Lying and the social construction of ‘truth’

DOUBLETHINK means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of DOUBLETHINK he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. DOUBLETHINK lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies–all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word DOUBLETHINK it is necessary to exercise DOUBLETHINK. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of DOUBLETHINK one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. Ultimately it is by means of DOUBLETHINK that the Party has been able–and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years–to arrest the course of history.— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Victor Davis Hanson explores the rampant lying throughout the Obama administration, the media, their petted historians, “our best and brightest,” and it’s worth the read, though it can be nauseating to remember the cavalcade of deliberate falsehoods they have subjected us to. Especially when you realize that, as Hanson writes, they weighed the costs and benefits of lying and plagiarizing and successfully determined that the upside of power, fame, and riches was worth it.

In the society they have constructed, it pays to lie. Truth is for the people who lack political power and celebrity, especially when they must answer to the powerful.

Near the end of his example-replete column, Hanson addresses the foundational why, the internal “catalysts for lying.” Apart from the liars’ hubris and the lies’ success more often than not, Hanson finds the philosophical justification:

For thirty years, the acolytes of fakers like Michel Foucault have taught our elites that truth is socially constructed — a relative thing, a power narrative fabricated by those of the right race, gender, and class to perpetuate their privilege.

Right there is the heart of the problem — the carefully inculcated belief system that abstract truth does not exist, which is based ultimately on the belief that God does not exist, and that what can be called “truth” is what serves the powerful at any discrete moment in time. It preserves the moral impetus of truth while stripping it of its essence and replacing it with the politically expedient message of the moment.

“One of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, and what is concrete, in which the second dominates the first, characterizes the materialist approach to knowledge and truth.” — V.I. Lenin

It is the mentality that “Certain lies are good,” that they are “fake but accurate” if they serve the “correct” political goals.

Sixties organizer Saul Alinsky, who both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say inspired and influenced them, once said the effective political advocate “doesn’t have a fixed truth; truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist.

It is the work that Winston Smith was doing in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Recall that he worked at the Ministry of Truth (whose very name was a lie that required an active exercise of the mind to suppress), where he changed newspaper articles and other historical records according to the present-day dictates of Big Brother. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia Eurasia, the government has had to reduce increase the chocolate ration to twenty grammes per week, and Comrade Withers Ogilvy is a hero of the people.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, the reversals in truth du jour are laughable. Paul Krugman is the clown prince of doublethink. But in the real world, there is no Memory Hole, nor are American journalists forced against their will to serve the government’s interests. Nevertheless, those facts only serve to make the lies shabbier and more transparent; their power remains.

I remember Solzhenitsyn’s warning that “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good,” a role that can be filled by an immoral belief system, an ideology that supplies the

social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

5 comments

  1. To many politicians and ideologues, it doesn’t matter whether a statement is true or not. All that matters is whether it gets people to support the state. Increasingly, we live in the world of Orwell’s 1984.

    Comment by George Leef on July 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

  2. Even genetics can change according to their needs. To take two of Hanson’s examples, Elizabeth Warren was allowed to portray herself as “Native American” to suit the need to make Harvard seem more pluralistic, while George Zimmerman is portrayed as “white” to make America and the electoral swing state he was in seem more polarized.

    Comment by Jon Sanders on July 23, 2013 at 10:55 am

  3. Actually, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren traded upon her questionable ethnicity to get her Harvard job. That took place earlier in her career when she was first looking for a law school faculty job, under the handicap of having a JD from a non-prestigious school (Rutgers). Almost all new law profs have degrees from elite schools, so she conjured up her Indian ancestry to counterbalance the fact that she did not have one.

    Comment by George Leef on July 23, 2013 at 12:20 pm

  4. Good point; that would have been the origin of it. I just find it rather telling that the revelation of the lie neither harmed her career nor her election, let alone upset the elite in media, academe, and politics who supposedly prize themselves on protecting minorities from white tricksters.

    As I wrote back then, she

    posed as a racial minority in order to reap the diversity windfall at Harvard (in other words, [she] took the plot of the 1986 movie “Soul Man” and changed a few details, then actually lived it)

    Comment by Jon Sanders on July 23, 2013 at 3:35 pm

  5. Or as Mary Katharine Ham put it on Twitter,

    Where was all the concern about acknowledging white privilege when a rich, liberal white lady was pretending to be a Native American?

    Comment by Jon Sanders on July 24, 2013 at 10:02 pm

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