Lies – A Conclusion

People will believe lies. People will go so far as to destroy their own lives and the lives of others for a lie.

People are more likely to believe a lie from someone they view (rightly or wrongly) as having authority.

Conversely, people are less likely to listen to and believe someone who may be telling the truth but who does not in their eyes have authority.

Generally, people have a moral and ethical obligation to promote truth basically because there are real-world consequences for not doing so. By truth, I mean objective, verifiable fact, and not some clerical or political interpretation.

The First Amendment of the Constitution has been interpreted to mean that the government cannot prohibit a particular point of view. It does not matter if the point of view the government is prohibiting is true or not; it is barred from infringing on speech.

The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view.

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, and feel more “right” than the actual, albeit inconvenient, truth. And people believe them for a lot of very real reasons.

To be clear: an unintentional untruth is a mistake; an intentional untruth is a lie.

Lies do not qualify as “legitimate differences of opinion” or “political dialog”; they are scams, intended to mislead. Falsehood with just the right amount of truth to make them believable.

And the lies spread because people want to believe. They need to believe because often it goes to their very identity. Without those lies, they would lose their sense of self. Simply being given more information, or better information, will not overcome the deeply held need identify as a particular kind of person.

So, what is our moral and ethical obligation at this point, as a society? How to we approach situations where lies are being marketed as truth? How much do we owe to ourselves and to our family, friends, and neighbors to stand up to the lies, to call them out for what they are? How do we keep functioning and avoid descending into violence and chaos?

Freedom and liberty are good things, but an overabundance of individual freedom is essentially anarchy. I for one am not in favor of anarchy.

But that’s not really what’s going on, is it? What is going on is people with an agenda and a platform and a megaphone are feeding people untruths they identify with, the desired end result being more and more power to fewer and fewer people.

I am not in favor of fascism either.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 3

There has been a lot of talk in recent years in the United States about “free speech,” much of it misinformed.

It has gotten so bad that elected officials, and not just the fringe ones, and lawyers–people who ought to understand the law–are promoting a theory of protected speech that is unsubstantiated by the legal framework of this country.

Protest march in Washington, D.C. in 2017 past the text of the First Amendment

The term “free speech” or “freedom of speech” derives, as best I can figure, from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….”

What that means specifically has been interpreted by over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions. The key bottom line for me is two things:

  • Citizens and noncitizens are not free to say literally anything in the US. The government can put restrictions on speech that would lead or does lead to violence, cause mass panic, or is used to intimidate or threaten others.
  • The “abridging the freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment applies only to the government. Not private employers. Not your neighbor. Not media outlets that are not controlled by the government. Again, only the government.

In other words, when some idiot is yakking about how suspending someone from Twitter is taking away their right to free speech, that is outright bullshit. Twitter is a private company, not the government.

No one has a Constitutional right to use Twitter. Or to comment on web pages owned by private companies. Or to say anything they want to at work, when the employer is a private enterprise.

What about bald-faced lies? Yes, in the US you have the freedom to say, and believe, lies. The government is not allowed to stop that (unless it involves some of the above mentioned circumstances). But anyone who is not the government can have policies and procedures in place to put a stop to deliberate falsehoods, hate speech, and advocating violence, if applied with equality and with consideration to protected classes of people.

***

There is another long-standing legal concept of the “reasonable person standard.” This is where judges and juries consider what would be acceptable or unacceptable to a hypothetical reasonable person, when deciding whether to rule for or against someone in court.

This assumes there is agreement and understanding held in common and widely shared of what “reasonable” means. The events of recent years, when people form their opinions based on the intentional falsehoods of celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Tucker Carlson, makes me wonder if that will continue to be the case.

***

The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view. The gist is that the more ideas that are circulating, and the more varied those ideas are, truth and a shared concept of reality will ultimately win. (See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York (1980), United States v. Alvarez (2012).)

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, spoken more loudly and with more fervor, than the actual truth. I worry that facts cannot keep up with the constant output of lies.

This to me raises the issue of how long our modern civil society can tolerate this festering subculture of lies. Just being passive is, increasingly, not an option, in my opinion. Rather, those who are still able to identify the truth need to speak, speak loudly, and not assume that one can appeal to people’s reason, compassion, or sense of community.

The risks are real.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 2

In August 2019, my family visited Auckland, New Zealand. We took a direct flight from Chicago to Auckland. It was a long flight, a distance of about 7,123 nautical miles, but modern aircraft are amazingly comfortable.

Auckland

One thing about long distance flights is that, in order to navigate and reach your destination safely, the pilots and navigators of the aircraft must take into account the curvature of the Earth.

Just rolling out a flat-Earth map and charting a course won’t do. What looks like the shortest distance between two points is, in reality, not. To illustrate, using navigation that treats the Earth as a sphere (known as Great Circle Routes), the distance from Buenos Aires to Beijing is 10,433 nautical miles. If one were to take the route that appears as a straight line on a flat map, the distance is 10,730 nautical miles, or almost 300 nautical miles longer. [These data taken from here.]

There are serious consequences to being off by 300 nautical miles. Fuel could run out, the plane could crash into mountains or the ocean.

In other words, if the pilot of our aircraft to Auckland believed and planned the route as if the Earth was flat, we likely would have crashed into the Pacific Ocean instead of arriving safely.

This is just one example of the real-world consequences, to yourself and others, of understanding what is true and verifiable fact. Sure, if you are someone spouting nonsense on the street corner about the Earth being flat, then there’s no real harm in that. If you pilot an international airliner, that’s another matter.

But for various reasons, lies have become accepted as modern currency, permeating politics and religion–where we expect to have a certain amount of everyday lying going on–but also spreading to the press, business, and health care.

And the weird thing is that many people are okay with this. They like the lies, perhaps because they are more attractive, more comforting, and feel more “right” than the actual, albeit inconvenient, truth.

And again, that’s fine when one is only putting oneself at risk. But to put others–dozens of others, scores of others–at risk is unethical and, I would argue, immoral.

Especially if the one producing the lies is doing it for their own personal financial or political gain or egotistical self-interest. Then the lies become fraud. No one likes a fraudster.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 1

In 1978, I remember seeing an issue of Time magazine in my dad’s study. On the cover was the lead story for the week: over 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, killed themselves by drinking poison at the command of their organization’s leader, Rev. Jim Jones.

They killed themselves because of a lie, or more accurately, a culture of lies. The lies involved allegations that people were out to get them and “capitalist pigs” were going to destroy what they had built. That anyone outside the Peoples Temple community could not be trusted.

Photo courtesy of The Jonestown Institute, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu.

None of this was true. What was true was that the conditions at Jonestown were deteriorating and concerns were being raised about human rights violations, gaining the attention of politicians and the press.

It has been reported that Jones was going off the rails, engaging in drug use and increasingly extreme forms of control over the members of the Peoples Temple. By 1978 he had such a firm grasp on his followers that they were willing to commit murder for him and lay down their lives in response to his lies.

***

In 1954 the leader of a fringe sect in Illinois announced that the world would end on December 21. Word had been received by Dorothy Martin (a.k.a. Marian Keech; later known as Sister Thedra) that was allegedly from Jesus who was now living on an undiscovered planet called Clarion. The message was that a flood would inundate significant portions of the Earth beginning December 21, covering most of the United States, Russia, and other nations. Spacemen from the planet Clarion would arrive just before the flood to rescue the faithful, take them into flying saucers, and bring the safety on Clarion.

People found this believable, and the faithful prepared for the end of the world, many giving away all they had since they would no longer need it. They gathered to greet their rescuers on December 21. The day came, the day went, and needless to say, the spacemen did not appear, nor did the flood happen.

Confusion reigned. The prophesy was reconfigured. Followers gathered to sing Christmas carols in order to renew their resolve. Within days, Martin was threatened with criminal charges.

Martin never admitted fraud, repented, or otherwise took responsibility for the damage she did in the lives of her followers. She moved around a lot after the spacemen from Clarion failed to appear, changed her name, and eventually passed away in Sedona, Ariz.

***

Adolph Hitler–a man who needs no introduction–almost single-handedly managed to convince a nation that they were destined for greatness, if only they could eliminate the Jews and anyone else who stood in their way.

The origins of Nazi Germany have been studied extensively. I will just say that the one of the key elements of its success from 1933 to 1945 (and the groundwork that was laid in the preceding decade) was feeding people a lie, or set of lies, so attractive that they informed on their neighbors, committed genocide, and did nothing to stand up to fascism and domestic terrorists out of fear for their own lives and livelihoods.

***

People will believe lies. People will go so far as to destroy their own lives and the lives of others for a lie.

This unfortunately is a sad fact of human nature. Often our need to belong to something–a religion, a movement, a political organization–is so compelling that it short circuits the other things we ought to be doing in our lives. Things demanded of us by religion and civil society, such as showing compassion, thinking for ourselves, working together, rising above our differences, being kind.

Fat is the Head that Wears the Crown

I was noodling around on Wikipedia recently and began reading a page about the difference between a “head of state” and a “head of government,” and I had a moment of insight.

According to this Wikipedia entry, a head of state (or chief of state) is the public persona who officially embodies a state. This is not to be confused with the head of government.

It occurred to me that Donald Trump, in running for president of the United States, wanted to be the head of state. He wanted all of the adulation and ornamentation that accrues to heads of state–monarchs, essentially. He wanted to be the persona of America (or his version of America) and emulate strongmen “leaders” and arbitrary sovereigns. He wanted the thrill of the large crowds cheering for him.

But he definitely did not want to be bothered with mundane things such as laws and regulations.

Trump’s insistence on on posing with a Bible in front of church for photographers on June 1, 2020–and forcibly removing racial justice protestors in the process–is a prime example of what a head of state would do, but likely not a head of government.

Just as importantly, his MAGA-hatted, Trump-flag-waving followers wanted a head of state too. This was demonstrated by the fervent devotion exhibited at all of his campaign rallies and most notably by the mob of rioters on January 6 who, in the name of keeping him as the “leader” of the United States, attacked and vandalized out of zealous loyalty to one man the very seat of our democratic republic.

I recognize that prior to America’s experiment in democracy, the identity of a nation was tied to “king and country.” This is what motivated people–Europeans mostly–to create colonies and subjugate other people.

But the creation of the United States and our written constitution was intended to do away with that, or at least the worst parts of it.

Interestingly, while in America we have a head of state who also is the head of government, there are several different ways of handling this, according to Wikipedia. These range form some power shearing to cases where the head of state has almost nothing to do with running the apparatus that implements the laws under which citizens live their lives.

Trump’s presidency–and the forces that put him into office–emphasize that our system perhaps is due for a makeover. The American setup is not the only way to do this, and it is a useful exercise to consider how we could modify our Constitution to make things a bit more reflective of the modern realities of our multicultural nation. To be blunt, if people want to elect a head of state, and that head of state has no interest in governing, then there’s a way to do that which is safe and quite possibly effective.

But we’d have to amend the Constitution and the odds of that aren’t great as long as we live under this pervasive political opinion that “They” are trying to get “Us” and that we are unable to function as a “We” as in “We the People.”

I for one would welcome some changes to how our country is run. All I have to do is pause and reflect on the fact that nearly 250 years ago, we fought a war and people gave their lives precisely so that we would NOT have a king in America. I think that was a noble cause, and these current generations would do well to uphold it.

Founding father and original patriot John Adams once said:

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.