Until our 21st Century, the perspective in the western world had been that the truth was more powerful than lies. The defeat of Hitler in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 had been triumphs for truth. A shift came suddenly with the introduction of social media and the rapid rise of the Tea Party in the United States which, with its normalization of persistent lying, called into question the status of truth.
“Our ability to lie, but not necessarily our ability to tell the truth, belongs among the few obvious, demonstrable data that confirm human freedom,” wrote that outstanding thinker, Hannah Arendt, but “freedom is abused and perverted through mendacity.”1
Awareness of “the lie” arose with the very beginnings of human speech over 12,000 years ago. A more philosophical understanding of “the truth” began with the rising Greek civilization with Homer who, in the Iliad (c. 800 BC), chose to sing that “Zeus gives no aid to liars.” His Homeric impartiality then inspired the first great teller of facts, Herodotus, who became the father of history. Jewish considerations about truth and lying became evident around the time of King Solomon with the Proverbs in the Old Testament: “He that speaks the truth shows righteousness: but a false witness, deceit.” (chapter 12.17) and then “The lip of truth shall be established for eternity; but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” (chapter 12.19, c. 587 BC).
The exceptional advances of the great Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle turned the concept of truth into the central question of theoretical philosophy. This helped us to distinguish reality from appearance and true from false. I feel embarrassed to rush past the various fields of philosophy within Greek schools from which evolved logic as well as ethics and physics from their deep common root in the challenges of truth. The Sophists, for example, denied the Platonic doctrine in the possibility of a universal truth, while in Aristotle’s scholasticism truth consisted essentially in the agreement between thinking and being. Endless books have been written discussing these approaches, but I have to be simpler in this blog and more direct.
By the time of the Romans, Cicero advanced: “We give no credit to a liar even when he speaks the truth.” Later, after the Middle Ages, Martin Luther was to preach that “A liar is far worse and does greater mischief than a murderer on the highway; for a liar and false teacher deceives people, seduces souls, and destroys them.”2
The rise of science during the Renaissance established the importance of truth in the sciences. Hannah Arendt wrote late in her life that “Only with the rise of Puritan morality, coinciding with the rise of organized science (whose progress had to be assured on the firm ground of the absolute veracity and reliability of every scientist), were lies considered serious offences.”
Truth rarely has been regarded as offensive, although on many occasions people may have wanted to deny it. Facing the truth or accepting reality may present a difficult challenge. The truth has been expected of leaders and counted on for political stability but seldom has contributed to change. Although lies and deceit are often at the core of power, truth itself is at the basis of stability. This disparity explains the long conflict between the two in politics.
Truth also questions opinion as a way of establishing validity. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character,” wrote Arendt. “It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize, and it enjoys a rather precarious status.” Indeed, when it comes to public perception there are dividing lines between facts, opinion and interpretation. Indeed in politics, the latter two are often in conflict with factual truth which can then be regarded as apolitical.
Lies have always been seen as ready tools of eager politicians and demagogues. The audience of the liar is likely to be more persuaded by his fashioning of the facts than they are by the truth-teller with his cold statistics. The greater the popular response, the more likely that the successful liar will begin to believe his own fabrications. Such self-deception tends to create an illusion of truthfulness for the audience. Ultimately, as we have seen with Trump, the scope of the lies can be so vast that they are the making of an alternative reality. Trump was fully aware that his lies on Twitter, Fox News or Facebook had a much greater impact than the consequent media denials or fact checking. While there was a link between malice and real deception, his lies were also effective in installing fear.
The result of such campaigns was not only that the US was swept by a tsunami of misinformation, but also that it legitimized lying as an acceptable political expression. Significantly, the Republican Senators themselves became afraid of the truth. In his latest autobiography, A Promised Land, Obama was dismayed by the truth decay America is experiencing. This has led to such a distrust of institutions that nearly half the population no longer has an idea of what is true.
Until Hitler in the 1930s no one had ever thought that organized lying transmitted by radio could be such a powerful weapon against truth. 90 years later, television, mobiles and the social media had enhanced the distribution of lies and lying in an exponential fashion. At the same time falsehoods and fakes have multiplied with the rise of social extremes which in turn have divided the nation. With the assistance of a compliant right-wing media to spread misinformation, Trump worked to create a mental hemisphere for his admirers and supporters. Trump’s steady, daily flow of lies were effective in disconnecting an extensive minority who didn’t know any better. Trump also turned his opponents into “traitors”, socialists, and “scheming subversives.” Such verbal distortions were created to end political dialogue and polarize truth itself, but also were powerfully exposed by Michael Gerson of The Washington Post.3
For four years the American people were subjected to the blatant pathological liar that Trump actually was. Gerson kept track of the exceptional record of the flow of lies: More than 20,000 falsehoods in 48 months. However it is unlikely that Trump could have defined which were his creations and which had come from Fox News, Russian reports, Newsmax or other dubious sources like the gossip of his right-wing employees.
Psychologists and psychiatric experts had long claimed that Trump was subject to the personality disorder of a pathological liar. Such misfits struggle with anxiety. Their lies are a way of protecting themselves and may be utilized to gain status and manipulate others. They exhibit high levels of self-assurance that also help them to lie with verbal fluency. Combined with a high degree of narcissism, deceivers like Trump also tend to believe they had achieved high levels of mental perfection. This, combined with clever social deceptions and a steady flow of lies, enabled omitting any inconvenient truths.
The impact of such a 4-year term of lies and deceits by the President of the United States has had pernicious consequences. Lying promoted by the media has taken on epidemic proportions. Sadly, little has been done to combat this. Since then promoting the truth has yet to reduce lying, however I would like to see the popular reactions if the social media were to point out all the lies or prevarications. Well before he became President, the media gave Trump generous space and time because it increased their ratings and ultimately their profits. It also contributed mightily to bringing him to the highest office.
To halt this sinister flourish of the fake, the false and the untrue, I believe a governmental sanction should be placed on the intentional lie and the planned perversion of the truth. This could be advanced by the appointment of a small group of eminent and trusted figures who would evaluate and advise on the use and abuse of truth in business, the social media, and politics and also in the educational system. Furthermore if the social media directors and the television broadcasters denied time to liars, there might gradually be pressure on politicians to convert to telling the truth.
There was a time when people restricted their lies because they feared God’s reaction or its welcome by the Devil. Today the fear of Hell no longer exerts much power. Fear of shame reduced former generations from lying. Could that be resuscitated? Social embarrassment might be an effective way to stop the mendacious. For a start I might suggest exposing those repeatedly sowing lies or disinformation about vaccines.
In the social media, tags should follow all lies. Every written lie could be tagged with a ” ~ ” or serious deceit with a “ ~~ ” Every spoken lie could immediately be greeted with a “brrr….” Thus items of misinformation would be tagged across the board. Admittedly some 40% of Americans are exceptionally gullible and at the same time wedded in their admiration and belief in Trump. So it is going to be a difficult challenge to deprive them of the steady flow of fake news, lies, and political deception to which they have become accustomed. Strengthening the truth is one of the possible ways to liberate them from the narrow perspective of their long standing prejudices.
On the basis that they were unwilling to criticize their President for failing to admit the result of the 2020 elections, I suggest that all those Republicans in Congress now should be declared unfit for re-election. Theirs was, indeed, a slap in the face of the truth. As Arendt concluded: “Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change: metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”
1Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future,” The New Yorker, February 25, 1967.
2Martin Luther, Table Talk, 1569.
3Michael Gerson, “Trump is the King of Lies,” The Washington Post, July 23, 2020.