language, other topics, politics

Liars’ Paradise


Somewhere (I forget where) on TV yesterday a reporter was interviewing attendees at a Donald Trump rally. You realize, he asked each of them, that Trump sometimes is untruthful?


The interviewees agreed. They did not attempt to argue the point; they accepted the reporter’s premise.


So then, he asked, why are you supporting him?



One guy waited a long several seconds to answer. Then he said, in a very soft voice, very fast, “To err is human.” He seemed perhaps embarrassed, but he spoke right into the mic and must have seen the camera rolling.


A woman said that yes, she understood that her candidate wasn’t always truthful. But she was a strong supporter because (she said), “He tells it like it is.”


Well, these are extraordinary – and extraordinarily disturbing – responses.


To the first respondent I would point out: To lie is not to err. It is true that to err is human; it is true that to lie is human. But to say that therefore to lie is to err is to commit the logical error of false syllogism.


To err is to unintentionally act incorrectly, to misstate without purpose, and certainly without the intent to harm someone else or gain an advantage. To lie, on the other hand, is to act with intention, with the purpose of gaining an advantage, often through harming someone else. So lying is directly contrary to the needs of a social animal, while erring is not.


All politicians (like other humans) lie sooner or later, but they/we usually do their/our best to hide it, and most have the grace to do so only occasionally and usually act uncomfortable when caught. The Donald is unusual in that he lies like birds sing: loudly, cheerfully, and apparently innately. This is one diagnostic of sociopathy. Is the D a sociopath? Maybe. Should even a possible sociopath be elected president? I rather think not.


The D is not only comfortable about lying, he is comfortable about lying about lying: when confronted, he blithely says he never said any such thing; when shown the article, or played the tape, he says he didn’t hear the question properly, the noise was so loud. Or he says that the obvious meaning isn’t what he meant. When you have twelve (that is, four) billion dollars, you get to decide whether what you said was what you meant.


The second answer is also peculiar. The respondent appears to be caught in a paradox: she knows he is a liar. She is an adult native speaker of English, so she must know what “liar” means: someone who does not tell it like it is. But she loves Trump because he does tell it like it is. She is apparently unfazed by the logical contradiction.


So in order to be a Trump supporter, it would appear that you must abandon all the rules of logical thought. And apparently Trump’s supporters are doing just that, and indeed, it seems that the more illogical he requires them to be, the more they love him.


If humans are, by our own definition, logical animals, Trump is driving a great many Americans into non-humanity in two ways at once: he makes his people anti-social creatures because lying is an anti-social activity (i.e., a vice) which he has turned into a virtue; he makes them illogical by forcing them to abandon the constraints of logical thought. Trumpmania is bringing into existence a race of Swiftian Yahoos. An image of Circe turning men into pigs also comes, unbidden, to mind. This is not good.


It wouldn’t be so worrisome if the tableau were not presented for our approval every night on TV. Yes, media figures are beginning to question him openly (profiles in courage!). But as a person of power, success, and charisma, so he arouses all too many viewers’ approbation. An unabashed liar is becoming America’s ideal, a positive role model. This is not good.


Okay, what’s so bad? A lie is just words, right? And words are feminine, deeds masculine, as they say in Italian. So lies are nowhere near as bad for society as, say, murder. Right?


Not so fast. Words are what we have available to us to create human society and keep it working (to the extent that it works). If there is no strong proscription on lying, and people who habitually lie can become figures of admiration, then trust in one another necessarily breaks down.


I don’t want to get all apocalyptic and stuff: the world will not come to an end even if The Donald becomes president of the United States. But his rise may well presage the start of a new, and socially unhealthy, notion of what human beings should aspire to and admire. We have to do what we can to keep that from happening.