The invention of consequence: lessons from DSK
(Another in my occasional essay series)
The somewhat unfortunate encounter in an uptown New York hotel between Mr Domininiqe Strauss-Khan, formerly of the IMF, and an anonymous female employee of the hotel has all sorts of tongues wagging. Some speak convincingly of conspiracies involving French secret agents and drugs that make men behave badly. While this may be the case, most men squirm uncomfortably. It is hard to believe a man such as DSK cannot have grasped the two most basic of lessons in seduction. First, distinguishing between a ‘no’ that really does means ‘no’, and a ‘no’ that might mean ‘maybe’. This is not a straightforward as you might think. Like interpreting chicken entrails, this is fraught with the dangers of mistranslation. I once incorrectly determined that ‘I wouldn’t go out with you if you were the last man on earth’ was a ‘no’. Years later, the woman in question chastised me for not trying again. The second lesson derives from the first: developing the judgement to know when to back off, and this is something that derives only from experience.
As a young man I found the rather conceited attitude of older men annoying when they happily proclaimed that youth was wasted on the young. That we didn’t know what a good thing we had going, that we frittered away opportunities. While this may have well been so, now that I am the age of those boring old farts I realise that while youth may not appreciate their time in the sun, very few old people have acquired any wisdom. In short, age is wasted on the old.
Lacking the knowledge of experience is the greatest asset of youth: they have not yet discovered the importance of consequence, and the burden it creates to action. Youth have the advantage of being self-involved, and best of all, have no cause to expect anything but happy outcomes, hugs and puppies. Perfection – or wanting to be so – is a universal fault of youth, and this is bred in a milieu of unwarranted optimism. There is no baggage to colour their encounters with reality. There have few experiences – bad or good – and this naiveté permits youth to behave and act without consideration to the risks of these actions. I recall clearly the sense of invincibility, of the concreteness of my belief that the future stretched so far ahead of me as to be infinite, and as a consequence the surety that I was going to live forever, that I could keep trying till I got it right.
This sense of immortality can extend as far as believing we can dodge bullets, much like Neo in The Matrix. I recall – at the age of 16 - intentionally annoying soldiers armed with guns and the right to use these weapons with abandon, unafraid of what the consequences might be. And here – gentle readers - is my point: the gift of youth is that consequence has not as yet been invented. Others may know of this, but as it isn’t our experience, it doesn’t matter. Just because you could not do it, do not tell us we cannot.
The discovery of consequence comes as an unpleasant surprise: that every action has a consequence, and - worse – we are responsible for them. Young adulthood comes with the unpleasant discovery that your guardians/parents/friends cannot come and rescue you from the consequences of your actions (when bad) with the excuse, ‘he’s just a child’.
Consequences – of course – can be positive as well. Otherwise we would all have the courage of mice by our 18th birthday. Those who seize the day against the odds and win the spoils thereof make up the essence of legends in love, war and life, even if this is only amongst your 3 friends from kindergarten. The rush of adrenalin in our veins and the ensuing taste of victory – no matter how minuscule – lights a fire in our belly and makes us thirst for more.
This is why youth challenge the order of things, organise revolutions, demand the resignation of despots, place flowers in the barrel of guns, stand in the way of tanks, rise when told to back down. This why revolutions happen – because wiser (i.e., older) heads have proclaimed that no rational person would take such a course of action – and for exactly that reason, they sometimes succeed. This is why the geek sometimes gets the prom queen, why David got Goliath, why Alexander got to India. History is dotted with stories of men and women whose primary qualification for changing the world has been an utter lack of experience, a complete disregard for the facts, and an overwhelmingly powerful sense of conviction. In short, it needs the impetuousness of youth. Older people may provide the leadership for a revolution, but it is young and foolish upon whose backs, sweat, blood and tears the actual revolting takes place.
More frivolously, the absence of a clear link between our actions and consequences which have not as yet happened means that broken hearts and hurt feelings disappear rapidly. The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades. Who has time to mourn or mull over a lost opportunity when a thousand adventures yet await you, especially when losses have no cost?
The whole karma thing, of course, does kick in eventually. Everything (as anyone over a certain age realises), has a price, whether you like it or not, good or bad. Athletes know the price of success is physical injury, lovers know about broken hearts, doctors know about death. And, as DSK is finding out, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, Moves on.
The day we discover these costs, the day we hesitate to undertake impetuous action because have thought of the consequences of failure is when we become adults, and by definition, boring old farts. Some may say that it requires even greater courage to act with open eyes, to proceed with full knowledge of the possible outcomes and the consequences thereof. While this may be so, it is also a sure sign of the eclipse of one’s youth. One cannot be young and reckless forever: society has no patience for people who suffer from a Peter Pan Complex. For every action there is a season, and for a young man to not act recklessly seems as unnatural as for an old man to act as if there are no consequences.
So it is with DSK. His shame –whether the accusations in this instance are true or not - is to act as if there were no consequences, not to have learnt the most basic of lessons of adulthood. For a young man to misinterpret a woman’s ‘no’ can be put down to naiveté; for an older man there can only be the humiliation of being the object of pity and an embarrassment to the collective members of the male gender. All of whom wonder with consternation about the absence of rationality from a man of some gravity, experience and intelligence. Perhaps these are the advantages of privilege that derive from wealth and status.
Much easier to accept, for us, the far-fetched possibility of a conspiracy theory.