Fools and Tricksters
Play Fool, Vol. 1, Ch. 2
Welcome to Play Fool, a newsletter about the games we play and the games which play us. This is the second of three foundation pieces, where I try to lay out some of the key ideas animating this newsletter. The first piece, Foolishness and Mere Stupidity, isn’t required reading for this one, but you may find it helpful.
In my previous post, I introduced the parable of the monkey and the coconut trap. Here it is in full:
There is a kind of monkey trap used in Asia. A coconut is hollowed out and attached by a rope to a tree or stake in the ground. At the bottom of the coconut a small slit is made and some sweet food is placed inside. The hole on the bottom is just big enough for the monkey to slide in his open hand but does not allow for a closed fist to pass out. The monkey smells the sweets, reaches in with his hand to grasp the food, and is then unable to withdraw it. The clenched fist won’t pass through the opening. When the hunters come, the monkey becomes frantic but cannot get away. There is no one keeping that monkey captive, except the force of his own attachment.1
The story focuses on the foolishness of the monkey, the way its greed paralyses it in the face of imminent danger. The monkey is at fault, blameworthy — it draws out a pathetic anger in us, or a keen resentment, perhaps ire. However, other characters lurk in the text whom we fail to regard. They are the nameless, shapeless hunters who set up the trap and eventually capture the monkey. In the story, they aren’t characters so much as a plot device. However, if we reintroduce the hunters as actors, that is, characters with their own perspectives and interests, we can see that monkey is not merely a fool, it has been fooled. The hunters designed the trap knowing that the monkey’s ignorant greed could be used against it. The monkey is fooled not only by its own greedy attachments, but also by the machinations of those who know its desire better than it does. The parable is putatively about foolishness, but it can also be read as a parable about how our foolishness can be used against us.
To my mind, this is the main difference between someone who has been fooled and someone who has been deceived. If the monkey trap were sweet food placed on a thin bed of leaves suspended above a pit of spikes, we would say the monkey was deceived rather than fooled. To be deceived is to be given wrong, misleading or incomplete information. The monkey knows its own hand, but it could not know that a bed of leaves is not actually a bed of leaves. To be fooled is to be given all the relevant information, but to lack the wisdom to make use of that information. The monkey loses its life because it is unable to let go, of both the sweet food and its greedy attachment to it.
Consider the Squid Coin fiasco. Inspired by (but unaffiliated with) the popular Netflix series, a cryptocurrency called “Squid Coin” was created which would allow people to play digital versions of the games from Squid Game. As with many cryptocurrencies, there was a promise that anyone who got in early could get rich2. This hype (hype being a kind of viral desire) caused the value of Squid Coin to escalate exponentially. One buyer’s investment of $300 was valued at nearly $1,000,000 after just a few days.
However, the Squid Coin fine print revealed that to play many of the games, you needed not only Squid Coin but an as-yet-released supporting currency called ‘Marbles.’ The Marbles never materialised and, indeed, it was never made clear in that they would materialise. Owning Squid Coin without Marbles was a little like owning firewood without a match. When buyers begun to realise that there were no Marbles, nor would there ever be, the price of the Squid Coin plummeted to a fraction of a cent — but not before the original founders made off with around $2,100,000 in profit.
All of the information needed to make an informed judgment about buying Squid Coin was in the publicly available 17-page whitepaper. Squid Coin buyers were fooled rather than deceived. Like the monkey in the parable, all of the relevant information was available, but it was ignored.
Squid Coin, and arguably cryptocurrency in general, is today’s fool’s gold. It looks like money (given that ‘real’ money long ago left the physical world and became primarily digital and speculative), but it cannot do what money does (be reliably exchanged for goods and services, securely retain value). It is easy enough to tell fool’s gold from real gold, provided we have the wisdom to set aside our desires and pay attention to the relevant details. Ironically, many cryptocurrency enthusiasts take pride in ignoring details. They have what they call ‘Diamond Hands’ - hands which won’t let go of cryptocurrency no matter the risks, headwinds and price crashes. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts have made a virtue of foolishness. Those with ‘Diamond Hands’ are a literalisation of the tight-fisted monkey, whose very desires are mobilised against it. The only thing that sustains the insane valuations of cryptocurrency is that so many people refuse to let go of cryptocurrency.
The thick, multi-layered irony here is almost too much to bear, whether it’s the literalisation of Squid Game’s anti-capitalist message or players “losing their marbles" over losing their Marbles. If you’ve got $300USD to kick into a copyright-infringing Ponzi scheme, the least you can do is read the 17-page whitepaper, hacked together with default fonts, bleed margins and poor English. If the reader feels a tingling sense of schadenfreude here, you’re likely not alone.
Cryptocurrency fools are hardly first in line for our sympathy. Yet, this is exactly how we feel about most fools. We think those who lack mere intelligence ought to be protected from tricksters, which is why advertising to children is so universally reviled. By contrast, those who lack wisdom are seen to deserve what comes to them. The idiot receives pity where the fool receives disdain. We take great pleasure when the fool, finally, must sit down at a table of poor choices and feast on a banquet of consequences. We feel, on some level, as though a Topsy-turvy world has momentarily righted itself. Here, at least, there is something like natural justice, metered out by consequences rather than courts.
In our disdain, however, we are like the old Buddhist monks telling the story of the monkey and the coconut trap. We gloss over the hunters who set the trap. They are narrative furnishings for a moral story about the foolish monkey. The text focuses on the monkey and his attachments, greed, and ignorance. We aren’t, seemingly, all that interested in the hunters. Writ large, we see this in the way modern Buddhist thought fails to recognise that contemporary society actively mobilises our desires and ignorance against us. Criticisms of modern, Western Buddhism3 centre on how it neatly aligns with modern society’s focus on the individual. These critics point out that society mobilises our desires against us through ubiquitous pleasure, distraction, and misdirection. We are fools for advertising, but we are also fooled by advertising. The fool teaches us that a craven attachment to our desires will lead to punishment, but for those who do the fooling, they find their own desires led to satisfaction — whether it’s a trapped monkey or $2.1m of legalised theft. Chastising fools can be a way of celebrating tricksters.
Part of what I want to do here, with Playfool, is to hold in tension both elements of the Buddhist story. We tend to focus on one side to the exclusion of another. When we focus on individual foolishness, we ignore that the fool is often a pawn in a more powerful person’s game. However, when we focus on the designs and machinations of the powerful, we forget our own agency, our own ability to let go of the attachments which make us so easily fooled in the first instance.
This twin story - the story of being fools and getting fooled - is why the meek, kind and sensitive often find themselves systematically exploited by tyrannical bosses. It’s why otherwise intelligent, thoughtful people find themselves nailed to a swivel chair, defending and identifying with byzantine bureaucracies. It’s why people in peak physical condition find themselves excessively concerned with heart-rate variability and REM cycles. It’s why people with deep environmental concern spend considerable energy making their own granola and sorting their recycling (and policing others for not doing so). It’s why people with an MA in Engineering from Stanford buy Squid Coin, and/or engineer it. It’s why anyone would deem it good and appropriate to trap the foolish in a prison of their own desires, and it’s why we often find ourselves trapped by our own desires and attachments.
One of the questions I want to ask here is: What happens when both the monkey and the hunters let go?
The Experience of Insight (Goldstein, J., 1976, p. 94)
Why I Am Not a Buddhist (Thompson, E., 2020) and McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Purser, R., 2019)