Hoist With Their Own Petard

Sometimes expressions are so common that we cease to think of how revolutionary or how alarming they are.  Let us take, for example, the expression “hoist with their own petard,” which first appears in the English language in Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet.  During the late 1500’s and early 1600’s there was a rash of religious related violence that included but was not limited to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France that slaughtered thousands of Protestants, the assassination of the Dutch revolt leader William of Orange, and the second defenestration of Prague, which started the Thirty Year’s War and led to the death of many Germans and the beginning of the contemporary age of Westphalian diplomacy [1].  In this atmosphere of immense violence and hostility among different worldviews within Europe Shakespeare came up with an expression in a play that dealt with violence that demonstrated the often-neglected truth that those who plan violence often end up destroying themselves in the process.

This is a lesson we would do well to learn.  Our own time appears to greatly trust in political violence in a variety of forms to prove our points.  Even mainstream political parties in some countries, like the United States, endorse political violence against opponents that they denigrate for being fascist, which tempts many people to oblige them by cracking down on them as domestic terrorists.  But whether we are trying to attack political enemies because of a belief that their mere existence is dangerous, or support drone strikes or bombings or even the slicing and dicing of political opponents when they are engaging in routine evidence of trying to get a marriage licensed, political violence is a common contemporary problem in our world.  And in our support of the coercive power of states or of the coercive power of paramilitary groups in order to help takeover the state, it is easy to forget that this violence can easily rebound destructively upon us and that those who are quick to resort to the sword or gun or bomb may easily die by the means they have sought to utilize to destroy others.

Sometimes this happens in literal ways.  When an American or Israeli drone kills a bombmaker, the irony is rather appropriate.  Better yet, when someone’s efforts at planning weapons leads to their own death when their bomb factory explodes, there is a sense of poetic justice about such a fate.  Those who seek to bring political violence to ordinary people and who find themselves dead instead will not find me a mourner at their funeral, regardless of their political ideology.  More often, though, those who wish to spread their own ideology by violence are themselves often (perceived) victims of violence who increase violence that ends up consuming the lives of other people and leading to still other people whose wounds and losses lead them to resort to violence as a way of evening the score.  When even the act of having a bumper sticker on one’s car or an item of clothing like a hat or a t-shirt that shows one’s political worldview can provoke violence, and when the response of others who have been subject to violence or at least felt it possible that they may be respond with contempt instead of compassion, we live in a world where politics has gotten too serious.

That is not to say that politics is unserious, but only that it is not nearly as serious as we often make it.  What is most serious and most important about politics are not political issues at all but the underlying moral and philosophical issues underneath our politics.  Yet we seldom go beneath the surface in examining these matters.  People proclaim others to be against science when they are only against bad philosophy masquerading as science, such as the philosophical position of scientism and naturalism which denies anything nonphysical.  People slander and libel others as being against women when they are only against the murder of innocent unborn children.  And so it goes.  Our inability to separate the deeper philosophical and theological disagreements we have with others from the surface level identities that these choices manifest themselves in mean that we treat the surface level disagreements of being as of greater importance than is the case.  Violence is a form of communication, to be sure, but it is not a very good form of communication.

Indeed, it may be said that the violence of our own time is a natural consequence of the silence that often exists between people of very different worldviews.  If we live in an echo chamber and only hear views that are supportive of our worldview and position, we may greatly exaggerate how obvious what we view of as truth is.  We may simply not be equipped to handle those who think and reason differently from ourselves.  On the other hand, some of us have always been involved in debate and communication with those of other worldviews.  Whether it is because we have combative personalities, or worldviews which are sufficiently unusual that we have no choice but to engage with others or because we live in areas where we are surrounded by those who think and feel differently from ourselves, we may find ourselves in significant danger of suffering from political violence because people cannot handle the content of our communication.  To seek to silence others through violence is a sign that one is not confident in one’s ability to silence arguments through refutation and reason.  And if our rhetoric is sufficiently combative, it can be easy for all of us to be hoist on our own petard when others take our rhetoric seriously and respond to us the way we endorse others being dealt with with whom we violently disagree.

[1] See, for example:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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