Up: Blog

Calling a Deer a Horse

Posted Dec 14, 2022 by Ray Patrick

A famous chengyu (Chinese idiomatic expression) goes “指鹿為馬 (zhǐlù-wéimǎ),” or “Point to a deer and call it a horse.”

Zhao Gao tests the loyalty of those in the Second Emperor’s court.
Zhao Gao tests the loyalty of those in the Second Emperor’s court.

Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, “Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?” Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law and had them executed instantly. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. Zhao Gao gained military power as a result of that.

To “Point to a deer and call it a horse” is to repeat an obvious lie as a act of submission to authority. This has many real-world parallels, such as the infamous “Self-criticism sessions” in Mao’s China. It is also seen in dystopian fiction:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?

So, by “calling a deer a horse,” you are repeating an obvious lie. This is intended to humiliate you and to show you that your masters are so powerful that they can change the very nature of reality.

Can you think of any deer we’re supposed to call horses these days?

✉️ Reply to this Post ✉️

Topics: epistemology politics