Flight or Invisibility? Which Superpower Would You Choose?

The Answer Helps Explain the Power of #Metoo, Trump, and the Internet

2018-07-23

Before you make a choice — flight or invisibility — here are the ground rules:

Flight means the power to travel in the air, up to 100,000 feet, at a maximum velocity of 1,000 MPH. You don’t have any other powers. You’re not invincible. You don’t have super strength. Just flying. (And, thus, depending on your natural strength, you probably can’t carry many people with you. Large pets or small children would be key candidates).

Invisibility means the power to make yourself unseen, as well as your clothes. (So, you don’t have to go around naked!). But things you pick up are still visible. Food and drink are visible until digested. (Best Advice: Keep that in mind before sneaking around like a friggin’ pervert…).

You are the only person to have this power, flight or invisibility. You can only choose one. You can’t pick both.

Which one do you choose?

And what would you do with your power?

And, hey, there are no judgments here. Just go with your gut.

Ok, got it? Great! Keep your choice to yourself for now. We’ll get back to it. First we have to talk about the thought experiment itself, this Superpower Dilemma, and what it says about power and ethics in the age of #Metoo, Trump, and the Internet.

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Full disclosure: The Superpower Dilemma is not my creation. It’s been kicking around the Internet for over fifteen years. It’s shown up in Psychology Today as a projective test. Those who choose invisibility, according to PT, are people who, in Jungian fashion, embrace their shadow self in order to transcend it; or, those who choose flight are those who seek self-actualization a la Maslow. They push past basic needs — food, shelter, etc. — and search for true fulfillment. Even Forbes used the Superpower Dilemma in a poll of over 7,000 industry and business leaders. It’s no surprise that over 70% of those polled chose flight — approximately 28% chose invisibility. More men than women picked flight, according to Forbes. And more individuals in Human Resources and Safety chose invisibility! (Imagine invisible HR professionals lurking in the corner of the copy room…).

And then there’s the real starting point to the Superpower Dilemma on the Internet. Comedian John Hodgman did a segment on it in a 2001 episode of This American Life.

It’s hilarious.

Hodgman interviews a number of men and women — anonymously, of course — about which power they would choose and why. He finds that people basically never choose to use their power to fight crime. Far from it. Flight and invisibility are not enough, they protest. They would fly, rather, in order to travel to Paris, according to one man. Or, another woman claims she would steal as many sweaters as she desired. The superpowers are chosen for the self. For one’s own pleasure or curiosity or darker inclinations.

But, as with all episodes of This American Life, the Hodgman piece mixes two parts humor and one part pathos. It goes from good chuckle to fucking poignant really fast. (Ah, the storytelling delights of Ira Glass and Team…). Hodgman finds there’s a mental process involved, wherein a gut choice for invisibility usually ends with a rational acknowledgement that invisibility would lead to some bleak places.

Consider the honest appraisal of Man 7:

“Invisibility leads you — leads me, as an invisible person, down a dark path, because you’re not going to want to miss out, when you’re invisible, on — you know, no matter how many times you’ve seen a woman naked in the shower, you’re going to want to see it again, because there’s always a different woman, right? And there’s like a lifetime of that. And that’s not acceptable behavior, no matter whether you’re invisible or not.”

Or, the deep truth of Woman 1:

“First of all, I think that a lot of people are going to tell you that they would choose flight, and I think they’re lying to you. I think they’re saying that because they’re trying to sound all mythic and heroic, because the better angels of our nature would tell us that the real thing that we should strive for is flight, and that that’s noble and all that kind of stuff.

But I think actually, if everybody were being perfectly honest with you, they would tell you the truth, which is that they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.”

Or, the ageless wisdom of Man 8:

“Flying is for people who want to let it all hang out. Invisibility is for fearful, crouching masturbators.”

We all fly and we all fade, Hodgman sums up. And the poignant question the comic leaves us with is this: “Who do you want to be — the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”

Ok, so you’ve picked a superpower? Do you want to switch at this point?

At any rate, what conclusions might we draw about flight and invisibility? Flight is heroic. Invisibility is sneaky. Invisibility is a superpower for villains — maybe, even, for the villain inside all of us.

And, of course, there’s the whole thing about sex. Even the Kevin Bacon film Hollow Man (2000) — where Bacon, as scientist, learns how to turn himself invisible, has a requisite naked-woman-showering scene, which then turns into rape. What better metaphor for #Metoo? Women sharing stories of sexual abuse perpetrated by men whose actions have been, for them, vicious trauma, but for the rest of the world, unknown, invisible.

The Superpower Dilemma, in sum, has a clear ethical dimension. And, like many things the Internet hath made, the thought experiment is one humans have been puzzling over for thousands of years. For that, we have to travel to Ancient Greece where we learn of the first Superpower Dilemma — the tale of the ring of Gyges.

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Athens, Greece.

Enter: Plato (c. 424–347 B.C.E.).

Bearded philosopher. Furrowed brow. Toga.

The dude was thinking about the Superpower Dilemma 2,400 years ago, albeit in a slightly different form. There’s no mention of flight in Plato’s telling of it. Just invisibility. The story is told in the Second Book of Plato’s Republic. Plato writes the story as though his brother, Glaucon, is the one telling it. And so Glaucon begins the tale of the ring of Gyges.

It’s a magical ring, Glaucon says, which gives the power of invisibility to the one who wears it. Turn it facing inward on the finger and the wearer is invisible; outward, the wearer reappears. The ring, in Glaucon’s telling, is found in a crack in the earth opened up by an earthquake. Gyges, the guy who finds the ring, quickly realizes the implications. Gyges is a lowly shepherd. But he gets himself sent to the king’s court. He seduces the Queen and conspires to have the king killed. And then Gyges assumes the throne. (If all this sounds familiar, it is. Tolkien used it as a model for the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings).

Glaucon’s point is this: No one will do right when they can get away with doing wrong. If given the power, like in the tale of the ring of Gyges,

“no man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all aspects be like a God among men.”

“A man is just,” Glaucon argues, “not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can be unjust, there he is unjust.” Only fear of a lost reputation or fear of punishment cause people to do justice, according to Glaucon. And, if you have the power, and don’t use it like Gyges did, you’re probably pretty stupid.

“If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”

Basically, Glaucon says, we would hate and fear that power in another, but secretly want it for ourselves.

(Side note: H.G. Wells’ novella The Invisible Man (1897) pokes a few holes in the tale of Gyges. The book is all about how friggin’ hard it would be to pull off one’s evil desires, even if you could be invisible. The protagonist, Griffin, is a failed Gyges. He doesn’t manage taking over his town let alone the whole of England. His dark, evil plans come to nothing. And who defeats him? The community! The community comes together and destroys the guy. In essence, Wells simply tells us, through Griffin, why worry about invisibility when you can’t pull off the real soul-fulfilling devious shit anyway! Because, according to Wells, the community is stronger than the individual.)

Does Plato provide an escape from Glaucon’s argument? Is it true that we only do right because we fear losing our reputation and we fear punishment?

Well, that’s beside the point, actually. Plato’s point is political. He’s talking about society. Don’t look for justice in the individual, says Plato, look for it in society. The take away, for Plato and for us, is the cliché of all modern superheroes: With great power comes great responsibility. Plato was interested in making sure that those who have power are also made accountable. Power is a force that, indeed, has dark, bleak implications for human nature. But it’s also an energy for doing good. It just has to be forced in that direction. Justice, in essence, is the product of the terms demanded by society. It’s the desire for who we, as a society, want to be and the acknowledgement of our worst selves. It’s setting up boundaries that keep us from those worst selves.

And, so, this discussion brings us back to our own moment — to #Metoo, Trump, and the Internet.

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What was your choice? Flight or invisibility? We’ve learned so far that flight feels aspirational. It feels heroic. It feels like the choice we should choose. Invisibility, on the other hand, feels somehow icky. Like, as a man, if I pick invisibility, people are probably gonna expect me to be peeping on my neighbor. And, what we’ve learned, from Plato to This American Life, is that it’s probably a right assumption. Even the just individual, who puts on the power of invisibility, will become unjust. We need accountability.

And that fact is the core issue of our current cultural and political moment. #Metoo is asking men to make visible actions that, in the past, have been invisible. To call them inappropriate whether they’re known or unknown. The Internet is awash with male trollers, harassing under an assumed cloak of invisibility. There’s even a syndrome for this: Online disinhibition effect. The supposed anonymity of the internet allows people to do and say whatever they please. Things they wouldn’t (probably) say or do face to face.

And then there’s President Trump, the Invisible Man, par excellence. It’s as if we all are watching a man do and say things as though he were invisible. Like, he thinks he has the power of invisibility, and is acting accordingly — mistresses, payoffs, Russia, ad nauseum — but he’s actually doing all of this in full view. Trump is the tale of the ring of Gyges for our time. A man who has come to power but has no responsibility. He’s the Hollow Man of Hollywood yarns-come-to-life. And he’s leading a generation of Hollow Men.

Power. Men in power. Sex and power. Technology and power. The point of thinking about the Superpower Dilemma is that it forces us to realize that for justice to exist there has to be accountability. In relationships. In politics. In how we relate to one another in an actually very new digital public sphere.

We all fly and we all fade, Hodgman said in his This American Life piece. We can only be the people we hope to be when we acknowledge, and give account for, the people we fear we actually are.

(Originally published on Medium)

About Stephen Andes

Associate professor of Latin American history, Louisiana State University. I received my doctorate from Oxford University in 2010. I study Mexican history and pop culture. My latest project is Zorro.
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