Inverted Commas 16: Recklessness
Ruthlessness creates its own rules. So my mother taught me. People are intimidated by a man who acts with no apparent regard for consequences. Behave as if you cannot be touched and no one will dare to touch you.
— Assassin’s Apprentice, chapter 23.
It feels as if the world is dominated by machismo at the moment — some might say this is how it has ever been — but the advent of universal suffrage and democratic conventions was supposed to put on a brake and a limit to it all. That people in too many countries have insanely acted like turkeys voting for Christmas is, I think, the greatest failure of modern democracy, allowing unbridled machismo to disregard those who need the most support.
Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (like any good literature, including much fantasy of course) presents us with a mirror to view our modern lives, and this quote drew me up short. One of the principal antagonists at an apparent moment of triumph crows about his ruthlessness. ‘Ruth’ of course means pity, and showing no pity or compassion is here held up as an effective means justifying its ends. It is a ‘virtue’ that should be exercised by a successful politician, many think, indeed it’s a stance recommended in Machiavelli’s The Prince.
That’s as may be. A leader is expected to have to make difficult decisions, and it could be argued that to make an omelette one has to break an egg or two. But some politicians have gone a step further. Their intention is to ‘intimidate’, to frighten or browbeat opponents, not to rule consensually. And this is to be accomplished by acting with ‘no apparent regard for consequences’.
This is dangerous, this kind of recklessness. (The meaning of the now archaic word ‘reck’ is care.) Nowadays to be accounted reckless you have to court danger, almost like racing blindfold along a precipice. Males — and particularly young men — are more prone to taking risks, especially when their male peers or unattached females are around, and such risk-taking quite often continues into later years, the more that the investment in that risk-taking seems to yield results.
We know of politicians, don’t we, who have got to a position of power by appearing to have a charmed life, though this ‘charm’ may simply arise from outrageous behaviour, by being ‘a character’, rather than the charm representing true ability or talent. When the lies, the bullying, the denigration and the wrongdoing don’t result in sanctions — because the systemic checks and balances are inadequate or fail on technicalities — the perpetrators feel encouraged to overtop their outrageous acts. Worse, these sociopaths feel neither inclined nor constrained to use reason to justify or excuse their actions:
Minimal albis will work. If I made too much effort to appear guiltless, people might think I cared. They might start then to pay attention themselves.
Robin Hobb knows all this, which is why she puts these words in the mouth of a particularly ruthless and reckless psychopath. “So,” he proclaims as his strategy here, “I simply know nothing.” Neither apologise nor deny, simply obfuscate by answering a question which hasn’t been asked. Or not answer at all. Meanwhile, the rest of the world can go to hell.
But those who think they’re untouchable may sometimes overreach themselves once too many times. And then there may come a reckoning.