Rise Of The Preposterous: The Truth About Lies

A lie is no more potent than the truth without an audience.

What are lies? Who do they serve? How do they work? With Trump and Brexit firmly in our consciousness, these are the questions of our time.

Context of the preposterous

Recent events have prompted me to reflect about the slippery subject of lying. When somebody lies about me, my initial reaction is to say “No, that’s wrong”, or something to that effect. It turns out, however, that this is an extremely ineffective response, since all I’ve done is accuse my accuser of the same thing. And they said it first…

Much has been said lately about the alternative facts used to such devastating effect by the Trump administration to justify its actions, its worldview and even its own popularity, leading to the impression that it doesn’t know its arse from its elbow, and even if it does, that there is some absurd merit in being proponents of the preposterous.

Before this, there came the calamitous nonsense propelling the British ignorati on a wave of blind nationalistic fervour towards Brexit, in a stroke undoing decades of compelling and important integration with our European neighbours. The EU project is clearly flawed, but it is difficult to argue that it is in any way progressive or positive to extricate ourselves from it.

Yet somehow Farage, Johnson and Gove achieved the unthinkable with tactics relying heavily on misdirection and propaganda. Trump’s triumph was built on the sandy foundations of these tactics.

This is all extraordinarily worrying, possibly the most pressing existential threat we face. It seems clear there has been a rather Orwellian shift in the political sphere. But it takes two to tango. A lie is no more potent than the truth without an audience. Propaganda feeds an appetite.

So why do we lie? And why do we accept being lied to? Let’s delve into the anatomy of the lie in an attempt to shed some light on the preposterous.

Types of lie

An intentional lie is obviously an attempt to misdirect. It is also a self-defence mechanism, since misdirection is driven by purpose. And at the heart of such a purpose is a selfish motivation, falling into one or several of these categories:

1. Deflective

A means of deflecting someone away from the possibility that you did or didn’t do or say something.

2. Social

A means of ingratiating yourself with someone by fabricating information that might cause them to think more highly of you, or less of an opponent.

3. Bureaucratic

An understanding that the acquisition of proof is so complex or unwieldy that ‘truth’ can simply be invented. Think alternative facts.

4. Cultural

Established wisdom is incredibly hard to undermine. An hereditary or cultural lie is one that relies on such ‘wisdom’. Think religion. Think superstition. Think myth.

5. Ignorant

Occasionally, we lie unintentionally. So whilst this is not necessarily selfish, it is a mistake commonly made by those promoting a view or ‘fact’ that fits conveniently with their beliefs. So it can be an extension of the cultural lie, which certainly is selfish. It usually reflects a lack of research or understanding. Think Brexit.

Dastardly dynamics

In the above categories, the dynamics are actually similar. Assuming you are the liar, success (by which I mean you didn’t get caught) depends on:

  • how convincing you are (choice of language, body language, sincerity, persuasiveness, perception of your expertise and so on)
  • how gullible the recipients of the lie are
  • how much information they already had about the subject of the lie (try lying to an expert about their field of expertise, or to a mother about their child)
  • how trusting they are of you (knowing you will help here unless you have a history of telling porky pies)
  • how open they are to ideas conflicting with their own (this is a skill few possess)
  • how analytical and logical they are (some people have a naturally low tolerance for bullshit or a healthy grasp of probability, allowing them to discern likely truths even in virgin fields of expertise)

A successful lie involves careful and skilful judgement during its construction regarding the perceived benefits when weighed against the potential pitfalls. For example, self-aggrandising or big-upmanship when recognised as such places you firmly in a negative light. Claims you made about yourself that later turn out to be false have (until recently, it seems) a habit of making you terminally embarrassed and occasionally unemployed.

What politicians seem to have achieved over the last year is skin so thick that embarrassment is fleeting or non-existent. Statements that would have previously triggered incontestable demands for resignation now take on an air of impervious meritocracy, denuded of bite by oily claims and counter-claims.

The media, particularly in the States, is suddenly spooked by its own impotence. Trust in expertise or integrity is diluted to the point of faith. And with faith comes a retrogressive step into the darkness of ignorance that may take generations to recover from. This disconnect between action and consequence is the foundation of chaos. When the preposterous prosper, the conveyor belt of progress is switched to reverse.

The Evil Lie

On a personal level, I have recently identified a type of lie that I find difficult to categorise, which trumps [pun intended] all others in iniquity. It is a callous indictment of human ingenuity. Without going into too much detail, I can say that the Evil Lie is one which someone makes up about you without any benefit to themselves whatsoever.

Part of its wickedness is its unquestionable motive — if your antagonist has nothing to gain from it, why would anyone disbelieve it? The victim of the Evil Lie is royally buggered from the moment it falls from someone’s lips. I suppose it could be argued that it still benefits them if you, the victim, are damaged by it. But that presupposes your knowledge of their opposition to you. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss.

I can’t help feeling that the politicians are dipping their toes in this pool. Some of the unmitigated turdballs flying scattergun from the mouths of Trump, the cacophonous orange donkey, and his asshat of a Whitehouse spokesman, Sean Spicer, are risible to the point of having comedic value. Sometimes I can’t see the upside of proving their incompetence in such a public way. Who benefits from this?

The only answer I can think of is self-perpetuation. The point of it must be to drown us all in the fog of uncertainty. And that breeds a reliance on those in power, as Orwell so tellingly predicted. They’re banking on Stockholm Syndrome.

I think it takes a certain kind of person (and situation) to try out the Evil Lie. I can’t imagine ever being brave enough to use this nefarious trick myself. But having fallen prey to it, I do have a rather peculiar admiration for it. When it was laid on me, it felt like that point in chess when you realise check mate is only a few moves ahead, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to avoid it.

Survival of the shittest

So how is lying self-defence? Well, whichever of the categories your lie falls into, if it is successful, you effectively gain a competitive advantage over your rivals. You’re ultimately protecting your reprehensible lineage in the gene pool. The same applies whether the lie is about a person, a thing or an idea. Memes die or thrive in much the same way as genes.

And, seeing as everybody lies (if you claim never to lie, you’re lying), you might as well train yourself to be an excellent, unquestionably convincing, subtle, low-down-dirty-son-of-a-bitch liar. Someone needs to start a School of Lies at once… hmm, not a bad idea, except maybe it’s already happening on the grandest of stages.

The lying game

The best part about lying? It doesn’t cost a penny.

Or does it?

You see, the elephant in the lie room is the ever-increasing burden of having to remember which bits of the story were fabricated and which were real. The more times you tell a lie, and the more elaborate you make it, and the more credence you give it, the more it embeds itself in your brain. The synapses you created to house this deception eventually mature and stabilise, just like they would if you were using them to memorise something through repetitive revision.

So, in the end, this virtual truth can become more real to you than reality. It doesn’t take a genius to calculate the implication of that.

We’ve all met people we suspect are frequent or compulsive liars. Sociopaths. Idiots. Dreamers. Politicians. Perhaps their lies started small and, rather like gambling, they had a few ‘payouts’ — they were believed and they got away with it. This gave them the confidence to raise the stakes and the lies began to get bigger and bigger. Before long they needed to lie to cover up other lies, fragmenting their existence into ever more complex offshoots from reality.

The ‘debt’ in this lying game is nothing less than the loss of oneself, since the liar lives inside their own bullshit bubble, protected from all sense of truth and identity by the overwhelming detail and depth of their inventions. The liar should eventually disappear up his own ass.

Every silver lining has a cloud

Fortunately, as with gambling, most ‘normal’ people (let’s say those who haven’t just arrived in public office on the back of a surprisingly successful torrent of absurdity) are self-moderators and would never allow things to get quite this bad.

Confronting a liar in your own sphere of influence is instinctively the moral choice, but since the response to a question like “Why are you lying?” would invariably be “I’m not”, it is a fairly pointless exercise. We must comfort ourselves with the knowledge that frequent liars rarely get away with it. At least you know where you stand with someone who is almost certainly lying to you.

Infrequent liars are much more likely to get away with it, since regular deposits in the Bank of Trust allow for the occasional large withdrawal. So when they need to get away with something absolutely outrageous, they may just pull it off.

I am in the fortunate position of being someone about whom nobody will ever demand the publishing of memoirs. If you aren’t in such a position, it would be prudent to start documenting all your lies — what you said, to whom, when and why you said it. Then at least when you’re old and your brain has fermented into a gelatinous fudgy quagmire of delusion and fractal recall, you might get some impression of what the truth actually was. This could save you a fortune in libel damages.

But for God’s sake hide your Lie Book in the deepest, darkest hole you can find, because its contents will certainly reveal more about you (and probably be far more interesting) than your memoirs ever could.

Will we ever uncover the reality about Trump’s deceit? The answer is unequivocally ‘no’. Whether or not his brain fudges, he will have ghost writers writhing all over each other to produce his definitive autobiography. And I’m certain that each one will have a slightly different version of history, some new spin on the already dizzying ball, some commercially punchy angle on the alternative facts, some new Pantone reference for his orangeness. Fractals. Splinters. Chaos. The new truth.

Originally published at ecrit.co.uk on February 28, 2017.