Thoughtless Lying

I come from a small town in a conservative part of Ohio.  In some ways, that has been a very good preparation for the kind of life I have lived.  In our town, we believed in “the virtues,” despite violating them as often as everyone else.  It has taken me quite a little while to get far enough away from my upbringing that to see that it was a good thing to teach the value of these virtues.  It was good even apart from our success in achieving them.

President Trump has brought that to my mind recently.  A part of my upbringing was what used to be considered a natural consequence.  When you lied a lot, people stopped believing you.  That seemed to me at the time to be a very appropriate response and it still seems that way to me.

I am not really sure why it doesn’t work for President Trump.  I remember that during World War II, there was a relaxation about “truth” that was attributed to the war.  If our leaders said things that were not true, surely they were compelled to do so by the contingencies of conflict.  And that didn’t stop all at once.  When a U-2 pilot was shot down, President Eisenhower went on the air to say that we had no such craft and no such pilots.  We did, of course.  My father, who was a big fan of Eisenhower’s, passed it off as “a cover statement.”

I don’t have a criticism to make of “cover statements.”  You really can’t expect our leaders to be candid and transparent about our spy operations.  Still, I wonder if that Eisenhower experience might not have introduced a little buffer between hearing what the President said and coming to some judgment about what was true.


We have, of course, come a long way from there.  We have come so far that I want to think today not about individual officeholders telling individual lies, but about the culture that makes lying insignificant.  Telling a lie, in other words, no longer signifies anything about the person; not about his upbringing or his ethnicity or his character. [1]

It is an acceptable style of speech by which one person identifies themself [2] as a member of the team.  I am not entirely sure what the mechanism for this is.  Is it an art form like a punch at exactly the right place or is it just the butchery of beating with a baseball bat?  Is there extra merit in telling outrageous lies?  This would be like a “tall tales” contest where the truth of the tale is no part of the competition, but only the extravagance?

So, for instance, saying that there is a child pornography ring operating in the basement of a building would be OK.  It would be a contestant in a contest like this.  But saying that there was a child pornography ring operating in the basement of a building that did not have a basement, would be much much better.

Try to imagine rebutting a “tall tale.”  You see how it doesn’t work.  The supposed refutation isn’t on the same track as the tale; there is no way to bring them into contact with each other.

Or possibly it is not the extravagance of the lie but the effect on the person at whom the lie is being thrown.  If they just stand there and say it is not true, it wasn’t that much of a lie; it was a low scoring lie.  If it arouses them to inarticulate anger, especially at a televised event, it is much better.  If they break down in tears, it is much much better.

Remember that we were considering significance.  What does a truly destructive lie signify.  It no longer signifies that the liar’s word cannot be trusted.  That is a question that cannot be asked.  It signifies, instead, that this liar is especially good, since lies are only words and words are only weapons.

Truth as a Victim

The examples I have given so far imagine that they include things like personal attacks and group slanders.  But what if there is no person or group to receive the lie?  What if the lie is clearly no part of a “tall tale” contest, but is represented as true.  This is “true” in the sense that empirical and logical statements exist that could confirm its truth to a panel of impartial judges.

Take for instance, the claim that a certain number of persons attended an inaugural ceremony.  There are lots of ways to estimate the number of people in a large crowd.  Any one of them could, in principle, be brought in evidence against a claim that there were many more than that.  This is not a claim like saying that people who attended enjoyed this inauguration more than the attendees enjoyed other inaugurations.  Who knows?  Who checked?  We expect to know things like the number of attendees; we do not expect to know the relative enjoyment of different crowds at different events.

But what’s the harm, you might ask?  The statement of verifiable facts engages the supposition that these statements really can be true or false.  You come to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town and wonder where to park.  I tell you that you can park on the street because all the meters have been turned off.  After the meeting, you find a traffic ticket on your car.  It almost seems odd to say it out loud, but really, if you assume I did that to you as a prank or as an act of political sabotage, those are the good scenarios.  If you think I did that to harm you, you also believe that the meters are actually turned off and on and that I knew which they would be and misrepresented them.

The Bad Scenario

How could that possibly be the good scenario?  Well, think about it.  It presupposes that the meters are on or off; that one can know whether they are on or off; that they are on or off apart from whether I wish them to be on or off.  They presume, in other words, an orderly world in which things can be true and can be known to be true.  How is that not a good scenario?

On the other hand, telling lies—these are misrepresentations of facts acceptable to an impartial jury—because they make the assumption of meaningful speech impossible is a much worse offense.  These are not self-serving lies, as when I make hold up a payment to an ally until they comply with my wishes and then say I have done no such thing.  That’s a motivated lie and while it is bad, it is not as bad as telling lies that benefit no one.  But if I say that there are only half as many national parks as there are in fact or that that average daily temperatures have been trending down over the last decade or that there is no evidence to support evolution or that the need for supplemental nutrition is going down as a result of the COVID crisis—these are casual lies.  They are lies with no purpose and no probable effect other than weakening the belief that statements can be expected to mean something.  They can be true or false; they can be significant or insignificant.

You see now why the parking meter lies were the good scenario.  Hordes of casual, unmotivated lies simply flood the field.  They make correction impossible by their very numbers.  They make it not really worth our while to  continue to assume that claims about the world can mean something; that, on the other hand, saying what you feel like saying at the moment is enough to secure your approval and your support.

I don’t think that is where we are, but we need to start acting now if we are not going to go there.  We can start by electing Joe Biden, who misspeaks quite a bit for public person, but who knows the value of truth in public discourse.

[1]  You might have though that series was a little odd, with “ethnicity” stuck in there, but I added it so that I would have a chance to say that where I grew up, a common compliment that one man might pay to another was, “That’s mighty white of you.”  I had no idea what that meant.  I was no more likely to identify that as a racial remark than I was to identify, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” as a racial question.

[2] It hurts.  I’m trying to learn to live with it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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