The Lie of the Land


The dictionary says “A  lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” There’s no shortage of examples these days, starting at the top. A person may lie for many reasons: to defend himself, to make himself look good, or to manipulate, dominate, or cheat others. Public lies or propaganda can reach an audience of millions, and may be repeated so often that they become part of the social fabric. Untruths can last for centuries, constantly asserting the superiority of one nation, one ethnicity, one class, one race, one religion, one culture, one gender over the rest. 

Modern propaganda uses the techniques of modern advertising. Advertising and public relations are built on half-truths, and a half-truth is at least half a lie. We are so surrounded by advertising, promotion, and propaganda that we hardly notice it anymore--it’s     the air we breathe.

There are numerous kinds of deception besides making false statements. Lies of omission intentionally leave out essential information or dissenting opinions. Deception or self-deception includes distraction, projection, rationalization, hypocrisy, and more.

Projection is an ego-defense that shifts the blame, accusing the other guy of thinking or doing what in fact you yourself are thinking or doing. Collective projection scapegoats minorities of one sort or another. They are the ones who are lazy and lustful and want a free lunch—never me. Propaganda makes use of the human propensity toward projection and also of our tendency to rationalize, to justify attitudes and actions with logical, plausible reasons.

Hypocrisy is pretending a nobler motivation for one’s actions than is actually the case. The classic example is covering oneself with the flag. 

The Big Lie is a propaganda technique in which assertions are so bold and audacious that most people assume they must be true—why else would anyone say such a thing? They tend to believe the Big Lie when they see and hear these claims repeated everywhere. Repetition is the life-blood of propaganda and especially of the Big Lie.

People are more prone to believe Big Lies and other deceptions when they are surrounded by people who think much as they do—their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow church members--who all tend to watch or hear the same media, such as Fox News. The echo chamber dampens their natural skepticism. Such  Ideological bubbles also affect voting patterns.

Intellectual isolation is further enhanced by filter bubbles on social media, which use algorithms to present viewers with ideological information similar to what they’ve looked at before, so they never see diverse opinions. 

We wouldn’t care about public lies if no one listened to them but some people appear willing to believe anything—the bigger the lie or wilder the conspiracy theory, the better. It feeds their prejudices, justifies their fears, and satisfies their desires for drama. It provides simple answers. It also works as a rationale for pent-up aggression. These enablers form an enthusiastic audience for lies, truthiness, and alternative facts.  It is an open question whether those who belligerently defend someone else’s lies in the face of a lot of counter evidence are themselves guilty of deception. Are they innocent victims of manipulators or are they willing accomplices?

About a third of Americans seem to have adopted the egocentric attitude that their opinions are worth more than anybody else’s facts. They have also reverted to an age-old pattern of never questioning the strongman leader whom they follow, overlooking constant reversals by their leader or assertions that clearly contradict facts on the ground. 

How to explain the peculiar relationship of Trump Base to a larger consensus reality? Do Trump followers value truth less—or do they define it differently? Do they see loyalty to the leader as a higher good than veracity? Hyper-partisanship leads to defining truth as the result of winning the argument or the election. This is an instrumental conception of the truth—a means to an end—not very far from Machiavellianism. People are very often acting on the basis of philosophies that they never heard of.

Here I’d like to explore some facets of our culture that contribute to unconcern for the spirit of truth. Many new kinds of media have appeared overnight—while nobody is teaching media literacy to either students or adults.  Critical thinking has never been a focus either. Schools and media could at least teach people about the top 10 popular fallacies since public discourse is so well-stocked with either/or, straw man, ad hominem, bandwagon, begging the question, faulty analogy, red herring,  hasty generalizations, slippery slope, and post hoc. 

Another overlooked angle is the entertainment value of flamboyant lying. Several decades ago an acquaintance admitted that he liked to listen to the screeds of Rush Limbaugh, not because he agreed with them, but because Rush was “funny.” There is precedent for this kind of appeal in the politics of the Solid South in the first half of the last century, as pointed out by Gus Cochran in Democracy Headed South. Since all the candidates came from the same political party and had similar platforms, they often tried to distinguish themselves from the herd by showmanship and circus antics.

Conspiracy theories in particular seem to combine the political Big Lie with the folkloric Tall Tale, but the stories are getting weirder by the day. With Pizzagate and Voodoo Doughnut we are far beyond Paul Bunyan. The purveyors of QAnon conspiracies—are they hoaxers or serious believers?

Brendan Nyhan, a professor who researches conspiracy theories says “It’s psychologically less terrifying to think that there are specific individuals or groups controlling things as opposed to thinking of life as random and chaotic and dangerous in unpredictable ways.”

Some people are more interested in being entertained than well-governed. Widespread cynicism about our political system and American society generally has led to a general devaluation of all institutions and their pronouncements. Ambiguous postmodernist theories discussed by literary intellectuals have trickled down to people who never took those classes, and led to a vulgar relativism that insists everybody’s facts are equivalent. Some folks figure they can pick and choose what to believe just as they select breakfast cereals.

I don’t assume that there is an absolute truth, much less that liberals own it. But through the centuries, people have constructed several ways to determine the everyday truth. Humans have devised rules of evidence, first in law, then in science, which follows a systematic methodology based on evidence from observation and experiment. Philosophers and mathematicians have constructed rules of logic. Scholars have developed bodies of knowledge, taught them in universities, and collected their wisdom in books and libraries.

In witnessing and communicating about events, journalistic ethics are followed by most reporters and most news organizations. Hundreds of journalists have died in the effort to tell the world what is happening on the ground during wars and under authoritarian governments.

Trump’s followers do not respect scientists, universities, or journalists, which is to say they don’t respect the best practices that humans have come up with so far to develop, study, and disseminate knowledge. What we have here is a kind of intellectual nihilism.

My next post will discuss other cultural trends that relate to this indifference and then what we might all do to help restore truth to its rightful place.