DOES LYING MATTER?
Donald John Trump, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Nigel Paul Farage are the three political figures who garner the most public recognition in Britain today. They share and promote BREXIT’s underlying public anxiety about immigrants. This is their primary engagement with voters. Showmanship and outrageous - thus newsworthy - behaviour keeps all of them in the public eye. Each, in his own way, disports himself to great effect in the grubby, if crowded, grounds of Chateau Celebrity.
Many people find these three men morally repugnant. But evidently many others do not feel the same, are not deterred by their fellow citizens’ repugnance, and would like Trump/Johnson/Farage to wield political power. Fundamental to their political strategy is the blurring of the distinction between truth and falsehood. Trump is a pathological liar living in an Alice in Wonderland world. The Washington Post fact-checker clocked his 10,000th lie this April. I suspect he doesn’t really grasp the concept of truth. He manages an average of eight public lies a day. Alexander Boris de Pfellel Johnson is a more intermittent and casual liar, and more selective in his choice of lies, tactical rather than pathological in comparison. Stockbroker Nigel, man of the people with his Coutts bank account, proffers more Piffle than Pfellel in his interviews and speeches. But he has some very sinister friends and acquaintances, and keeps the source of his funds for his political work suspiciously obscure. Public support for them all continues.
Does lying matter? The 13th Century Dominican thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, said that lying was making a false statement “at variance with his mind”. I am not sure that all Trump’s 10,000 utterances and tweets were “at variance with his mind”. He believes the last thing he says. Then again our three celebrities may well imagine the public don’t believe a word they say and don’t take them seriously, goes the argument. I doubt that. True, politics and entertainment blend into each other these days; politicians are duly entertaining us and many of the electorate enjoy the big game. But lying is a corrosive thing. The Catholic catechism – I confess not my bedside reading – says that lying “sows discord, destroys society, undermines trust and tears apart social relationships”. Not a bad description of Britain in June 2019. We laugh at our peril.
Most people would not go along with Aristotle and St. Augustine who took a very hard line on lying: lying is always wrong, no exceptions. A memorable Dominican priest, Father Finbar Synnott, who headed the South African Catholic Truth & Reconciliation Commission in the early 1970s, faithfully followed Augustine. At the peak of apartheid repression in the early 1980s, I used to stay in the Dominican Priory in Mayfair, Johannesburg – a confusing name for the British visitor as Mayfair was one of the poorest parts of town. The beat-up priory hid several young black activists on the run from the security police. When the phone rang everyone leapt across the room to take the call. I asked why and was told that, if Finbar picked up, he would feel obliged to tell the truth about the priory’s temporary residents, whoever was asking. His brother Dominicans were less Augustinian.
You became accustomed to ‘white lies’ in apartheid South Africa. The police must have known everyone was lying as the priory was shot up one night; and, rather unfairly in the morning, bullet holes were visible above Finbar’s bed. We concluded that sleeping soundly with a clear conscience had saved his life.
The lies that corrode British and US society are not ‘white lies’. They are profoundly injurious ones, a worrying aspect of our political culture’s decline. Trump, Johnson and Farage, deliberately or just instinctively, create a world of fake news, and in consequence an entire political generation is mistrusted; people do not know who or what to believe, or having made up their minds are unable to change them because contrary evidence is no longer evidence. An informed electorate, so important for democracy to work successfully becomes impossible. In other places and at other times this state of affairs has led to authoritarianism and the assassination of journalists committed to the truth. I find myself hesitating to say we are a very long way from there yet. Is not suggesting that our future Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament to thwart the will of Parliament a first move in the authoritarian playbook?
We just cannot take the continuation of a healthy democracy, the rule of law, and strong governing institutions for granted. We need to ask ourselves what it means about us and our societies that three men known for their lack of moral values and personal virtues attract the spotlight of celebrity, become leaders, and are given power over us. And once we have asked ourselves, and not liked the answer, we need to speak out and vote accordingly.
See The Article.com Lying Politicians will tear apart civilised western democracy
Thanks Ian. You force us not to laugh. On all fronts. ( My recent Guardian Weekly paints without varnish what the planet will look like at 2100 and an average temperature of 3-4 degrees higher than the present. Then today colleagues at the university here said that was an underestimate: it could be 6 degrees higher.) I still think the problem of lies is, at bottom, the problem of the Rust Belt from the Midwest to the Ruhr. The political problem is how to confront the seeming majority who appear not to care about the lies, with the truth.
Thanks for the piece, Ian. As ever, your observations are thought-provoking and apposite.Many years ago, I remember a talk you gave during the times of Thatcher, when The Times was not Murdoch, in which you made a compelling and optimistic case for the existence of a version of history that differed from the individualist, market-orientated, loadsamoney variety that pertained at the time. Your advice was that we should merely reclaim this version whenever we felt oppressed by values that alienated us. Given that talk of yours, which placed great faith in the ability of the press and honest journalism to expose oppression and falsehood, and given the above, I wonder what are your thoughts on the apparent inability of the press nowadays to nail the falsehoods you describe and thereby discredit the fibbers? And one of those you mention even appears to be sponsored by “an organ of truth”.
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