementioned specific times. Meanwhile, crime boss yuks it up on his private jet until WW defeats the bombs somehow and saves the day and captures the bad guy.

That's the thing about the lasso: there's Truth, and then there's what we believe to be true.

If you are taught from birth that the Sun orbits the Earth, and this idea is never challenged, then when you repeat this idea you aren't exactly lying, but you aren't exactly telling the Truth , either. A lie detector will not register this as a falsehood, because that's what you believe. Still, modern science has pretty much proved that it's the other way around.

And that's just an objective fact; consider the answer to the question "what is the best color"?

Wonder Woman using her own lasso on herself and asking "am I abusing my power" doesn't fail because it's "navel-gazing", it fails because there's a damn good chance Wonder Woman doesn't have a freaking clue.

It depends on how the lasso works, and I confess I'm not deep enough into the mythos to know, but: Let's suppose for one train of thought that the lasso reveals the Truth as the individual under its power sees it. So in my above example, henchmen can give factually erroneous information they believe to be true. For another train of thought, we might assume that there's some external force that determines Truth, so that in my example, the thugs might somehow be compelled to reveal information they cannot actually know, like the boss' location.

Latter first: I can't recall any example of this ever happening, so I'm going to assume that's not the official method of operation. It'd open up a whole can of worms, such as: what agency is this that determines the Truth, and by what standards is it being judged? If Wonder Woman asks herself this question under the power of an externally-driven lasso, then the answer depends on how this other agency (the Gods, perhaps?) views her actions. But this stumbles in fiction, if you explore it too closely: the answer, of course, depends not on an omniscient being but the author of Wonder Woman's latest adventure, with all their own too-human biases. What is the value of the lasso's power of truth when written by a creationist? Or an atheist?

But in the former situation, it comes down to whether in her own heart of hearts Wonder Woman believes she is or isn't abusing her own power, and really, if she's self-aware enough to actually ask the question, I'm not sure whether extra prompting by the lasso is going to help her know the answer any better than without.

Because here's the thing about Willie the Snitch: Most of us know when we've done something considered "bad" or otherwise frowned upon by society at large. Willie doesn't avoid being locked up by the cops by being ignorant of his transgressions. But it's easy for Willie to get around all his faults by rationalizing them, justifying them in some way. It's not his fault, you know. Times are tough. It isn't fair. He has to get by. Sure, he stole a bit, but he's gotta eat somehow. Yeah, maybe he put that guy in the hospital, but the other guy started it, he had it coming. He feels bad, sure, but there really wasn't any other way...

Even if Willie was wrapped in the lasso and forced to somehow examine the Truth of his own life (and is Wonder Woman actually going to do that? She probably is more interested in where the jackass who's setting bombs for her is hiding rather than asking Willie some leading questions towards his greater self-awareness), the only Truth he's going to get comes from his own head, complete with his rationalizations (which, even if stripped away, would only be a life-shattering experience if Willie had enough of a conscience to still feel guilt or shame). And the same goes for Wonder Woman, noble though she may be. Unless you go for external truth, which goes right back to what I said before.

The anti-aborton nutjob who bombs a clinic probably sincerely believes that his act, though it flies in the face of a lot of Christian notions like forgiveness and not killing people, is justified by the lives of the unborn he may think he's saving. That is Truth to him, and making him ask the question "is this the right thing to do in this case" is only going to receive an answer of "well, of course it is!"

Self-awareness is not actual Truth. It may lead to more personal honesty, but if anything it breaks down existing inner truths with doubts and questions. That in and of itself does not reveal truth. It is useless to be aware of one's self if you are not also aware of your own position and perspective relative to those around you, to be able (and willing) to compare facts and premises between yourself and others. To break addiction, an addict must admit they have a problem, but to admit to having a problem, you have to accept the premise that you are mistaken about something. Your personal truth: "I don't have a problem" has to be somehow replaced with an external truth: "yes, you actually do have a problem".

(This is, of course, what starts Internet Fights, two or more people who each Know That They Are Right, and burn up keystrokes and bandwidth attempting to prove it, to supplant the other's Truth with their own. Internet people are often not really particularly self-aware, in the sense that they prefer not to ask difficult, challenging questions about their own beliefs.)

So there's how it stands: If the lasso has an external source for Truth, Wonder Woman can be assured some higher power is monitoring whether she abuses her power, but then we have to question the source and veracity of that power and its Truth; or, all the Truth revealed comes from within, and isn't inherently True at all, leaving Wonder Woman to assume she is or is not abusing her power based on her own assumptions. And that's why Wonder Woman's self-truth session fails.

EDIT, June:

So it seems "nevermore999", who left a comment on this post as "bookwormwithanattitude" - I think, I'm never good at juggling other people's multiple aliases - has made a post that challenges my position on the Lasso of Truth as stated above. It's on Scans Daily and cross-linked on her own blog, the latter with this bit:

That is my argument. Anon is welcome to refute it in his own blog, we'll link it on WFA. I will not refute his refuting, because I've said my piece, I've represented another side to the argument, and I'm content with that, and I have too much experience with internet arguments to be caught in a circlejerk. I just wanted the good readers of WFA to know there's another side. I would appreciate it if Anon did NOT come over to my blog to argue with me, when and if he sees this. I did not do the same for him, when he first posted it, I posted a kneejerk reaction, but I hope he'll forgive that.

Well, unless someone's checking this old post for updates, I doubt WFA will link to it (did they ever link it in the first place? I think Noah Berlatsky did...) I like the "I know I flamed off at you first but pleeeeeese don't dirty up my blog with your presence" bit. I suppose it's about as close to an apology as can be expected.

The sequences shown in the Scans Daily piece were, indeed, new to me. I have not bought a Wonder Woman comic, hmm, probably since Byrne's run, so most of my experience with the character has been based on earlier adventures.

I contend still that the earlier use of the lasso was, to my best recollection, never that dramatic or intimate - these pages are the first I have ever seen Wonder Woman actually jump into another person's head and poke around.

And, okay, that could be fairly traumatic. I mean, hell, you're some racist scumbag and WW has you tied up and then holy crap Wonder Woman's eyeballs are huge and you're falling into them and suddenly she's talking about your dead hooker mom and--

And then somehow that leads to the Nazi's confession about all the evil plans he and his cohorts had for WW and the Amazons.

...Uh? Did I miss the logic here, somehow? And when did Diana's lasso turn into her own private Abu Ghraib? Because what we just saw was Wonder Woman trotting out this guy's traumatic childhood and rubbing his nose in it before getting to the germaine point, being the plot against her people. What do we do next? Waterboard him or bring up that time his girlfriend broke up with him at the Prom?

Look: Oldschool Wonder Woman didn't do any of this. All she would have had to do around 1979 was tie the guy up and say, "tell me what the plans are!" and the guy would stiffen up and grunt, "no - but - something makes me! These are the plans..." and that would be that.

Now, she apparently has to reveal all of the truth of this one guy, break the guy entirely (someone mentioned in comments, to the point of catatonia) to get at this one particular kernel of truth. I'm detecting a serious loss of efficiency here.

Well, while this certainly means the way the lasso operates is currently much different than the method I'm familiar with, it still doesn't really refute my points. For one thing, it still doesn't mention whether this "truth of the soul" has anything to do with "truth as absolute fact" - remember my example of goons having been given false info to pass onto Wonder Woman? What if everything this Nazi knew about the plans was a lie, fed to him by treacherous partners? Okay, I don't know how it actually was in the story, but it would have been a good example.

But more important, this whole argument from the other side still turns on the idea that being confronted with the raw truth of things is such a powerful, moving experience that one must be emotionally transformed by it - and I don't buy it. Truth is not of itself empathy, is not emotion. Obviously this particular character is still hurting, still traumatized by his past and who his parents were - but what if he'd been some other guy, hardened, inured - "Yeah, my Mom's dead, she turned tricks, my Dad was a murdering scumbag, big deal, I never liked either of them." This "truth of the soul" only works if you assume that everyone has a compassionate, caring soul, even if it's hidden in secret dark places, and that when confronted with one's misdeeds and troubled past, guilt and shame will automatically kick in somehow.

And that's just it: I see people on the news all the time that commit absolutely horrifying acts of depravity and seem to show no signs of remorse, and I have a hard time believing that some of these monsters have any kind of conscience to reach, let alone that a replay of their horrible experiences would stir it just by virtue of being played back on the lasso's internal TiVo.

Go back to the Nazi - why should his crap childhood shake his faith in anything? All we see is that he doesn't like Wonder Woman bringing it up inside his own head, but we never see anything beyond that, no "here's where your crap childhood made you take the wrong choice and here's why it's wrong, and therefore your life is a lie and your brain shuts down now," no, all we get is him reacting badly to some bad memories and it's all over.

Make man cry, man see lie. No, sorry. It's a bit too simplistic for me.

There's even a reference to some other Scans Daily post (here), a much longer sample that revolves around Wonder Woman screwing up by letting her impulses get in the way of the "real truth" - which sounds great, except it's really a cop-out, since all the various perspectives shown are entirely subjective, even the one settled on at the end that sets everything back to rights, at least as far as Wonder Woman is concerned. What's the truth? Depends on who you ask, doesn't it?

Right now, it's Gail Simone's standards for truth that hold sway. Tomorrow it could be, I dunno, Geoff Johns or hey, Judd Winick. The problem with portraying an absolute morality-based truth in comics is that no author can actually come up with absolute truth, only a fictional construct disguised as truth (why did WW's lasso dissolve? Because Joe Kelly told it to), and for it to work you have to be willing to just sit back and let the author tell you that it works and just not question it at all. It's magic! It just happens! God from the Machine!

And that's the truth.


Bookwormwithanattitude said...

...Have you ever read any Wonder Woman comics? Because that's not how the lasso of truth works. At all. It's not about what you BELIEVE to be true, it's about TRUTH. Period. It burns through all the other crap and gets to the core of your soul. That's made explicitly clear in several comics.

James Meeley said...

And in his example, at the "core of their soul" the minion knows the truth of where the boss is hiding. Except, that the boss didn't tell them the truth. So, to their core, that hencman is going to tell a lie, because they "know" the lie as the truth.

The whole point of his post is how perceptions color what "the truth" really is. What one believes, to their core, and accept as "the truth," might not actually be so. People once believed the world was flat. They once believed the Sun rotated around the Earth. At the time these beliefs were popular, everyone took them for "the truth." If Wonder Woman would have lassoed someone from the Middle Ages and asked them is the Earth round or flat, they would say flat, because, in their minds, that is the truth. One they believe to the "core of their soul."

Wonder Woman's lasso is supposed to force you to tell the truth. But if the truth you "know" is actually false, but you don't know/believe that, her lasso can't make you tell the "real truth." Because you don't even know what that is.

Anon, A Mouse said...

"...Have you ever read any Wonder Woman comics?"

Yes, though I'm not familiar with the entire history of the character from start to finish, I often read the occasional WW comic in the 70s, a large chunk of the George Perez run, some of the Byrne-era. Plus the smattering of the Golden and Silver age stuff that floated by in reprints, casual library browsing, other sources.

"Because that's not how the lasso of truth works. At all. It's not about what you BELIEVE to be true, it's about TRUTH. Period."

In none of the comics I ever read do I recall the lasso of truth ever compelling someone to be able to speak a truth they were not aware of. If that's a current ability of the lasso, then it's a recent development compared to the WW stories I'm familiar with.

(It would also seem to obviate the need for WW to hunt down crooks for info, wouldn't it? "I need to know where Cheetah is hiding! Batman! Come here and let me tie you up so I can ask you where she is!" "But I don't know where..." "It doesn't matter!")

"It burns through all the other crap and gets to the core of your soul. That's made explicitly clear in several comics."

Can you cite these comics? Any examples on Scans Daily or some such?

In any case, just saying that it "gets to the core of your soul" doesn't really mean anything. There is no completely common, objective truth there. Humans do not have a hive truth.

Take the example of the clinic bomber I cite in my original post. Okay, so WW lassos the guy. Now, the lasso as I'm familiar with it never just automatically revealed "the truth" to people who were roped up, no, Wonder Woman had to ask a question of some sort, and then the prisoner was compelled to answer, truthfully. (Come to think of it, I can't recall if they were even compelled to answer, just that if they did speak, it had to be the truth. Ah well, beside the point.)

Even supposing that the lasso would, in some way, strip away all personal attempts to avoid dealing with the truth, the question still remains: what truth IS that, really? That the man is willing to kill for his ideals? I can't imagine anyone in such a position not being aware of that, though they may avoid thinking about it if they can. That killing is bad, and he is therefore bad himself? Possibly, but like I said, a person like that views his own actions as a necessary evil to bring about what he sees as a greater good.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter, and that is: do his actions, in fact, serve a greater good?

Well, *I* don't think so, but many people do. What is the truth, in this matter? And what determines that truth?

Such an issue depends on one's own personal philosophy and beliefs, such as: Is there a God? If so, what does he say on the matter? Is all life equally precious, or is some life more precious than others? What determines the difference, if any?

In the end, these answers to these things are not based in an objective fact, but in opinion; faith, if you will. What "the TRUTH" is depends entirely on your personal stance on these issues, and varies from person to person. Now, some opinions are more mainstream than others, but that merely means they are more accepted, not that they are inherently more true.

So to get to the core of the bomber's soul and "reveal the truth" to him that he isn't actually a defender of the unborn but a murderer and a thug requires the lasso to, in effect, HAVE AN OPINION OF ITS OWN which is different than that of the bomber. And then it has to impose its own opinion on that bomber, supplanting what the bomber believes to be true with what the lasso "knows" to be true.

For any judgment call like that, where the answer depends on a standard of morality which can differ from person to person, the same situation applies. Wonder Woman asking "am I abusing my power" can only get an answer of "yes" if some other force feels she is abusing her power, regardless of how WW feels.

That is, unless the "Truth" comes from within one's own mind, as I've postulated, in which case, to get an answer of "yes", WW already has to feel, deep down, that she is abusing her power.

I may not know how the lasso is supposed to work these days, but I'm pretty sure I know how Truth works. A lasso of truth is only as good as the source of its truth, and again, that comes down to a person's own mind, or some external god-like force (which in the case of the comics, means: whoever's writing the story at that particular moment).

lovedatjoker said...

OoOH yes, so glad to read this! I had many of the same questions when I read those comments. I mean, I don't object to the Lasso of Truth itself, but the whole definition of truth... if it IS "TRUTH"...


Seriously, I'm not all up on Wondy, so whose truth is it? The truth of the Greek Gods? Cos... y'know, they weren't exactly paragons of virtue themselves.

I have a really big issue with this idea of truth - ethical and moral truth is subjective, inconsistent and shifting ... who has the right to define it absolutely and enforce that, exactly?

Also, I found bluefalls idea of "goodness" to also be problematic. I mean, using donations to charity is just... considering how many charities are interested in self-perpetuating and many have homophobic/transphobic/racist policies and really... while donating money is a good thing to do and a personal sacrifice, if people aren't carefully considering the charities they donate to or using their donations to ignore anything else they encounter... then there's a level of personal responsibility that isn't involved.

So yeah. Goodness. Truth. Not many easy answers to that sticky issue and I don't think bluefall tackled it very well.

Scipio said...

"I'm not sure when the change happened, myself, but I suspect it could have been gradual. If you have total control of a person, supposedly you could compel them to tell the truth, and that might have morphed over time, the other aspects of control ignored and eventually forgotten.)"

In fact the division is quite neat; it's pre- and post-Crisis Woman Wonder.

Pre-Crisis Wonder Woman was about CONTROL, not truth. And if you don't know why, heh, just do a little more research.

And Bookworm, I suggest losing the "attitude". Use of the lasso has not been consistently portrayed by post-Crisis writers. You're just remembering the stories that you've read or that made an impression on you.

On the whole, however, WW has used the lasso to either (A) force a person to reveal what he thinks is the truth (B) force a person to see the real truth (via Wonder Woman). It's a two-way connection.