A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that “the facts” existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost anyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be a body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “Science”. There is only “German Science,” “Jewish Science,” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not such a frivolous statement.
— George Orwell
Looking Back on the Spanish War (1943)
On January 21, 2017 The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump started another bitter attack on the press for underestimating the size of his . . .um, his . . .uh, his . . .um, his . . . Wait a minute; that’s right! His inauguration. Why? Because photos of the Washington DC Mall from day before – January 20, 2017 – show clearly and conclusively that the crowd that showed up for his inauguration was roughly one third the size of the crowd that showed up the following day to protest his ascension to the highest office in the land. Undeterred by the evidence, Trump alleged that the crowd that gathered to cheer him on January 20th was six times larger than the press reported, or roughly twice the size of the crowds that thronged the nation’s capital on the following day. All of which is demonstrably untrue. And this on the same (deeply Orwellian) day, he was blaming the media for spreading the rumor that he has a problem with the USA’s intelligence services, when (he now claims) this was never the case.
We live, we are told, in a “post-truth” age where facts do not matter. But in reality, they do matter – now more than ever. Even so, we can ask ourselves, was Donald Trump merely mistaken about the number of people attending the Women’s March on Washington? Or was he lying? Or was he deluding himself to the point that he actually believed his own spin? And either way, what difference does it make?
Well, for the sake of clarity and convenience, let us define truth as parsimoniously as possible, as what actually is the case. Untruth, by contrast, is an assertion that negates the truth in some fashion. But there are different ways of doing this, and different reasons for doing so. Our language provides us with different words to describe untruths; errors, falsehoods and illusions. Many of us use these words interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. This lax or promiscuous usage, while commonplace, is deeply unfortunate, because it obscures some important psychological truths that we ought to keep in mind as Trump’s presidency unfolds. Why? Because a careful consideration of the differences between error, falsehood and illusions raise the question of motivation, or what Kierkegaard described as the person’s subjective mode of relatedness to the truth.
Let’s start with error. By and large, error is innocent or inadvertent. It is the result of the person being in possession of false or inadequate information, or of logical lapses or faulty reasoning that permit the person to draw mistaken conclusions from the information at hand. A person who is merely “in error” is unaware of that fact, of course, but will generally accept correction and acknowledge the truth because he or she has no stake in remaining estranged from reality, so to speak.
In stark contrast, the person who utters a deliberate falsehood is quite clear about what is actually the case, but has a personal investment in seeing that other people remain “in the dark.” There are rare circumstances when uttering falsehoods is necessary to protect innocent or vulnerable people, no doubt. But by and large, one’s motives for lying are base. People usually lie to mislead others, to create a false impression, to extort an unfair advantage, or to arouse base passions in others to enhance their receptivity to suggestions of various kinds – including incitements to unfair punishment and/or violence.
By contrast with each of these, however, a person who cherishes an illusion has deceived him (or her) self into believing that something is actually the case, when in fact it is not. Moreover, this process of self-deception necessarily precedes any efforts they undertake to persuade others that their illusions are real. Subjectively speaking, people under the sway of illusion can be perfectly sincere when they deny the truth, even if – at an unconscious level – they are in a state of motivated ignorance, avoiding a candid confrontation with reality (and themselves.) This in contrast to the deliberate liar, who knows the score, but prefers to pretend otherwise for his or her own advantage.
Orwell reminds us that according to Nazi doctrine, there is no such thing as “Science”, or even a body of facts that can be reliably ascertained irrespective of our respective biases, or how we are inclined to interpret them. Instead, there is merely “German Science” and “Jewish Science.” Where did the Nazis get this idea? From Friederich Nietzsche. Toward the end of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche invoked the ideas of Kant and Schopenhauer in an effort to discredit modern science completely. And later, in The Genealogy of Morals , section 24, Nietzsche took this line of argument further, citing the medieval Muslim Society of Assassins. Their motto was: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Nietzsche obviously thought the assassin’s creed was quite profound, because he then went on to say. “Here we have real freedom, for the notion of truth itself has been disposed of.”
Here, then, was a radical new departure in the history of Western thought. Prior to this point, most philosophers, scientists and educators believed in the emancipatory power of truth; the idea that the truth, once grasped fully, can liberate us from the shackles or ignorance and oppression. The flip-side of that belief, of course, is that lies and illusions enslave us, or keep us mired subjection, because they clutter or obstruct our vision, and must be cleared away before we can act in accordance with the truth. That was certainly Freud’s view. But Nietzsche described truth, or more precisely, the “notion of truth” as an obstacle to freedom, rather than its vital pre-condition. Indeed, Nietzsche used his critique of science to underwrite an ethical relativism which declares, in effect, that “anything goes”. Leaving ethics aside, for the moment, the problem with this notion is that if we treat the concept of truth as an impediment to freedom, we have to abandon the concept of “untruth” as well. Why? Because the concepts of truth and untruth always presuppose one another, and the inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate between them brings swiftly us to the brink of absurdity and nihilism, where we can no longer to discriminate between error, falsehood and illusions, or make sound ethical judgments based on an assessment of “the facts.”
Of course, truth is sometimes moot, or undecidable, because it is not always possible to ascertain all of “the facts”, or to determine what actually is the case with absolute certainty. For example, many of us would like to know whether Trump’s claim that “the media” lied about the number of people attending his inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington is itself a bold-faced lie, or whether he actually believes his own “spin.” Similarly, one wonders whether his apparent eagerness to credit alt-right blogger Gregg Phillips’ ridiculous claims about voter fraud – namely, that three million people voted illegally for Hillary – are rooted in grandiosity and a (quasi-delusional) fear of persecution and animosity toward all his critics, i.e. whether he really believes Phillips’ preposterous claim, or whether he merely pretends to believe it because is politically expedient to do so.
Of course, it is simplest to assume that Trump is merely lying, and some would say that, from a pragmatic standpoint, it makes no appreciable difference whether he is deluding himself or merely trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I beg to differ. Hitler and Stalin furnish two terrifying examples of national leaders who lied without inhibition or remorse, but who also believed their own spin very often as well. And that, I maintain, made them more dangerous. Consider Hitler’s sincere belief in an international Jewish conspiracy against the Aryan race, and his consequent unwillingness to surrender and save millions of German lives when the War was already lost. Consider Stalin’s galloping paranoia, the show trials, and the millions of people who were murdered as a result, or who died of starvation, exposure and disease in the Gulags. When it comes to foreign or domestic policy, internal policing or defense against external threats, a leader who lies freely, but is not taken in by his own deceptions, may be less prone to making catastrophic decisions that result in mass slaughter than one who believes his own fictions. In other words, odd as it sounds, we may be slightly better off if Trump is merely a clever, manipulative and cynical liar than if he really believes his own fictions, whether from vanity, fear, or some combination of these. Why? Because when confronted reality-constraints that inhibit his freedom of action, or threaten to inflict grave harm on the United States, he may be more realistic in his decisions, and less prone to escape to some fantasy-saturated bubble of his own making. What are we dealing with here? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, regardless of their source or motivation, we all have a responsibility to reject the new administration’s untruths in a principled and consistent way, and to defend all those who expose them – even (or especially) when they do so at great cost.
Copyright 2017 Daniel Burston
Daniel Burston is the author of a number of books including The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing published by Harvard University Press.