On Lies and Lying

Posted on January 6, 2017

Jan van Eijck

Lies are Everywhere

Lies are Everywhere

This blog is a preparation for the Lorentz workshop on The Invention of Lying, from 9 Jan through 13 Jan 2017, organized by Hans van Ditmarsch, Petra Hendriks and Rineke Verbrugge. The workshop brings together a wide and rather wild variety of researchers in logic, computer science, philosophy, social science, linguistics, biology. With this kind of mixed bunch, the best one could hope for is to get some new cooperations going, or get some inspiration from unexpected sources. But this is already a lot, and the workshop promises some good fun.

The concept of lying is fascinating to me – as it should be to you – because of its juxtaposition with truthfulness. The theme of lying is of paramount importance for us, individuals living in post-industrialist capitalist societies like the US, Great Britain, or the countries of the EC, because in our social interactions we get exposed to so many lies that we hardly notice them anymore.

In capitalist societies where citizens have great freedom in choosing the products they buy, the activities they wish to pursue, and the sources of information they decide to trust, governments, newspapers, advertising agencies, banks, industries and corporations all have a paramount interest in winning our favour and steering our behaviour. As a result they lie to us all the time, while trying to preserve a self-image of honesty and trustworthiness. All advertisements lie to us, but we don’t care because this is what well adjusted consumers expect and should expect. Some of us buy that fitness equipment anyway because the promise of a trim body is so alluring, even if we do not completely believe it. Indeed, our willingness to believe what we should not believe is what keeps the advertisement industry in business. We are so used to the blatant lies of political parties – remember the 350-million-pounds-a-week NHS funding pledge of the Brexit camp? – and to the teaser headlines on internet news sites that we hardly notice them anymore.

What is Lying?

Lying is misleading others by making them believe things that you know are not true. This is how Augustine and Thomas Aquinas define the activity of lying, and I do agree with them that this touches the essence of the lie. But there is a problem. This is so general that Batesian mimicry, hoverflies posing as stinging wasps, are a prime example. It is by lying in this very general sense that animals protect themselves from the claws of other animals. The hoverfly is misleading other insects by making them believe that it is dangerous because it can sting, while the hoverfly ‘knows’ that it cannot. So I propose we assume that lying must also involve some use of language, some use of the lying tongue. Then not the hoverfly, but Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, is the archetype of the liar.

In the first scene of the first act of Othello, Iago explains to Roderigo why one should not reveal one’s inner self to the world: if you do that, you make yourself vulnerable to daws (birds) picking at your heart:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

Othello, 1.1.63-67

Here I am not what I am is the inversion of how God reveals himself in Exodus (3.14), as I am who I am. Thus, I am not what I am is how the devil hides himself from the world, that is, how the devil lies to the world.

In certain Christian circles, People of the Lie refers to people who follow the suggestions of the devil rather than those of Christ. This derives from a gospel word, where the Evangelist John gives a striking characterisation of the devil as the arch liar.

When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

Iago is like the devil. And he does indeed bring Othello to ruin by lying to him, by making him believe that Desdemona is unfaithful to him while Iago knows that she is not. Iago is perhaps the most evil of all Shakespeare’s characters. He does not need a wife to make him a murderer, and he does not even need a knife to become a murderer. Deceit is enough to make another man commit the gruesome deed. This is the power of the lie.

It is no accident that religious traditions have much to say about the choice between being truthful and living the lie. The Ninth Commandment, in Exodus 20:16, is clear enough.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

This condemns all forms of lying. Note that everyone understands this without a formal definition.

The New Testament is also very clear about the issue of being truthful.

Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ Anything more comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)

Again, no formal analysis needed. Again the connection of deceit with the devil. Indeed, the word devil is linked to the Greek word διαβoλoς, which means deceiver or liar.

Note that the Biblical injunctions are about being true to your own word. If you make a promise then you should do everything in your power to keep it. If have no wish to do a certain thing, then you should be honest about it. No more, no less.

The Biblical stance on lies and lying may sound a bit too old-fashioned and moralistic to modern ears. Still, the issue of being true to one’s promise is a perennial issue, just as relevant to us now as it was relevant two thousand years ago.

On Living the Truthful Life

This is much larger than merely refraining from misleading others by saying things that you know are not true. It is first and foremost about to thine own self be true, to quote the saying of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Henry David Thoreau expresses it well:

What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1854

What Thoreau describes is the sudden realization that we are responsible for our own lives, and that any person can take up that responsibility, no matter what other people are saying.

We are the arbiters of our own truth. We are ourselves responsible for how we choose to live. If we decide to rely on others with respect to the decisions that are crucial to us, we should not be surprised if in the end we find out that we have been deceived.

Truth in Democracies

It is often assumed that one of the distinguishing features of democracies is that citizens can trust their political leaders to be truthful about the affairs of state. But how realistic is this? Is truthfulness even possible in politics?

Machiavelli, in the famous (or infamous) eighteenth chapter of The Prince, states that being true to one’s word is often not the most successful strategy for a ruler:

Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.

As Macchiavelli has it, rulers should be aware that deceit is often more successful than honesty. They need to be able to act as lions (honest, strong) when possible, and as foxes (cunning, deceitful) when necessary. And it is of prime importance to disguise the fact that one is willing to employ the fox. Fortunately, Machiavelli adds, this is not at all difficult:

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

Machiavelli gives advice to rulers, and many have taken it. Richelieu is a famous example. National interest – or in French raison d’état – can be a reason to deceive your own people. Even if you are a Catholic Cardinal, raison d’état may dictate that you connive with Protestant rulers to defeat the purposes of the Catholic king of Spain. Given that many rulers adopt these guidelines, what advice should one give to citizens of their countries?

A first necessity for citizens is to understand how things politic work, and reading Machiavelli is certainly helpful for this. After due warning it is perhaps easier to detect the lies of our governments. First and foremost, we should understand why our governments consider it not in their interest that the citizens know the details of how matters of state are handled. If we understand this, we can take our countermeasures, by supporting courageous investigative journalism, by locating, protecting and encouraging trustworthy sources of information, and by making appropriate use of them. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, printing and distributing clandestine newspapers was a principal means of resistance, and those who engaged in it were risking the death penalty for telling the truth. The prime goal for the German occupiers was to keep the population in the dark.

Truth and Citizenship

Moral issues are very much at stake in citizenship, as Hannah Ahrendt explains (Truth and Politics, 1967):

It has frequently been noted that the surest result of brainwashing in the long run is a peculiar kind of cynicism, the absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well it may be established. In other words, the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.

The essence of propaganda, according to Jason Stanley in How propaganda works, is that it robs groups of people of knowledge of their own mental states through systematically conceiling their interests to them. If you want to understand propaganda, your first question should be: “Who benefits from it?”

Here are some useful, or amusing, or disturbing websites: Wikipedia, The Free Thought Project, Disinformation, Crooks and Liars, WikiLeaks, Drudge Report. This list can and should be extended, of course.

Most important: fearless journalists and activists. Some examples to give you an idea of the people I have in mind: Ralph Nader Paul Craig Roberts, William Blum, Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, John Pilger. Of course, these are all controversial for mainstream news sources.

Robert Fisk: We are not living in a ‘post-truth’ world, we are living the lies of others. Examples (the context is Israel):

The most flagrant kind of lying: Holocaust denial, Armenian genocide denial, Dutch colonial war denial. The first of these is a criminal offense in many civilized countries, the second is mandatory in Turkey, the third was the common practice in Dutch politics until very recently.

Newspapers in our capitalist society are usually owned by corporations that have an interest to pursue. Notable exceptions are The Guardian, owned by an independent trust that has as its explicit goal “to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of The Guardian free from commercial or political interference”, and, to a lesser extent, the BBC, funded by a TV licensing fee. Most other mainstream news sources that I know are funded by some interest group that has at least a commercial interest. These things matter. Let the reader or viewer beware.

Benedictus Spinoza was hated with a passion by the Dutch protestant clergy for very honestly asking a number of pertinent questions (or impertinent questions, depending on your perspective) about the literal interpretation of the Bible. When he published his Theological Political Treatise, in 1670, he was careful to remain anonymous. The true author was soon discovered, however, and the work was described as “forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil”, simply because it argued – perhaps a bit too convincingly – that the Bible has nothing useful to say about how society should be organized, and that therefore matters of state should be kept outside the jurisdiction of the clergy. Spinoza’s friends feared for his life, for they realized that talking honestly about things that really matter and saying what you believe is true was extremely dangerous. And remember that the Dutch Republic of the Seventeenth Century was one of the most tolerant societies the world had ever known.

Lies in Totalitarian Societies

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) spoke about the juxtaposition of lies and truths in totalitarian societies in his famous essay The Power of the Powerless, from 1978. This essay tells the story of an anonymous greengrocer who puts leaflets “Workers of the world, unite!” among his vegetables because the authorities expect this of him. A sign of obedience, a way to keep out of trouble, etcetera.

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth…

The greengrocer is punished, of course, but Havel notes that most of those who punish him do not do so out of inner conviction.

The executors, therefore, behave essentially like everyone else, to a greater or lesser degree: as components of the post-totalitarian system, as agents of its automatism, as petty instruments of the social auto-totality.

Havel explains that, nevertheless, something very important has happened. The greengrocer has broken the rules of the game, and by doing that, he has exposed the game as a mere game. This is extremely disruptive, and it is the kind of disruption that those in power fear the most.

He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal.

Truthfulness and Courage

I wholeheartedly agree with Havel that the key issue about lying is the issue of being brave enough to live our inner truth versus living the lie that (sometimes, often, …) is expected of us. People who have the courage to live according to their inner truth (like Spinoza, or Vaclav Havel) should be our example, and we should remind ourselves and each other, time and again, of our duty as human beings to follow their example.

This was crucial in the days when fascism was holding Europe in its grip (the days that Ahrendt is referring to), and in the days when communism was holding Eastern Europe in its grip (the days of Havel). It is equally important now, in these days of anti-fact politics, where we have to deal with people who do not like evidence but prefer to form their opinions based on their prejudices.

In cases where we cannot tell true from false, we should struggle to clarify issues, until we can. We should support quality newspapers with subscriptions, for they help us with this. We might consider making donations to Wikipedia. In cases where we see others confuse true and false, we should gently remind them that it is important to evaluate the legitimacy of the sources that we watch and read and believe. If they are willing to listen we should make every effort to teach them how to do this.

As scientists we have a special duty, for we have been trained to digest complex information and to study and judge evidence. We should be willing to act as teachers, to our students of course, but also outside academia. We have a social duty to battle the forces of obfuscation, the climate deniers, the politicians who continue to preach economic growth as a remedy of social evils. We all know that there is overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, and for the fact that it is man-made. We all know that exponential growth of consumption of resources in a finite world is impossible. Knowledge ennobles, and noblesse oblige. Let us support each other, and support others, in the struggle to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live by the truth.