Aphorisms, like any good cliché, hold a grain of truth, which is why they can’t be easily dismissed.
“You can’t cheat an honest man.”
That one has haunted us for ages and it’s an instance of something that points in the right direction but fails to be sufficiently inclusive. Of course honest people can be cheated, it happens all the time. Because honesty isn’t enough if fear undermines it. One doesn’t have to be dishonest to be vulnerable to fraud, which was the point of the original saying—that only people “looking for a deal” are liable to be cheated, because their blindness to false promises that offer them unwarranted advantage makes them so. But we know it’s largely bullshit.
At least on its face. If you peel back a couple of layers, it actually suggests that no one is honest, that we all have an avaricious nature inside of us somewhere, one that under the right circumstances can emerge to trip us up. As you look deeper, the aphorism says much more than it seems to, but you have to be willing to go there to see it. The proof of the saying would be in finding an “honest man” and trying to cheat him. That may be harder than we like to admit.
Consequently, it’s more useful than at first glance. It says things about human nature, in such a way that we can avoid direct indictment. It’s the start of a conversation, though. The pairing of two conditions to examine a proposition: cheating and honesty. What do they have to do with each other? Well, obviously they’re connected. Cheating is obviously a question of honesty. The phrase spreads the responsibility around. It suggests all parties play a part. It has come down to mean something perhaps narrower and it is an easily debunked warning.
But it cannot be ignored and, onion-like, the layers revealed in peeling expose how actually complex the proposition really is.
I’d like to try something similar with another such pairing. I’m not sure how to phrase it as neatly as the first, but something like:
You cannot corrupt an unprejudiced person. Or perhaps, bigotry produces corruption.
Several things become apparent. The first and foremost is the use of corruption here can be misapprehended. By corruption I mean far more than the present-day definition of someone open to financial and monetary influence, one who profits by abandoning duty and responsibility, can be bought. There is certainly that, yes, but I think the greater range of meaning must be considered. The simplest being “the impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.” This can be achieved by means other than fiscal and therefore becomes harder to reduce to a simple material quid pro quo.
And the bigotry?
My proposition is that the only way to corrupt someone is if they are already convinced of (a) their own innate superiority, (b) the de facto inferiority of others, and (c) the fear resulting from those convictions when dealing with those they perceive as their natural inferiors. That fear—which can take the form of resentment, hatred, aversion, and the desire to limit or control the actions, behaviors, and mobility of those others—renders one vulnerable to corruption. In fact, it’s probably more common to encounter corruption based on these things rather than with mere money, but also much harder to expose and understand and, therefore, to confront and overcome.
The feeling of threat underlies all this and the willingness to compromise in matters of ethics can lead to an erosion of principle. Any honest look at history reveals this.
But we have to come to an understanding of corruption that serves rather than merely blames.
In the context of our country, we can look at the big one, the issue that nearly ended the union. Slavery.
We declared that All Men Are Created Equal and then promptly subverted that idea by refusing to consider All Men (and women). To do this required that we embrace a belief in our innate superiority. Once embraced, it was not difficult at all to add people to the inferior categories for opportunistic reasons. Foreigners, Native Americans, Asians, the Poor, people of other religions, political opponents—all of it follows from the concession that our stated principle of equality was not to be applied as stated. And yet we touted that as our defining virtue.
But it did not end with the abolition of the institution. We fought a war finally to remove slavery from our country and yet…and yet…
The betrayal of principle continued, even among those who were on the front lines of ending slavery, because they ultimately could not acknowledge the perniciousness of their prejudice. That while slavery was odious, the presumed inequality of people of color remained an accepted norm, and every move to redress that condition was fought, consciously or unconsciously, by people willing to ignore and betray stated principles in order to guarantee a sinecure of superiority.
It becomes an easy thing to move from one betrayal to another when the basic hypocrisy is left unacknowledged and unaddressed. Because one sees oneself as innately superior, for whatever reason, and is therefore willing to see others as necessarily inferior, then anything that presents as an aid to maintaining that condition can appear acceptable, even if unethical. Because preserving status is vital to maintaining all other aspects of life. Yielding to monetary corruption is perhaps the simplest expression, because votes can be bought ultimately in service to the preservation of privilege.
Which can only be seen as acceptable, even good, because it goes to supporting a false structure of superior/inferior, relegating individuals, groups, and classes to lower status, which is acceptable in order to protect a status based on bigotry.
(And then the willing use of force to maintain the conditions that appear to demonstrate the presumed inferiority of groups who, because we cling to our assumptions, must be made to stay where they are.)
Why bigotry? Because in order to assume the correctness of one’s corruption, you have to believe others are simply less deserving. Innately, because it is impossible to know them well enough if at all to base your judgment on anything other than assumptions derived from cliché, stereotype, or the uncritical acceptance of assertions themselves based on assumptions of inequality. To accept these things is to be prejudiced and to act on these things to preserve status is, in my view, fundamentally corrupt.
It’s the believe in an unearned, intrinsic status based on assumptions of systemic inequality that makes one open to various forms of corruption. If we fail to recognize this, we will be continually blindsided by the choices and decisions of those in whom we wish to invest trust who then go against the desires and express wishes of others.
I am not suggesting that the abolition of bigotry is either possible or would solve all problems of corruption if it were. What I am suggesting is we will have no chance to resolve these matters without a better understanding of both bigotry and corruption and their, as far as I can see, natural relation to each other. Corruption is, at base, an illicit means of gaining advantage over others by increasing the power and resources of those who instigate corruption. It works because on some level the people they corrupt want the same thing—a sinecure of advantage to keep perceived inferiors in check.
We focus almost exclusively on financial corruption. This is a mistake. While such examples are a problem, they tend to brush over the flaw that makes such corruption possible, namely the belief in special privilege, especially at the expense of others, and obviously extralegal privileges always come at the expense of others.
So my suggested aphorism—you cannot corrupt an unbigoted mind. It is certainly, as all superlatives, flawed, but I feel that until we come to grips with the connection we will be forever fighting wars, both ideologically and militarily, to redress the inevitable imbalances attendant upon ignoring it.
Perhaps, after all, this does have something to do with honesty and cheating.