A Case Study in Lying

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When Donald Trump tweets millions of people pay attention. And when Donald Trump lies it affects millions of people. If he stays true to his penchant for lying we will have a four-year dynamic case study in deception and lying from the President of the United States.

We need to pay attention to his lying for it can teach us a great deal about his methods of leadership and his views on democracy. We need to be alert to the various kinds of lies he and his administration will use, and the effect they will have on us as members of an experimental democracy. Most of all, we need to examine ourselves and our own tendencies to lie.

Recently, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker, in an appearance on “Meet the Press,” demurred when asked by Chuck Todd if the Journal would call out Trump when he lies. “I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective,” he said. Baker believes the Journal should report what Trump said and let the readers decide if it was a lie or not.

But this betrays the historic role of the news media in ferreting out the truth no matter what. Few of us have the time or the means to drill down through the layers of propaganda, news releases from public relations firms, and “image refurbishing” that goes on daily. To a great extent, we rely on real journalism to do that for us, the kind of investigative journalism that doesn’t just find two opinions on the same topic and hit “publish.”

Journalists need to call out the lies when Trump doubles down on a statement that has been proven false, such as his claim that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating when the towers fell on 9/11 or that he was against the Iraq War. It is crucial to our moral vision that we distinguish, regularly and clearly, between truth and falsehood. And it’s even more important, in an age that is skeptical that truth even exists, to persevere in searching for the truths that can be established.

As someone who teaches philosophy and ethics, I have a professional as well as a personal interest in understanding lying and deception. This semester, at Trinity Washington University, I will be teaching a course in Social and Political Philosophy. We will study historical sources on how societies are formed, maintained, survive and are destroyed as a result of their ideas and practices. In addition to selections from the usual suspects such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Marx, and Gandhi, we’ll be reading and commenting on current views on our political process and ethics. One of the readings for the semester will be Sissela Bok’s 1978 book entitled Lying, as relevant now as it was in the wake of the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, and Watergate.

Every administration lies, even if it’s using Plato’s “noble lie,” to hide from the people what they supposedly could not understand or to advance the public good. This is not a partisan issue. But I believe that with the Trump administration we will see lying on a scale we’ve never seen before. I think we should understand what lying is, what the many forms of lying and deception are, and ultimately, how we can be more honest with each other. I’ll be writing occasionally about these topics as a way to personally sort out what I’m thinking and learning about lying. I invite you to join me.

I’ll close with a quote from Sissela Bok that reads, “Trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.”

Being Justin Bieber

“I don’t know who I am, But you know life is for learning.” — Joni Mitchell, Woodstock


I’ve been thinking about Justin Bieber this week, about him racing his Lamborghini up a street in Miami Beach, about him telling the arresting officer that he had been drinking and smoking weed, about him cursing the cop as he was being patted down for weapons, about him smiling as he was photographed at the jail, about him making bail after eight hours in jail, and about him emerging from the police station into a forest of mics and thickets of reporters and clutches of fans. How fortunate he is, I thought, he has been blessed with a stutter-step out of his routine; he now has time to regard himself. 


The ancient Romans had a shrine to the goddess Fortuna. She was often depicted with a cornucopia spilling out with all good things, or an orb of sovereignty delicately balanced between her thumb and forefinger. Most who worshipped her also knew to fear her because she was fickle and capricious: she would shower gifts on a person and just as cruelly withdraw them to enjoy her subject’s misery.  


Cicero, Roman orator and statesman, invoked her as the symbol of the ceaseless rise and fall of people and empires, and Seneca’s play Agamemnon had a chorus which chants, “Whatever Fortune has raised on high/she lifts but to bring low.”


Seneca and Cicero might kindly advise Justin Bieber to place his trust elsewhere than in the hands of his publicity agent, his lawyers, and his handlers. 


The media, today’s equivalent of Fortuna, raised him up to glory and will now exact its price in blood. There is no pain so deep that CNN and E! cannot make a ratings killing from it. The incident will be examined in excruciating detail, legal experts will be called in, maps will be drawn and bystanders interviewed. The judge will make a statement, the arresting officer will be grilled at length with questions like, “What was going through your mind as Justin Bieber was cussing you out?” And so forth. 


It’s all entertainment, all of it, from the racing to the display of the arrest report to the coverage of Bieber’s release to his inevitable statement afterward. There’s nothing in this whole incident— or any others which may follow — that cannot be commodified, wrung dry for its glitter and grunge, or spun off into auxillary revenue. 


In 1985, Josh Meyrowitz, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, published No Sense of Place:The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. The book won an award in 1986 from the National Broadcasting Association for its insights on television’s power to influence our social roles. Meyrowitz wrote that television is the ‘secret exposing’ machine in society that gives us unprecedented views behind the scenes. What once occurred behind doors or beyond carefully guarded physical boundaries is now exposed for all to see. Meyrowitz argued that the roles we play and witness in our lives are now played out to audiences who are not physically present to us in arenas that do not exist in time and space. In other words, electronic media has made actors of all of us and we are always on stage. 


“Truly different behaviors require truly distinct situations,” he says. We react in predictable ways because we associate certain behaviors with certain physical and social situations. But our ability to accept each other in specific roles relies on our unawareness of that person in other roles. For example, a young woman might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a doctor whom she recognizes as a boy who had a crush on her in high school. “By selectively exposing ourselves to events and other people, we control the flow of our actions and emotions,” says Meyrowitz. “Compassion, empathy, and even ethics may be much more situationally bound than we often care to think.” 


The focus of his research was on television’s ability to break down the walls between actors and audiences and to influence the roles we play in our everyday lives. This was in 1985—two years after Sony introduced the first camcorder, a hand-held movie camera that could record film on inexpensive video cassettes. By 1987 JVC had produced a camcorder with broadcast-quality performance. Less than 20 years after the book was published most people carry smartphones that can shoot high-quality stills and video. More than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, 80% of it from outside the US. Governments have toppled, politicians have been ousted, marriages dissolved, and cats elevated to cultural icons—all because everything we do can be seen by millions in minutes. 


“All the world’s a stage,’ said Shakespeare, “and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts . . .” 


I can’t help thinking that Justin Bieber, like Kanye West, is a brand rather than a person; that no matter what the occasion or the incident—whether it be carefully scripted or emotionally fraught—it’s all footage for the audience, the beast that must be fed. The fact that both Bieber and West occasionally lash out at the paparazzi only increases the suspicion that they are trapped in a cage of their own making. 


Bieber may not yet be fully aware that his life is not his own, that everything he does is on camera for all the world to see and judge. He is a money-making machine, 24/7, with no time off for good behavior. At times he seems both bewildered and bored, yet he compulsively tweets his most solitary and lonely moments. 


Joshua Meyrowitz thought that what children had formerly learned at a later stage from parents, older siblings, or books, was now available for the taking from television without preparation or preamble. Television had changed our sense of place and space; all backstage behavior was now onstage. Similarly, the ever-present cameras not only give us almost immediate access to situations and their behaviors, but “They give us, instead, new events and new behaviors.”


We don’t know whether to be titillated or embarrassed by behaviors we see on YouTube and television. Through such constant surveillance we are creating situations for ourselves that we have no experience interpreting. But the more awkward the situation the greater the selling point, until we are caught in an escalating rush toward a jaw-dropper such as Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.


Life presents us with countless opportunities to learn, but if we are floating on the surface of our experiences we may not even be conscious of them as anything but a succession of moments. Only as we step back, reflect, and see ourselves can we learn from our changes. It’s a lesson Justin Bieber could learn too, but I’m not hopeful he can see it.