Milan Kundera writes on the subject of betrayal through the perspectives of two characters in his “Words Misunderstood” passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Betrayal is one of those universally reviled concepts, but as with several traditionally negative topics, Kundera reconsiders what this word means to different people. In the novel, Sabina finds the course of her life charted by her betrayals of family, lovers, and social conventions. For her, betrayal is a barely consequential siren call; rather than creating a burden of guilt, the temptation to betray leads Sabina to a truer expression of herself, more so with each treacherous deed. Sabina doesn’t believe a person can be exactly as good and honest in one’s private life as one is expected to be in public life. She thinks that the eyes of others inevitably change one’s conduct and even one’s understanding or justification of one’s behavior. So to Sabina, some acts typically associated with dishonesty and betrayal are actually a necessity of life, one which we as self-punishing humans are not content to admit as a given.
I’ve been thinking about small acts of betrayal, with regards to friendships. I don’t know if I have a single friend that I have absolutely nothing “bad” to say about, but that is because no one is perfect. And if they were, that wouldn’t be good either. I’ve met a few perfect-seeming individuals in my time. They were kind, generous, helpful, calm, and above all inoffensive. There was nothing to suggest that these consistently positive attributes were part of a façade, apart from the commonly accepted notion that all people have at least the slightest smudge of a dark side. And yet, this goodness was somehow irritating. It disqualified them as people to form a deeper connection with, because how could the average red-blooded person relate to someone who appearance suggests they have never experienced jealousy, pettiness, lust?
Kundera notes that we all “slander our friends at the drop of a hat,” but that when this universal truth is asserted in the public sphere, we could not be less comfortable with it. We are shocked by it. This is why the broadcasting of private conversations is one of the greatest and most reprehensible assaults against privacy. There is nothing more stifling that the idea that we cannot say what we want or mean in the safety of a quiet interpersonal exchange.
I think the guilt of criticizing a friend out of their presence comes mainly from the strange fear that the critique may be revealed to them, as though the friend has a secret power to take an omnipresent form and float at will through various scenes in the lives of others, occasionally stumbling upon a moment where they were spoken of cruelly. But perhaps it is only cruel if they can hear it. And in most situations, we know they won’t.
There are some not-so-nice things that are worth telling people about, because some bad behaviors necessitate change. Many people are quite aware of their flaws but feel powerless to make lasting changes, or simply don’t want to. But the other things, the trivial complaints and annoyances – if they’re not so serious, why speak of them at all? Why not keep all discussions of others centered on the undoubtedly extant positive attributes of the individuals in question? It would be boring, that’s why. Life offers many delightful subjects to ponder, and much of our little amusements come from the imperfect qualities, whether that is a person’s shortcomings, or the sometimes ironic and often cruel machinations of fate. We need our freedom to betray, to slander, to lie. Not in every place. But in a world where the sanctity of privacy is consistently challenged, we must maintain the right to say what we will behind closed doors.