By Grace Avery
Everyone loves a good scheme, a quick look at popular television is enough to see that. Entire franchises are built on plots, manipulate and the deception of others. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Crown, Peaky Blinders, You, The Great, and even shows like Supernatural and Scooby Doo dramatize manipulation into an entertainment goldmine. Reality shows such as Survivor, Big Brother and The Circle go drastically out of their way to make sure their scenarios encourage as much manipulation and power-games as possible in an effort to increase ratings, and it works. People absolutely adore subtle games of manipulation and influence, because at the heart of it all, they are envious. Not envious of liars, cheaters, deceivers and manipulators, but envious of power. Power lust is the foundation of civilization, as non-producing populations require the coerced labor of farmers and builders to sustain themself. Yet as we stand on the ashes of millions who have been trampled by the powerful, even as we condemn those we deem evil and pity those who have lost everything, we still watch shows and movies and play games that let us taste the drug, and we cannot get enough.
Power is a dirty word now, and those who want power are condemned for it. The detestable actions of those who crave power are no secret to anyone anymore. Too many have seen too much horror, and the lust for power that our society demands from us is unforgivable. Anyone who wants more agency in the world is a bad person, and the fact that this is everyone is quietly swept under the rug.There is a social pressure to pretend we haven’t a care in the world for power, yet the needs of our survival move us to desperately grasp the power to live another day. By combining legal punishment with victim blaming, the powers that be are able to condemn those below them regardless of any actions.
Unless you are wealthy. Power games like manipulation and deception are class-coded, and those who have enough power are not just permitted to want more, they are demanded to. Manipulation is and has always been the domain of royalty. When a baker kills a man to steal his job, that is murder, yet when a noble kills a man to steal his position in court, that is fair play. The higher a persons social standing, the more socially mandatory manipulation becomes, and the less moral condemnation they receive for their actions. The natural love of power that humans have draws their attention away from moral issues and towards power dynamics, and those who have committed horrible atrocities often have the ethics of their actions overshadowed by analysis of their strategy.
Shakespeare’s Othello, in which an Italian militant Iago manipulates the Moorish General Othello into killing his wife, is a cruel display of this fetishization of power. Despite the title of the play, Iago has four times as many speaking lines as Othello. Othello is portrayed as a victim of Iago’s manipulation, yet this manipulation is the focus of the play. As a General, Othello holds a position of power in society, yet he is utterly powerless against Iago’s manipulation as it slowly drives him to ruin. While Iago is judged for his actions and Othello is pitied for his victimhood, this does nothing to change the fact that Othello is about Iago and his manipulation. The central experience provided by Othello the he experience of manipulating through lies, and this experience is achieved by
“…Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field, 430
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself…”Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Othello : 1622. Oxford,
Othello never sees it coming. He is not trained and educated in the arts of manipulation the same way Iago is. Had he chosen to employ a spy, verified the information Iago had given him, or been in any way vigilant for deception, he may have easily uncovered Iago’s trickery. But Othello is not a noble, he is a common man who rose in status by military prowess. He is honest and straightforward, and values these characteristics in others.
“Not I. I must be found: 235
My parts, my title and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly…”Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Othello : 1622. Oxford
Despite his social status, he is held to the behavioral standards of the common people. He is expected to regard manipulation and power-games the way commoners are, and because he holds himself to this expectation, he is rendered vulnerable to Iago’s schemes. Othello is, in this sense, socially coded to be a victim. Even further, Othello’s relationship with power itself has been socially constructed by those around him to make him a victim. The fact that Othello is incapable of defending himself against Iago’s manipulation is a characteristic that Othello’s society has intentionally curated within him, just as modern society intentionally curates a disdain for power in its lower castes.
In the United States there has been a smear campaign against the pursuit of power performed by the powerful for the very purpose of grooming people into victimhood. It has been ongoing since the secession from the British Empire, and serves to stabilize social responses to oppression. An imaginary line has been drawn between those with power and those without to deceive people into dismissing their own power. By creating a climate that redirects criticism of the wealthy away from morality and towards strategy while also cultivating a disdain towards power in the oppressed classes, the powerful are given the leeway they need to trample the public. It is through these power dynamics that organizations justify the assassination of movement leaders, extra-judicial imprisonment of human rights activists, the denial of clean drinking water, and the public execution of American civilians at the hands of the police.
Othello did not need to be a victim. Othello had options and opportunities to protect himself and his love from the cruelty of Iago. He had friends and supporters and access to literature. Othello’s fate is the fate of many who have been oppressed and deceived at the hands of those more powerful than them. Being brought to ruin under the weight of a mountain of lies is the normal experience for oppressed groups in the United States. People of color, queer people, disabled people, the non-english speaking, women and poor people all face a world where businessmen and politicians carry the hearts of warlords. This is no metaphor, as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince can be found in the “Business Management & Leadership” section on Amazon.com.
To survive in these environments, it is necessary to understand the thought patterns and power games that surround us. Everyone is involved in power struggles of some kind, generally against other people. Fighting for a living wage or safe working conditions being common examples. Often when engaged in these struggles, those in more powerful positions will use manipulation and deception to stifle their opposition, such as spreading anti-union propaganda or forbidding workplace discussion of wages. Many established strategies are studied and performed by those of higher autocratic positions in workplaces, with little thought given to human well-being. Manipulation, deception, and other aspects of power and power-games are skills, and they contain reliable components through which situations and people can be analyzed and responded to with consistent efficiency. Due to the universality of power dynamics, these skills are often trained from youth among those who are expected to use them. While this has traditionally been the domain of nobles and royals, the autocratic hierarchical structure of capitalist workplaces has led to a dissemination of these strategies throughout the public. They have become universally useful, and thus widely adopted throughout the business world. We now find ourselves in a society that operates like the royal courts of old, where unavoidable power-games dictate a persons quality of life. No one can escape the horrors of being trampled like a dirt road.
Othello lost a game he did not even know he was even playing. It was forced upon him by the ill-will of another, just as the terrible living conditions of most Americans are forced upon them by the will of establishments. There is no escape from the games, but there is an option that many refuse to take. There is the option to win. There is no secret doctrine of oppression, for the texts and materials on power and power games are publicly available. The educational material used by businessmen and politicians on subjects of power and manipulation are now publicly available through the internet and libraries. It is now possible to not just understand the methods of those who seek to rule us, but to understand them better than they do themselves. We can do more than simply play these silly little games of power, we can play them better. We can win against those who expect to win. We can read from the same books as our bosses and we can learn their tricks, but there is nothing stopping us from learning more tricks, studying more strategies of manipulation and power-games, and eventually winning. There is no reason to die like Othello when you can kill Iago.