Most theories of language assume its main function is to make cooperation easier and richer, but that optimistic idea is challenged by lies. Lying is so easy and the benefits so notable that truth would seem to have little chance of survival. Yet a society of liars would seem to be doomed. If everybody lied, nobody would listen. How could language have become universal amongst humans if it is so easily used to disadvantage others?
The standard answer to this puzzle looks outside language. A popular theory holds that people who develop reputations as liars are shunned. But is that true?
An excellent paper on this subject appears in the latest issue of Language Sciences. “The role of the lie in the evolution of human language,” (abstract here) by Daniel Dor is certainly the richest and fullest look I have found on the subject. In my next post I plan to discuss the lie and language origins, but in this post I want to look at another feature of Dor’s paper, the sociology of lying.
Just at this moment American newspapers are full of agonized treatises on the problem of having a president who is a chronic, unabashed liar. These essayists fret about whether a society can survive if people are willing to say and believe anything at all. America today has a chief of propaganda who is willing to go before a group of reporters and insist that in two, side-by-side, aerial photographs of crowds, the one showing the smaller crowd actually contains more people. How can society survive such contempt for the most obvious truth?
The problem raised by these commentators is similar to the one raised in talking about language origins. How can language persist in the face of lying?
Dor points out that most of our formal attention to lying concerns the anti-social or exploitative lie. This is the lie of the con-man who wants the listener to do something (vote, surrender money, provide sex, etc.) that will only benefit the speaker. It is the lie we all fear, but Dor points out that it is probably not the most common sort of lie. We probably have all heard the bully who justifies being hurtful by saying, “I’m just being honest.” Most of us vote with our mouths and tell friends they were great (or at least fine), even if we thought they performed badly at some task. The anti-social action is saying, “I have to be honest and tell you your pumpkin pie stank to high heaven.”
The white lie promotes trust more soundly than does the honest insult. People judge statements more by the intention of the speaker than by its truthfulness. The problem, of course, is that intentions are often in the eye of the beholder. In a country of over 300 million people, there are bound to be different readings of intention. Thus, when Michelle Obama says, truthfully, that putting a candy bar in your kid’s lunch box is a bad idea, some people will read the intention as one of being helpful and will trust the speaker, while others will take the intention as being to disparage mothers who give their kids candy bars and will resent the speaker. The truthfulness of the information is irrelevant.
Trump’s lies are seldom of the white lie kind. Even when he says Mr. Q is “tremendous,” he is not being supportive of Q but trying to manipulate his listeners into thinking well of Q despite the many reported flaws in Q’s integrity. But Dor notes that we don’t just look at intentions one-dimensionally. Is the lie intended to help our group? Dor concludes, “As long as speakers lie in order to exploit members of other subgroups in ways that benefit their own subgroup, they may expect support and protection from their allies.”
This is an important element of Trump’s continued support in the face of brazen lies. When he says that he won the popular vote if you discount the fraudulent voters, his supporters don’t abandon him as a hopeless liar. He is telling them they are the voters who really mattered, even if the numbers say otherwise. Trump is uttering a group-strength, white lie and nobody should expect his followers to abandon him while he legitimizes them.
So is it hopeless? Are we doomed to listen to Trump reciting endless amounts of balderdash and see his backers smack their lips?
It does not have to end that way. Even though we cannot expect lies that disparage the anti-Trump forces to either stop or earn the condemnation of Trump supporters, there is a class if lie that can sink the orange-faced president. Those are the exploitative lies that sell out the Trump supporter. Even more scalding are the lies that sell out the Trump supporter and boost the people those supporters resent.
An interesting example of this dangerous (to Trump) lie is the firing this week of National Security Council leader, General Michael Flynn. Trump seems to have demanded his resignation for the classic Washington reason that he had betrayed a higher-ranking person. He lied to the vice-president and got caught at it. (Or maybe it was even the deeper Washington sin, a lie that covered up for the vice president and insisted that a lower ranking person take the fall.)
Losing one’s job so that some hot-shot can save face is exactly the kind of insider reasoning many Trump supporters despise and thought they were voting against. So when Trump talks about the reasons for the firing he points to leaks and complains about them. This isn’t a lie exactly, more of a shiny distraction. But it has a liar’s goal of misleading the listeners about his intentions. The lie will probably succeed—after all, who really cares about Flynn?—but it reveals an important truth. Although Trump is as much of an outsider as seems possible, he is willing to act according to the old Washington rules, and he cannot keep that betrayal of his backers a secret forever.
Then there is the more obvious reason for a sellout: money. Like every other politician who takes the money and denies its influence, Trump lies about his financial motives all the time. The odds seem good that Trump in time (and maybe not even a long time) will be caught playing Washington’s corrupt game in order to fatten his own purse. That’s the kind of industrial strength revelation that cannot be brushed off as lying for the team.