There comes a point when sane people should stop repeating the same mistakes again and again in the hope that this time it’ll be different. I’m watching a lot of people fall into the following trap:
X utters verifiable lie
Y shouts “That’s a lie, how could you be so dum to think we’d believe you!?”
X Ignores Y and utters verifiable lie.
Y shouts “That’s another lie. My, you’re dumb. How could you believe that? Why would you believe we’d do it. Here’s a reference that proves I’m right.”
X ignores Y and utters a verifiable lie.
If the above seems familiar to you it could be because you’re watching political and media discourse here in Europe or in the US right now.
If, like me, you’re tempted to be Y in the above dialogue, I have some advice. X is not interested in what you have to say because what you’re saying isn’t challenging them.
Lying like this in individuals is considered by most to be a symptom of mental ill health. We don’t consider people suffering from these symptoms to generally be appropriate figures for taking on responsibility (hey, the EU and the UK have entire sets of legislation designed to stop obviously dishonest people taking up roles in finance now).
They do this because there’s no other way to deal with them. You cannot reason or debate with the person whose trade is lies. You cannot shout them down and you can’t turn your back on them. It may seem that this leaves you with little that can be done.
In the ordinary scheme of things you can remove them from their position for not being fit. You can, where the law allows it and someone appropriately qualified signs off, impose a medical solution.
But you can’t give them the oxygen of debate or a sniff of public credibility. You can only call them out for lying – not debate the facts, not try to prove them liars, but simply call them for what they are. This may seem to stoop to their level but debate is fruitless in the public realm with this kind of counterparty because they aren’t telling lies because they’re mistaken or because they are wrong. They’re telling them because it’s in their interests for these lies to be what people believe. Facts are irrelevant in that moment.
Now, facts remain vital but not in the public debate. They remain vital in making decisions, in thinking about risks and in how to handle these liars in private, in places where influence can be brought to bear where ‘face’ won’t be lost.
But ultimately, you simply can’t allow liars to continue lying. And you don’t win that battle with debate. You win it with power.
That’s all very well but what when organisations become ‘mentall unwell?” What about when an organisation suffers from a psychosis which means its real ends are served by inveterate lying? The lying is not the point. It’s the ends towards which the lying is advancing the organisations goals. We must be careful of worrying about the lies and not the reasons for them.
If I think of the lies around Brexit, or Trump’s barefaced making up of a massacre this week, it’s not the lie that’s important. It’s the goal behind the lie.
How do you combat this? I can only offer some suggestions because the real test is in the application.
The first list is what we can ALL do.
- It’s not in protest on the streets – not yet at any rate because that should be our last resort when all other mechanisms have been denied us. As as Milan Khundera made abundantly clear – this kind of protest is, ultimately, inauthentic. It’s the equivalent of giving a beggar a few coins when really we need to challenge the entire system that brought them onto the streets in the first place.
- It’s in engaging with the liar’s support mechanisms. In this case with their supporters, personally and financially.
- It’s in encouraging those ON THE FENCE to take a stand. Because in the end when less than 70% of any electorate takes a stand then there a HUGE amount to play for.
- It’s in making sure that the companies we work for take a stand, that they understand that their employees have a morality that they expect them to take a stand on. Consider Uber CEO’s resignation this week from Trump’s board of advisors. It’s a pyrrhic victory, because he could have been persuaded to swing his authority around in Trump’s face rather than walking away (a pointed but ultimately short lived point of influence).
- It’s in convincing people to change their sources of information, in stopping them buying the news sources that tell the lies.
- It’s in convincing people to put their money where their mouths are and to stop buying or start buying – whatever.
- It’s in making sure that, every chance we get, we work to re-humanise those the lies are making into monsters. Don’t allow a single chance to go by.
- help the liars friends see that you’re prepared to pay a price to challenge them. Most liars get by on the basis that people only talk about them behind their backs and not to their faces. They rely on not getting challenged, on people preferring to hope that it won’t impact them until it’s all too late and they’re isolated and powerless. At which point? Well, good luck.
With the lies themselves?
- Call them out. Don’t let them stand. Don’t wait.
- Have facts but don’t think they’re going to help you in public, on the internet or anywhere where personal relationship won’t pull you through.
With the people?
- Be compassionate, forgiving and never step back from confrontation. It’s only with grace that we can win this sort of fight without giving up what we held as valuable in the first place. If it’s a shouting match or we fight like them (like some idiot said this week about fighting fire with fire…to which I suspect a few firefighters shook their heads) then we’ve lost already because part of their game is to make us like them because that will justify their own narrative better than any lie they could tell.
- Do Not close down your social circles to include ONLY those people you already agree with. They might exclude you but you shouldn’t exclude them. The world’s already divided enough and if you really consider freedom of conscience important then having people you disagree with in your life (and who aren’t family) is important. Without these links across otherwise unconnected networks things can get really bad.
- Don’t attack PEOPLE. Demolish arguments, call out lying for what it is the moment it starts but don’t make ad hominem attacks because then you’ve lost.
- Understand that people aren’t going to like you. That the point of the argument isn’t to be liked because you’re right, progressive, full of hope or just plain nice. It’s to make sure that the things you value continue to have a say in the decisions we make as a society.
- Finally, and this is the most important point, understand that the root of what has a lot of people shifting one way rather than another is because they have legitimate concerns. These concerns are rarely articulated for what they are. Instead of ‘how am I going to pay for cancer treatment, or help my kids, or feed myself or grow old without being in poverty,’. Rather they’re articulated as ‘why are they going to get cancer treatment? How did they help their kids when I couldn’t help mine? Why have these people prospered when I haven’t?’ The answers aren’t easy, but the questions are real, valid and call into question a lot of the easy assumptions we make about progressive, liberal capitalism. Be careful of the speck of dust in their eye when we have planks in our own.
That’s not to say we should worry about why ‘we’ lost the election rather than how to deal with an upsurge in racism. That would be to entirely miss the point. Rather I’d advocate thinking about how we can actually have a debate.
Ultimately, liars without power find it hard to step back from the brink. It may well mean power has to be applied more directly but I pray for all I’m worth it doesn’t come to that.