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How to Combat Lying in Politics

How can we as a society combat the lies that have engulfed our political system?

Chris Kiyaseh
Aug 30 · 9 min read
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Image courtesy of the Atlantic

Lying, such a common thing that surrounds our political theatre, and frankly, our everyday lives. People have experienced it so much, that we as a society cannot differentiate truth from lies. Even when the “truth” is right in front of us, begging to be accepted and agreed upon. Even with the plethora of factual evidence to support each detail, people refuse to even look. Why? Is it because the truth is too painful to accept? Or is it that we are doomed to Plato’s allegoric cave? Sitting chained to our seats and watching the shadows dance on the walls, accepting that as true life. However, when our fellow man can see through this ruse and slowly crawl out of the cave through education, self-enlightenment, and questioning things. They see the light outside of the cave, and the environment that flourishes with life and unimaginable things.

When our friend is elated with happiness and goes back into the cave to tell his fellow chained comrades of the wonders he’s witnessed outside, they stare. They stare confusedly and shaking their heads in disagreement. Going as so far to call their friend crazy and kill him for his ludicrous statements. Is this the point we have reached in our divided society? How can we navigate politics and life without being caught up in the atrocities? Or perhaps worse, how can we avoid a victim mentality? For this, we will be exploring the politics of active thinking.

Our ability to actively think and resist authority is the best way to navigate politics today. I will argue this by using Arendt’s concept of the Vita Activa, specifically our ability to make choices. Secondly, I will point to the categorical distinction of truth specifically factual truths.

In order to understand Hannah Arendt’s perspective on truth, facts, and opinions, one must understand how Arendt explains politics. To Arendt, we all have fundamentally misunderstood politics. Politics Arendt claims is action, the ability to begin something new. That definition arises from two concepts of Arendt. The first concept is the Vita Activa or the “active life.” The Vita Activa is the ability to make choices actively, approaching politics as a work of art rather than solving politics like problems.

Art has a relationship between means and ends, in order to find the perfect end, there must be an active selection of the right tools. For example, Michelangelo would not sculpt David with a paintbrush or a knife. Rather he would have an array of chisels, each tool able to fulfill a specific job to reach the desired end. As Michelangelo chips away at his marble stone, he would actively switch tools and techniques to establish finer details or sand out the rough edges.

The second aspect of Arendt’s definition is Natality, which is the ability to start something new. There is a distinction to be made in Natality, between the “who” and the “what.” The “what” can be explained through social or physical characteristics. For, example, I am a Syrian American Male. That’s on the outer shell and quite superficial. However, to Arendt, what we really should be concerned about is the “who.” The “who” can only be disclosed when we actively act out in the world, thus allowing people to interpret who we are. That to Arendt is freedom, the ability to disclose the “who” is the highest aim of politics.

From the interpretations of other people of who we are and our actions in the world, we create worldliness. This worldliness occurs in a space, one that is delimited and has a particular structure that persists over time. An example of such a space can be found in the Plaza of the Americas at the University of Florida. The Plaza is an area where people can actively engage with others and act in the world. In other times, it was the Greek Agora or to the Romans, it was the Roman Forum. When people acted in those spaces, they were able to create and sustain to disclose who they are. The ability to write our own story is how we get to the “who”. Acting out and writing our own stories in these public spaces also allows the space to persist over time. Without public spaces, people are not able to collect and exchange ideas. Thus, meaning that there is no action for people to interpret and our “who” and thus there is no politics.

If the definition of politics is action and the ability to start something new, begins in the active life. Then that moment of Natality, Arendt argues begins with lying.

Lying for Arendt is central to Natality. The problem with lying occurs when the lies tear the factuality of the world. For Arendt, facts are essential in that they are able to help us reveal things that could have been otherwise and therefore revealing the contingency of the world. Out of the variety of things that could have happened, that is all set aside into one fact. It translates the multiplicity of the world into a singularity. For example, think of having a chicken in a closed box and you are unable to see inside. The chicken could be dead or alive, but we cannot know for certain. Only by opening the box, we can establish that fact. The act of opening the box consecrates the reality and then is a fact. The singularity tells us that the world could have been otherwise. Yet facts provide something greater, they provide the coordinates to how we look at things, in this case, politics. They help us figure out where we are in relation to the world.

Without the existence of facts, there would be no coordinates, and we would be disoriented. Lies that erode these facts destroy perspective. Perspective helps us to reduce plurality and narrow down the distinction between fact and lie.

It is important to note that lying is not antithetical to politics, rather it is a part of it. However, the destruction of truth would be injurious even as lying is necessary for beginning it. [1] For example, the American founders were obsessed with proving that the American Revolution was just that, a revolution. It was not a rebellion or a smart coup against His Majesty, yet a revolution for freedom and rights along those lines.

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Traitors or the Fathers of freedom?

This brings us into the categorical distinctions of truth (Truths). There are rational truths, which regardless of one’s perspective there is the same conclusion reached. For example, the equation for measuring a triangle is always equal to 180 degrees. Whether it is X+T+O= 180 or R+G+B= 180 the conclusion is the same regardless.

The second aspect of truth is factual truth. This is a truth that is very malleable and often gets lost in translation. For example, the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco during the Iraq War. The American Government convinced everyone that yes, Saddam Hussein had WMDs. This perspective relied on the human testament of what the situation was on the ground. You had to be there yourself to confirm that there was indeed WMD’s present in Iraq. This is where we as individuals are at the mercy of narratives. Similarly, in Hannah Arendt’s essay Lying in Politics, she reflects on the lies revealed in the Pentagon Papers. There was a very striking passage that really helped illustrate what is wrong with politics. She refers to what is called the “problem-solvers.[2]

These problem-solvers are the individuals who to the public are held high as professionals, ones who are intelligent and hail from the best universities in the nation. Yet, these same individuals are the most dangerous, the most damaging, not only to ourselves but politics as a whole. By being trained to think in-game theories and analytical systems. They pride themselves in their knowledge. So much that they cannot even fathom that they made an error and if they did, they are unable to have the will to make an active choice and accept responsibility for it. These “problem-solvers” are combined with men even worse, the military elites. The men who are always accustomed to holding power and winning everything.[3]

These classes of men committed the greatest crimes and atrocities and covered them in lies, twisting the factual truth. They put their own personal interests and used that to gauge politics (slavishness).[4] By lying to themselves and the American people during the Vietnam War, they gave up their capacity to think. Telling the American public that things were just fine and that we were actually winning eliminated perspective. By doing so, they tore the factuality of the world and eroded the ability to sustain and disclose who they are. They corroded and destroyed the very public space that is meant to create worldliness. This made themselves and the American public unfree because there was no space or ability to disclose the “who”. The erased opinion and plurality which made our world less rich, removing the space for thinking and judgment. After all, judgment is a way of dealing with factuality, it tries to create a sense of space. One in which we are able to have a plurality, as is the nature of the world, to manage opinions and differences.[5]

The stories of the technocrats and military elite lying in the Pentagon Papers was exactly on par with the story of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a bureaucrat in the Nazi party responsible for ensuring that the trains were full and that they ran on schedule. He had not actually killed anyone according to him, he was just another person following orders. Eichmann like the technocrats and military commanders gave up their capacity to think and act. This lens offers a new perspective to help hold lower-ranking officials and subordinates accountable for their crimes.

In the same manner, you can apply Arendt’s concept to several instances like the Syrian Civil War or American civil unrest. Specifically, to bureaucrats of the Assad regime, American Congressmen, or officers who have committed crimes against humanity. When asked why they had acted that way? The common answer is “I was following orders.”

Whether it was cutting electricity in Syrian hospitals or making sure that vehicles of aid were supplying the armed forces it is all and the same. Some say it was out of fear. Others say routine, regardless of why they were following orders blindly, there were no active choices. There was no Vita Activa. These individuals had conceded; therefore, their inaction became evidence of their crimes, it proved their guilt. If Eichmann had acted as if the memory of his defiance would live on and inspire others to fight, then his story would’ve been radically different. Eichmann chose to do nothing, to accept the status quo, and to give up his freedom. He helped perpetuate the ideologies of the Nazi party through his inaction. Just as the Syrian Regimes bureaucrats and American politicians and officers do today.

In the same light, the reason that truth is difficult to effectively implement in politics is that factual truth is easily twisted, and the inaction of man supports it. The power of political opinion to change factual truth is unprecedented as it lies on an unstable foundation of opinion. There is a consensus on that opinion which factual truths require to exist. Rational Truths, on the other hand, do not require such a consensus.

The active choices we make and our ability to think, defend us from the distortion of the truth. When we act out in the world and understand who we are through others’ interpretations of our who in the public space. Through this we are able to start something anew, our Natality guides us. Through this, we can write our own story instead of surrendering to factual truths. The factual truths are not absolutes and can be easily corrupted or distorted. Thus, we must be able to have a multiplicity, a plurality in which we are able to distinguish the differences of opinion.

Arendt has encouraged us to think about politics in a different way, stepping back to see things from her perspective and compare it to our own thoughts. Moreover, using her theory to apply to future justice processes is rather interesting. Especially when it comes to holding lower-ranking collaborators accountable. They cannot simply erase their crimes and claim innocence, they had the ability to think and didn’t do so. One thing remains true, it is important to always question authority, be it our presidents, generals, or even our professors. We all have the ability to think, it must not be wasted.


Works Cited

[1] Arendt, 1967 pg. 243 Truth and Politics

[2] Arendt, 1972 pg. 8–9 Lying in Politics

[3] Arendt,1972 pg.8 Lying in Politics

[4] Arendt, 1972 pg.10 Lying in Politics

[5] Arendt, 1967 pg.240–241 Truth and Politics

Arendt, H. (1972). Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Arendt, H. (1966). Truth and politics. Place of publication not identified: American Political Science Association.

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Chris Kiyaseh

Written by

Political Science student and writer for the page Reformer. Florida, United States of America

Reformer

Reformer

An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

Chris Kiyaseh

Written by

Political Science student and writer for the page Reformer. Florida, United States of America

Reformer

Reformer

An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

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