It depends on the lie, of course. Some lies cover up terrible crimes, cause massacres, justify endless wars — others just make us uncomfortable. At the same time, every lie attacks our sense of fairness and undermines our faith in ever being able to get to the truth of anything. A lie is almost always a motivating factor for outraged violence, like lynchings. That some lies are relatively harmless does nothing to diminish the harm that lying does.
I had a friend who used to lie — almost always about small things. His particular tic of untruthfulness never bothered me very much. It was hard to tell, much of the time, why he’d told a particular lie. I always chalked it up to the very nervous fellow’s neurosis. I knew his mother, she was the same way. Could look you in the eye, and with the greatest apparent sincerity, assure you of something that was manifestly not true. These little lies can take their toll in a relationship, certainly, but, truly, I never held it against either of them.
Then there are bigger lies, about fundamental things. These are the clearly dangerous ones. By changing the truth, and distorting what actually happened, they serve to deny the validity of your rightful reaction, block the way to solving the actual problem and allow the liar to prevail. Big Lies justify all sorts of things. With a big enough lie, you can have a mob go into a neighborhood and feel totally righteous raining holy hell down on random passersby.
Lying is often motivated by an attempt to protect oneself from shame or accountability. I know a man who has lied since I met him, about almost everything. His father told my father “don’t believe a word he says, Irv, he’s a liar.” He lost his job, took his dead father’s credit cards, maxed them out, had the bills sent to a PO box he rented. Came home every week with a fat cash advance and pretended it was his pay from work. What could go wrong? Everything was fine for months, until his wife found a large unpaid credit card bill, sent to his secret PO box, in his pants pocket while she was doing the laundry. Eventually the credit card companies came looking for their money. If you ask the guy about this, he will have a story, if he doesn’t immediately go on the attack.
What is the harm of a lie? You know the answer to that from your own life, from the times a lie really mattered. The real harm comes when the lie is indignantly insisted on, over and over. Liars have a tendency never to back down and the rest of us tend to believe most things we hear over and over, or at least to develop doubts about what actually happened, based on an insistent lie. Undeviating repetition is crucial for convincing people of the lie, undermining our certainty about truth and falsity, or at least wearing us out and making us drop the whole subject in disgust.
An obvious recent example of what many are calling The Big Lie is about the 2020 election. It is the first time in American history that a president who lost an election, an election certified as fair by election officials of both parties, refused to accept the results — even after his successor was sworn in. He lied, over and over, continues to lie every time he speaks publicly, about massive fraud his lawyers could produce no evidence of in court.
He told his followers that they had been robbed, that he had massive, incontrovertible proof of widespread fraud, that the election was stolen, that the courts are corrupt enemies of the people who were in on the Steal. He called state election officials and tried to get them to change vote tallies, he told the Georgia Secretary of State exactly how many votes against him, 11, 780, he needed thrown out. He whipped up the anger of his most violence-prone followers, so much so that they rioted and Twitter eventually stopped its weak attempts to use disclaimers to hold him accountable for lying, banning him outright from the platform he’d used to such great effect.
When his incensed followers rampaged at the Capitol, injuring more than 100 police officers, killing at least one, trampling one of their own to death, and stormed the building to stop the lawful final certification of the votes, pausing to spread feces on busts of Democrats, it… uh, nobody was threatened that day, nobody chanted for the lynching of Mike Pence, or taunted next in line Nancy Pelosi, nobody released tear gas in the building, nobody tried to crush police in doors, or beat them with their own shields. It was a totally non-threatening riot, completely peaceful, the protesters were literally hugging and kissing the police — and nobody was arrested that day, which kind of proves that nobody was threatened or harmed in any way.
None of the Republicans who were locked down during the riot felt threatened — as the few who will talk about that day continue to insist. The Democrats, according to the GOP and its backers, are trying to blow the whole thing out of proportion for political advantage — lying liars using the liberal media to spread hateful propaganda, which is what these freedom-hating communists always do.
The old maxim that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing now comes into play. Even the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach and convict the former president for provoking the insurrectionist mayhem at the Capitol are quiet about it now, taking their political fortunes into account as they maintain a discreet silence. The corporations who loudly pulled campaign funding after Trump’s riot have now quietly resumed funding these candidates. The most ferocious advocates of the Stolen Election myth are raking in huge donations behind their fierce refusal to back down.
Last week Georgia became the first of 43 states (the hell are you waiting for, former Confederacy?) to pass laws that would allow the GOP to bypass the safeguards that protected the integrity of the last election and disqualify any votes they believed to have been cast by fraud. These “suspect” ballots are, of course, the ones cast in cities, in areas where many “non-whites” stand on line for many hours to cast votes that are cast with no wait in rural and suburban, heavily GOP areas. What is the basis for this new law? Repeated false allegations of massive voter fraud, elections that need their integrity protected, because millions of Trump supporters honestly believe fucking “n-words” illegally stole the will of the real people of Georgia by 11, 780 fake votes last time. This new law will allow a gerrymandered state legislature to have the final say on whose votes count and whose get tossed as “suspicious”.
Heather Cox Richardson, historian, is often described as apolitical. She gives the facts, lays out some of the echoes of history. She often sets the details of true events against modern day claims. Sometimes, simply juxtaposing two things is a political act. Of Trump’s Big Lie about massive fraud that never happened, the lie the Heritage Foundation has cited as valid grounds for the model legislation it produced, that 43 states are considering enacting into law, Cox Richardson compares it to the lies that were at the heart of the Ku Klux Klan, the “Redeemers” and the “segregationists”. A political act, by Heather, setting a true account of treachery against a lying story to justify similar chicanery, but there is nothing inaccurate about it. You can read the whole discussion here.
Is a lie not a lie because the liar honestly believes it’s true? We’ll take a look at that sticky business down the road.
(to be continued)