General, Govt, Mind, Philosophy

The Phenomenology of Secrets: The Magician’s Cloak

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Secret has been fascinating to me, and I believe to almost everyone. Ever felt so curious to the level of itchy eagerness to pry into some juicy information about a friend or a colleague? Or the inquisitiveness to look into the magician’s hat or his cloak? Or the obsession with conspiracy theories about secret message in mediaeval paintings and of government’s confidential military facilities?

Secret captivates us. But I want to argue it does not only do so to our imaginations, but also to us. Secret not only captures us in the physical entrapment sense, but it holds us spellbound and to a certain extend it overpowers us.

In Baconian philosophy, knowledge is power. To know something is to have an advantage over it because such knowledge allows us to set some kind of existential limits over the thing, in the sense of pinning it down or negating what it is not. This in turn allow us to make informed choice over our action towards the thing. In many situations, knowledge about a thing allows us to control or manipulate the thing itself. Or at least, it potentially gives us such power of control.

To possess a secret is a monopoly of a certain knowledge. In such monopoly, we hold the antagonists in place because of the advantage of the knowledge we have. But I want to argue that secrecy goes further than having this kind of edge or head-start over the others. It is much more than having extra resources compared to the others, rather, it is like having a superior weapon against the others.

Secrecy is a subservient relationship between the owner and the others. On one hand, holding a secret seems to give one a sense of superiority and power. It is like wearing infrared lenses in a night-time battle. We felt powerful because we can see more clearly than others, yes, but on the other hand we felt powerful because others cannot see.  Then, to the rest of us who do not hold such secrets (although we have secrets one way or the other), it paralyses us through the superiority it gives to the keeper of the secrets. It is really like the movie Predator, all of us are being hunted down by someone who has far better vision than us; we can run, but we cannot hide.

A government holding a secret produces such effect on the people. Such government has the superiority of night-goggles, chasing us in the dark. It even has a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak. The people cannot pin down what’s wrong with the world around them, because what is wrong is kept secret. The people are being hunted down, by an unseen enemy. We were told that this is for our own good, for our security. It is assumed early that the people are accomplices to the enemy, willing to trade off the security of the country to the enemy if access to the secrets is granted. The people have become the enemy of the state.

But in the end, secrets are really for the security of the secret keepers, not the others. Because by not divulging his secrets, the magician can continue to hold us in his spell.

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