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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lies and Damn Lies

Time Cover

Time Cover

The use of speech or symbol to represent as true what one knows to be false

David DeCosse

David DeCosse is the director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are his own.

This week, Donald Trump’s lying has been the subject of a Wall Street Journal editorial, a cover story in Time magazine, and many articles in other major publications.

Here I'd like to dissect a little more the nature of lying as practiced by the president, which I'd like to argue is habitual, anti-democratic, and suggestive of violence. It's crucial to recall what constitutes a lie: first, the use of speech or symbol to represent as true what one knows to be false; and, second, the intention to deceive. Because of the cascade of Trump's lies, some have called him a "pathological" liar or a "compulsive liar." But I think it is more accurate to call him a "habitual liar." At some point in the past, he began to lie -- perhaps to get ahead in business, appear esteemed before a tough New York City crowd, placate parents, who knows? That was a conscious choice to begin to lie. And now that initial choice has become a constant habit. 

I think with the president, the culpability for lying can get obscured. In part, this is because he lies so much: Is someone really consciously choosing to lie as much as he does? Also, he is adept at finding one or two true or plausibly true things and then putting them into a narrative that is actually false. This practice mixes things up, giving his most ardent supporters true things on which to stake a claim. Also, it gives everyone else a narrative that is more complicated to dismiss as a lie because its knowing falsity (i.e, what makes it a lie) is premised on true things. Last, his habit of lying is obscured as well by his adroit use of the image-making power of television: What gets great TV ratings can't possibly be a lie! And the president is keenly aware of the sway that he holds over his core of supporters - and thus of a freedom he has to say anything he thinks will solidify that support. 

But none of this -- neither the sheer number of lies nor the sophisticated ways in which they are purveyed -- should diminish the effort to hold him responsible. Somewhere in his consciousness, he is surely aware of what he is doing. And we need to be clear about the harm such lying is causing. In her book Lying, Sissela Bok argued that it is a mistake to focus on one lie as opposed to seeing how the consequences of a lie ripple out, affecting people and actions far beyond the lie itself. In particular, she notes how lies attack the respect for human dignity and self-government at the heart of democracy: The political leader who lies knowingly introduces an imbalance of power into democratic society, using lies to manipulate what in a democratic context ought to be the equal and free consent of citizens. 

Trump's brazen lying -- and here the outstanding example is his ongoing insistence, despite the manifest evidence of photographs, that his inaugural crowds were larger than those at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama -- also suggest a sense of violence. 

The 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her extensive studies of totalitarian regimes, argued that the nature of the modern political lie was distinctive in its hubris: Such lies didn't cavil over a word here or there but actually sought to deny what she called "brutally elementary data" (like the photographs of inaugural crowds in 2009 and 2017). 

In this, she argued, there was an element of violence, as if whatever the plain and obnoxious data are (obnoxious to a lying political leader) must be destroyed rather than be accepted. This might be achieved by the sort of crazy denial attempted by President Trump with regard to the inaugural photos. But it also, more subtly, might be attempted via sophisticated modern means of image-making or appealing to consumer preferences or re-telling history. Whatever the case, though, the element of violence remains. It is not only that reality can't be acknowledged -- Obama's crowds were more than twice as big. Rather, the brazenness of the denial also signals a desire to destroy reality. In the United States, we're not yet at the depths of 20th century totalitarianism. But we should keep vigilant watch on lying as a measure of where we might go.

This article is the second of two by David DeCosse on lying.  Read the first.

Mar 23, 2017

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