What’s the difference between lies and post-truth in politics?
A philosopher explains
If I wrote “The first sentence in this article is a lie”, is this sentence true, or is it a lie? And, if a liar declares “I am lying”, is the liar telling the truth? In philosophy and logic this is known as the Liar’s Paradox: the liar is a liar, and if the liar is indeed lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied.
Lies are part of the DNA of modern society, though we often now refer to them with the more dignified terminology of marketing, advertising, propaganda or spin. From unscrupulous sellers of used cars to prime ministers making unsubstantiated declarations about weapons of mass destruction, it seems that many people now make a living from lies.
In the public imagination politicians are professional liars par excellence, or as the writer George Orwell once put it: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.
In her essay Truth and Politics, published in The New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. But even Arendt was aware that not all lies are the same. There are lies that are minimal forms of deception, a micro-tear in the fabric of reality, while some lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, a shift to another reality. In today’s terminology, Arendt was alerting us to the difference between a lie, and the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year – “post-truth”.
One way to understand the difference between lies and post-truth, which I’ve written about in a new paper, is that a liar denies specific facts that have precise coordinates in space and time, whereas post-truth questions the very nature of truth. A liar knows the truth, and, by trying to persuade us of an alternative narrative, a liar is paradoxically honouring the truth, whereas post-truth allows no last refuge for the truth
Clinton versus Trump
This distinction between a lie and post-truth becomes more clear by comparing two recent American presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. At a White House press conference on January 26 1998, Clinton famously said:
I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never.
Clinton’s statement, given the subsequent revelations and a semen-stained blue dress, is disconcerting. It’s possible that Clinton did not consider his intimate interactions with Lewinsky as a “sexual relation”, but that is unlikely – it would require a phenomenal effort of self-deception, or ingenuity, to defend that position with honesty and integrity. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, but he was ultimately acquitted in a Senate trial.
Subverting truth itself
Clinton lied, and that was inexcusable. But Trump’s relationship with truth is even more disturbing, and dangerous. Trump’s incessant accusations of fake news against the main media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN, reflects a longstanding disdain for the truth. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not simply denying certain facts, instead he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about the truth.
Trump’s response and demeanour to the impeachment allegations made against him is a typical example of post-truth. By spurning the impeachment proceedings as a “charade” and a “witch-hunt”, his strategy is to create an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, where theoretical frameworks necessary to make sense of certain events are scorned, and where scientific truth is delegitimised
This is the major difference between a lie and post-truth. While a lie subverts a specific truth, post-truth tries to subvert truth itself. Trump’s abhorrence of truth is reflected in the remarkable claim by one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, that “truth is relative”. Giuliani was talking on NBC News about the request by special counsel Robert Mueller for an interview with Trump regarding the Russia investigation. Giuliani raised concerns that Trump could perjure himself because “truth isn’t truth.”
Post-truth is a murky concept, but it should not be confused with a lie. Post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society. The prefix “post” in post-truth refers to the claim that a specified idea has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. Post-truth is the belief that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete.
You really can fool some of the people, all of the time
Politicians pay a surprisingly small price for dishonesty
IN 2001 JONATHAN HAIDT, a psychologist at New York University, published a paper in Psychological Review delightfully entitled “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”. He argued that when people make moral decisions, they are influenced by emotion, or what might also be termed intuition. They may think they are weighing evidence but in fact their decisions are made in the blink of an eye. The reasons they give afterwards merely reflect these emotions, like a dog wagging its tail.
If you were being generous, you could say it was an occupational hazard for politicians to occasionally back themselves into the type of corner where they need to take a creative attitude to the truth. When you’re on the campaign trail, trying to be all things to all people, you’re bound to talk up your achievements or promises a little too much. That’s simply the nature of the game. It’s how it’s always been.
Yet over these last few years we’ve witnessed this relationship grow ever more intimate, until today it’s reached a stage where it’s often completely shameless. Lying – and doing so in a wanton and blatant way – is now such a part of everyday politics that it’s barely newsworthy anymore. We’re at the point where, as an article on CNN reported a few weeks ago, the government of the United States are ‘now lying about lying ’, and seemingly doing so with impunity.
The CNN article was commenting on an interview with White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, in which she asserted that Donald Trump doesn’t tell lies. What he does, she said, is ‘communicate… in a way that some people, especially the media, aren’t necessarily comfortable with’.
After a long four years of almost daily dishonesty, it’s difficult to take this entirely seriously. The problem, however, is that it’s also very difficult to know how to push back against it. As the CNN article notes, the office politics around Trump’s White House are such that if you’re part of his team, you’re obliged to lie as a form of basic professional survival.
Not only are Trump and his senior staff lying, but their support network also feels obligated to back them up when they do so. All those who are supposedly in a position of power to take action against this constant rewriting of reality, instead end up condoning and reinforcing it.
A good example of this is the way that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were recently threatened with redundancy for contradicting what Trump had said about the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian. The president had asserted that the hurricane was going to hit Alabama –
which it wasn’t. His claim caused understandable alarm in the state, so the NOAA tried to calm fears by reiterating the correct information. It wouldn’t reach Alabama, so there was nothing for residents to worry about. But this upset Trump, as it made it look as if he didn’t know what he was talking about. So his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, allegedly intervened to get the NOAA to change their story.
Scenarios such as these are a perfect example of political gaslighting – the way that an authority figure purposefully manipulates the truth in order to control the psychological state of others. The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the title of a 1939 play by Patrick Hamilton, in which the heroine is psychologically tortured by her husband.
Slowly but surely, the husband chips away at his wife’s sanity by persuading her that the way she sees the world is merely an illusion. What he’s doing, in effect, is waging a war against reality – which is almost precisely what commentators are now accusing Trump of doing over the governance of the country.
There’s another noticeable trend in this sort of behaviour, however. For several of today’s leaders it seems preferable to spin an entirely fabricated tale than to admit to making a mistake. A recent example was Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally referring to Boris Johnson as Boris Yeltsin. Rather than simply saying he’d made a mistake,
Netanyahu covered for himself by quipping that it was a deliberate ruse to check that the journalists in attendance were paying attention. This was said with a smile. To all intents and purposes, it was a joke. And yet, when his office later posted the official video of the event, they’d tried to edit out the original mistake, thus tampering with the state of reality.
All of which brings us to yet another technique for obscuring past misdemeanours, which is to reframe how they’re understood. For this you don’t necessarily even need to tamper with evidence in the way that Netanyahu did. You merely need to dispute the meaning of common, everyday words and phrases.
Possibly the most outstandingly devious example of this came from Bill Clinton, back when he was giving evidence to the grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In trying to find a way to deny that his statement ‘There is no improper relationship’ was a flat-out lie, he infamously equivocated that any interpretation of the sentence ultimately ‘depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is’.
More recently, Boris Johnson has been using this same strategy in order to deflect criticism about some of the ill-judged and incorrect comments he’s made in the past. Over the years, these sorts of comments, when made by Johnson, have been described by the media as ‘gaffes’ (in the same way, interestingly, that Joe Biden’s mischaracterisations of the truth are in the US).
During the Conservative leadership contest he hit back at the idea that he was constantly making embarrassing mistakes by arguing that ‘When people say you are making a gaffe, what you are doing is saying something true and necessary’. In other words, comments that may seem to many as factually or morally wrong, are, in Johnson’s mind at least, speaking to a deeper, unsanctioned truth.
M I Ro
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