Today I’ve launched a new e-book, Beautiful Lies – messages from a changing world . It’s a book of my best articles and newsletters from the past two years. So this week I’m publishing three of the best ones. The first – which gives its title to the book – explores everyday examples of ‘truthiness’ and bald-faced lies. [Note: I’ve made minor edits and pared down where necessary]
5 November 2017
I want to write about Yuval Noah Harari again, and his core concept from Sapiens that human beings rose from insignificant hominid to potential planet-breaker through our ability to create and communicate stories. Beautiful lies – fictions that make you feel good [or at least, better]; ideas that give you something to believe in, or offer a solution to a nagging problem. Advertising, political rhetoric, best selling books, religions.
At university in the seventies, I recall encountering the view that religions must be true because they were so widespread. Then I came across Jean-Paul Sartre, who explained everything was meaningless. What to believe in? Maybe that people are programmed to absorb and share stories that explain the things they experience but can’t understand. I’ve always liked the saying “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”
Beautiful lies. We are all somewhere on the lying spectrum, which has at one extreme – sympathetic lies – No, your butt does not look big in that – and, at the other, bald-faced lies and malevolent deception.
It’s a funny phrase – bald-faced lie – not beautiful at all. I hate the rampant bald-faced lying in women’s magazines and pop culture websites. I don’t remember if they always lied or if it only recently started with Brangelina and the Kardashians. But it seemed shocking to me that magazines that in my childhood had been all about cute things children said and what frocks famous women wore, now depended on lies about hook-ups, divorces, and affairs to sell their wares. Especially when there were so many real scandals of power and influence taking place in women’s lives.
I was listening to a political podcast the other day – Pod Save America – or as I like to think of it, sweet, funny liberal men talking about the state of the world and swearing a lot. Anyway, they were talking about the bald faced lies of White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. He had lied first, about a black congresswoman and a speech she had given, for which footage actually existed that disproved his assertion. Most recently he’d stated categorically that the cause of the American Civil War was lack of compromise?? And the Pod Save America men agreed that WE – in their case, Democrats – couldn’t do that – just couldn’t go out there and lie our heads off. We hold the candle for truth – or at least, the quest to find it.
Truthiness and The Decline of the Expert
But can we? In the age of truthiness any story is believable and any expert is suspect. You can say that 98% of scientists in a field agree that something is true and yet find the 2% receiving equal credence. Recently I worked with an interviewer who kept interpreting my questions on the effects of climate change as a test of whether people ‘believed’ in climate change or not. But to me, unless they’re actual climate scientists, I don’t care what they believe in.
More and more people are raising the frightening possibility that anything can be faked. We can be made to believe in anything. Any religion may develop; any political end may be served. Bogus claims can be supported with totally real-looking but utterly faked video ‘evidence’.
A Crisis of Truth?
Just as we thought we were reaching a point of universal, shared, clarity, a crisis of truth has developed. Even as Google was enlightening dinner time conversations and ending arguments, people who wanted to amplify lies were manipulating their algorithm. More and more people get their news from Facebook or Twitter But these companies [we now realise], profit from the spread of misinformation, disinformation and confusion.
So what truth are we defending? There really was no golden age of truth. The winners write history. Every successful leader manages the mood of a group or population. Where necessary they manufacture trust or hope, or fear to keep staff, followers or citizens on task, “Everything is OK” is as big a lie as “everything is broken”.
Truth is Fiction Too
The meta conclusion I have to draw from Harari’s work is that truth is a fiction. It’s a story we tell ourselves to bolster our sense of trust in a person, a situation, a group or an institution. There never was a golden age of truth and there never will be.
We have got this far in our evolution without absolute truth and we will continue to exist without it. So if a country like Russia wants to fully weaponise propaganda and confusion, perhaps we need to fight back with better stories and even more beautiful lies. Or can unvarnished truths save the day?