Betrayal

To betray is to break a trust. Trust may be implicit or expressed. The betrayal may be open or hidden. The drama and the ambiguity of betrayal depend on these dimensions of transparency, as does its immorality.

Betrayal does not require that the trust be explicit. An infant can be betrayed, but has no explicit understanding of the love and commitment it needs to survive. The trust is implicit, what is to be expected in the circumstance, an unearned desert. In other cases, implicit trust accrues gradually, for instance by cohabitation, or even a long sequence of dating. Commitment goes unexpressed, but silent nods preserve the false presumption of agreed upon terms. A so-called common-law marriage is yet another example where rights are earned by endurance, not by title. Though never spoken, nor ever expressly consented to, even unrecognized, the legitimacy of our claims upon one other sometimes builds just by sticking it out together. The trust is that legitimacy, those warranted claims, that right one holds against another to be true. Without such right, the trust is baseless, a mere hope. There is no betrayal without prior legitimate trust, though disappointment is still possible, and a lesson against silence.

Innocence can be betrayed, so the trust violated need not be explicit. The needs of the infant generate obligations in the caregiver; routine brings expectation. According to developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, the first stage of life presents a crisis of trust, and sets up thereafter our personality orientation toward betrayal. Are you a trusting personality? Are you comfortable in your own skin? Or have you manufactured defences and arrayed them to protect yourself against betrayal? If you are the latter pretending to be the former, you may feel betrayed even by my questions.

Is theft betrayal? Is our trust in others not violated by it? I was robbed in Cuba. It was a snatch and run crime, and luckily little of value was lost. Did I not implicitly trust the night with my security? Was common decency too much to expect? Or was I so naïve and over-trusting that I had it coming? Yet even the naïve can be betrayed, and not merely rolled over. Trust can be general, and perhaps spread too thin, but if it is violated in burglary, there is betrayal even in this petty crime. Theft by force of arms is betrayal in the ancient sense: gun to your head, you hear “hand it over” (tradere, the Latin root of betray, means ‘hand over’).

Betrayal can lead to withdrawal and risk aversion, or to independence and self-reliance. “I’ll never love again” might be the soundtrack for the former response. The latter is represented most campily in “I Will Survive” — “at first I was afraid, I was petrified, etc.” By trial and error, by trust and betrayal, we too learn to change those stupid locks.

Yet undeniably the most flagrant betrayal is betrayal against an express agreement, an explicit trust. This is betrayal with self-consciousness, scheming betrayal, betrayal self-aware of its own violation. It is one thing to do a wrong thing, another to do it with a worked-out plan in full awareness that it is wrong. This is betrayal with malicious intent. The pathetic plea and rhetorical excuse, “Who’s to say it’s wrong?” rings hollow in this case, for here one does wrong knowingly: the agent is conscious of the wrong as it is committed. For wrong self-consciously done the harsh word evil is sometimes neatly reserved. However, if we listen to Socrates, this sense of betrayal is confused; for he held that no evil is done wilfully. Assuming, then, as we have been, that betrayal is evil, then willful betrayal, if not a contradiction in terms, must be an error in judgement.

Betrayal, defined as violation of trust, is one among many causes of relationship collapse. No doubt some will defensively enquire what the difference is between betrayal and change. People change. Relationships grow and wilt. When it is over anyway, what difference does this last post-fatal step make? One can grow out of a bond as much as one can grow into it. When all trust has been sapped from a relationship, no trust remains to be betrayed. When the explicit has faded, permission becomes implicit.

There is something illicit, even rank, about such reasoning. It goes against my taste to promulgate a generic excuse, to issue a universal license for overlooking promises made, to rubber stamp in advance, or in guilty hindsight, a rationalization of sticky moral decisions. To me this kind of moral pleading is just a call for the social validation of one’s self-deception. We just want to get the story right, our story, our cover story, so we can make proper response when people ask embarrassing questions about how it all went so wrong. When we tell the story of our life, we want to have the best lies ready to hand. Revisionist autobiography thrives thanks to our tendency to excuse our behaviour by extenuating circumstances. We call it making sense of what went wrong.

If trust is a precondition of betrayal, it may be implicit or explicit. Transparency favours the explicit, but our moral relations are overwhelmingly implicit. Ambiguity of the law is no excuse. But light also enters (or doesn’t) at the other end of betrayal, in its overt or secretive nature. Betrayal hidden (and who betrays in the open?) is betrayal doubly bad. The trust is explicit, the violation is conscious, and the evidence is covered up. Mens rea is evident in the skulking, the furtive laundry, the lies about late nights at work. Hidden betrayal is not only evil: it’s a conspiracy.

One can betray without a word, but betrayal covered with a lie is the norm (statistical, not ethical). The point is not simply to betray, but to betray and not get caught. Conventional reasoning bends moral truth to adapt to the demands of everyday reality. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City asks: “if you cheat and you don’t get caught, is it still cheating?” A philosophical question, I guess, but one that is easier to ask the prettier you are. If it’s not still cheating, it’s called defensive rationalizing.

I have mostly considered the act of betrayal, rather than the feeling of being betrayed. I am afraid I may have betrayed that silent, sinking feeling. So I end with a remark from the done-to perspective on betrayal, that of the betrayed. The feeling of betrayal, I have observed, may or may not be accurate. It too we can evoke to justify our actions during an unhappy break up. I recall once feeling strongly betrayed when a certain relationship ended, before realizing the only violation had been my ex’s audacity to stop loving me. The nerve of anyone, after all, to suggest that I was no longer lovable! The earth was similarly betrayed by Copernicus when he had the effrontery to suggest that the universe did not revolve around it.

Transparency in relationships allows in the sunshine of truth. Explicit agreements may encourage mutual understanding, but the world is implicit, and we bear relations of trust with all beings. In either case, our betrayal may be open or hidden. When loyalty fails, open betrayal is the honest policy, and the best bet. For instance, some of our finest politicians have been turncoats. And if you have to hide it, the inconvenience of living a lie has to be considered. Of course, not all that must be hidden is a lie, and discretion covers even wholesome relationships. Sunshine is a good thing in relationships, but sometimes one wants to draw the blinds.

Don’t let me down. We are all counting on you. Bring your cheatin’ heart.