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July 07, 2005

Author2Author: Kevin Guilfoile & Tom Morris, pt. 3

by Ron Hogan

"In the past twenty or thirty years, comic book superhero stories have gotten increasingly more sophisticated and interesting," Tom Morris mentioned in one of the emails that make up this week's Author2Author dialogue. "We adults don't need to leave them behind as childish things. They portray great human issues and pose extremely important questions that every intelligent person should consider." As his conversation with Kevin Guilfoile unfolds, he demonstrates once again how that kind of consideration can unfold.

Kevin Guilfoile: Superheroes and Philosophy has several terrific pieces on identity, including your closing essay, "What's Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities." When an individual decides to leverage his uber-abilities into a career as a crimefighter, it's often necessary to create a secret, civilian identity to protect his family and loved ones (and the morality of this is explored by several of your contributors). But, of course, that secret is also a weakness that can be exploited by his enemies. Could you elaborate a bit more on the "secret" half of "secret identities." In what ways do secrets, even ones we initially keep in order to acquire or protect power and influence, paradoxically also make us vulnerable?

superheroes.jpgTom Morris: To me, one of the most interesting things about secret identities is that they're a two way street. When Superman is flying around Metropolis saving people, no one knows that he's secretly Clark Kent. When our alien Son of Krypton is working at the Daily Planet as reporter Clark Kent, no one suspects his secret that he's really Superman. In each role, the other life is the secret identity. But an interesting question is whether there is underneath this balanced duality a final fundamental asymmetry, a basic real identity and an alternative secret one, all things considered? That's a tough question.

Because of a tragic accident, Matt Murdock was both blinded and given super-powers. When his father was later killed by mobsters, he assumed the secret identity of Daredevil to fight crime and corruption on the streets--when he's not in the courtroom serving justice in another way, often as a defense lawyer. He is a bundle of contradictions, a blind yet radar-enhanced superhero, an officer of the court who pursues bad guys as a vigilante, a good Catholic boy who loves beating up on street thugs. In each of these roles, the other is a secret.

Some of the superheroes don't have secret identities--for example, the members of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men--but most do, and these identities are always more than a matter of costuming. We see Bruce Wayne initially dressing as Batman, but over time gradually being transformed into that crime-fighting character. Ultimately, as the new film Batman Begins acknowledges, itís the wealthy-Bruce-Wayne-corporate-titan persona that acts as a mask and keeps people from knowing that this individual is really Batman, scourge of all criminals. The socialite business identity allows Batman to move in circles of power and influence and gain the information he needs for his chief mission. We see the sensibilities of the man behind the mask begin to conform over time to the mask itself.


In many superhero stories, the secret life of costumed vigilante begins to affect and alter the fundamental personality characteristics of the civilian with powers. And this is of general human interest. We all wear various masks as we play different roles in our lives. Many of my neighbors who see me walking on the beach in an old T-shirt and wrinkled khakis would never guess my other life as a philosophical public speaker to the corporate world. Likewise, the 3,200 people who see me this weekend philosophizing from the stage at 100 miles an hour in San Diego might not recognize the beach boy at all. I've had to work hard not to let the pace and pressures of my public life distort the flow and peacefulness of my personal existence and family life. And I've often needed family members to tell me when they see an unwanted transformation happening. Both Alfred the Butler and Batman's friends in the Justice League often serve the same role for him and, I think, insist on calling him "Bruce," even when he's at work as the Bat, as if to call him back to who he once was and should continue deep down to be.

Secrets can be dangerous then in more than one way. The superheroes' secrets protect their private lives, and guard their loved ones from the reprisals of enemies. Everyday secrets often play a similar role in all our lives, protecting parts of our personal existence, or guarding our friends and family members from disruptive things we wouldn't want to enter their lives. So, if we work in public, we may have an unlisted phone number, or an unpublished address. But secrecy is inherently risky. Anything that depends on a secret is fragile. It's just hard to keep secrets. And other people often resent anyone's success in the endeavor. Worse, most forms of secrecy are in the end forms of deception, and so constitute ethical thin ice. I've come to believe that deception is always morally dangerous outside the most extreme demands of life or death situations, and perhaps even there, though in such circumstances, deception is usually judged preferable to death.

I believe that, in principle, truth is always better than falsehood, authenticity than illusion. The business world provides a great confirmation of this. Executives at Enron used secrets to achieve their ends. And we see what happened as a result. Yet undercover cops and CIA operatives, like superheroes, normally can't operate without them. So it interests me as a philosopher to observe the secret identities played out in the lives of the superheroes, both for what it teaches me about human nature and the demands of ethics.


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