Christmas Eve represents an immovable endpoint to the busiest time of my wife’s year. As a piano studio director who also runs a charitable foundation, projects and performances crowd into December. So, it has become “traditional” in our family to stagger exhausted to the Christmas holidays and semi-hibernate until after New Year’s Day in order to recover our footing for the next semester’s projects.
Our hibernation typically involves loading up on TV shows or movies from the previous year that we never knew existed or had no time to see in the theater. And my wife and I are both interested, for different reasons, in exploring questions in which good opposes evil unambiguously. One year it is The Godfather Saga; another year it might be Schindler’s List.
This year was a bit more eclectic, running from fantasy worlds with zombies and dragons to horrors that are all too real in the present world. But I nevertheless learned something about the strategy of evil that I had not previously seriously considered: the role flattery plays in seducing victims to believe they will not be victims.
One of the series we watched this holiday season was Sherlock, the BBC’s modern updating of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective in which the original cases are distorted through the lens of the same creative minds that plot Dr. Who. For example, Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (figure above) may view crime scenes through webcams and constantly alienates potential friends and family by deducing and uncontrollably blurting out their deepest secrets from momentary glances. Doctor Watson, played by Martin Freeman (who many readers are likely now seeing as Bilbo in The Hobbit), is an Afghan War vet who supports Holmes by attracting clients through a blog. The cases themselves are twisted, so that the Baskerville’s, who in Doyle’s work are a family with a terrible set of secrets, becomes Baskerville, a British government chemical and biological warfare research facility. Nevertheless, the series recognizably spins off from the same Doyle stories.
I was watching most of the series for a second time, but I had missed the finale, The Richenbach Fall when it first appeared. This classic story featured a duel of wits to the death between Holmes and the evil genius Professor Moriarty. Its update is about an equally lethal battle between Sherlock and evil genius Jim Moriarty who is the world’s first consulting criminal, and who enjoys corrupting and controlling the lives of “ordinary people” just because he can.
Each episode of the series has established Moriarty as pure spawn-of-Satan, with no moral ambiguity whatsoever, so it was illuminating to me in a mythological sense to view how he went about destroying Holmes. Moriarty continually shifts guises as necessary to further his aims. He may appear to be a harmless nerd at one point, a ruthless assassin whom no jury will dare convict at another, a terrorist unbreakable by any torture at a third, a terrified gossip at a fourth, a suicidal psychopath at a fifth. His personality consists of lies nested within lies nested within lies.
But his master stroke against Holmes comes through convincing the public that Holmes is the one pulling Moriarty’s strings, that Holmes, in effect, is the only Moriarty even if it means the destruction of Moriarty himself. And for that, flattery is the essential weapon. He must (and does) successfully convince “ordinary” people that any “extraordinary” person must be a threat to them who deserves to be treated as inferior. He thereby convinces them that their very “ordinariness” is a form of superiority, and denies them the benefits of achieving more — all the while planning to slip among them and keep manipulating them for his own benefit. He does not raise up ordinary people; he suppresses them, and deceives them into believing they are not being suppressed and into blaming those who might free them for their plight.
In a sense, what the episode is pointing out is that humanity’s inability to escape its victimization is partially dependent on its willingness to believe the flattery that it needs no help to escape its victimization. It resists evidence to the contrary, sometimes to the point where help can no longer come. Another movie I watched (but can not recommend because of its explicit torture) makes a telling point in this regard in a confrontation of a serial killer with his next intended victim. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the killer tell the victim that:
“It always surprised me how most people ignore their gut instincts that something is wrong. Someone is following too closely… being too friendly. But it is funny how the fear of giving offense can be greater than the fear of pain. In the end, most of them came willingly.”
The Scriptures use the phrase “flattering words” or some close variant of the phrase easily a dozen times. One is in an Epistle of Paul, but most of them are in the Book of Mormon. I am sure there can be flattery that is designed to build up someone who needs confidence, but that is never the sense in which the phrase is used in either the New Testament or in the Book of Mormon. In the Scriptures, it is always associated with deception, manipulation, exploitation, and vice.
Typical is its use in Mosiah 11.
7 Yea, and they also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them.
Indeed, the whole chapter (and several following chapters) could serve as a template for the final portion of The Reichenbach Fall. It portrays a masterful deception in which an evil man (King Noah) does horrible things — both materially and spiritually — to his society, but successfully blames and eventually executes the one man who vocally resists his evil (Abinadi) as if Abinadi were the cause of the problem. The willingness of the people to buy into the flattering deception is portrayed as an essential prequel to their conquest and slaughter by their enemies within a decade. It is only as people, beginning with Alma, reject the lie and refuse to support King Noah — even fleeing the society — that there is a hope for anything better beyond the immediate pain.
I guess there is metaphorical truth in the old saw: “Flattery will get you nowhere.” At least there is metaphorical truth in the notion that “Believing flattery will get you nowhere.”