What you need to know:
- The lie is an instrument of self-aggrandisement, puffery, evasion, untruth, or simple moral bankruptcy.
- The liar is often a deeply flawed individual – which means most humans.
Today, I write about our voracious hunger for the lie. We love lies, and love even more those who lie to us. This is sad but true. After many decades of vociferous denial, I have finally accepted this truism – that “bad” is more powerful and seductive than “good”.
This isn’t to say that bad is better, or morally superior, than good. Far from it. It’s to acknowledge that evil and criminality – though they are inferior impulses and emotions – are far more widespread than good.
We succumb to our dark angels far more easily than we answer the call of altruism. An inconvertible example is our ready embrace for the lie over the truth. Are we hard-wired for the lie?
Allow me to illustrate by demonstration. Let’s put 100 people divided evenly between men and women in the same room. Ask them publicly to say how many of them have ever cheated on their lovers or spouses. Chances are that not a single hand will go up. In reality, research shows that around 20 per cent of people cheat on their partners.
One could argue that an anonymous survey is more likely to produce more truthful answers than a public outing. But admitting to a costly and humiliating deed under the veil of anonymity doesn’t indicate the triumph of good over evil. It’s actually the reverse – clear proof of the power of evil over good. Let’s dig deeper.
The lie is an instrument of self-aggrandisement, puffery, evasion, untruth, or simple moral bankruptcy. Some lies are defensible. For example, you may tell a curious child whose dad has just passed away that he’s gone on a long trip. You may even lie to your partner about cheating on them to protect their ego, or shield them from their own emotional fragility. Or to save the relationship for a larger “good” such as raising a family, or a catastrophic public divorce.
However, lies are rarely virtuous. They often manipulate, deflect, conceal and destroy. The liar is often a deeply flawed individual – which means most humans. The liar and the recipient of the lie usually have a lot in common.
I have come close to concluding that we are programed to lie. That’s because of the ease with which we lie, and the readiness with which we accept lies. We lie even when we don’t have to do so.
In fact, the term pathological liar may be an oxymoron because we lie a lot. That said, people like outgoing President Donald Trump is on a different planet because virtually everything that comes out of his mouth is either a lie, or an exaggeration. He’s a congenital liar, which means he can’t help but lie. His is out of the realm or spectrum of the natural. He has a psychopathy, a clinical sickness. He’s literally a lunatic.
Mr Trump’s case brings me to his legion of supporters. He received 74 million votes in the last election. Are all these voters, like him, mad? I don’t think so. A large number either hold their noses or overlook his lies and fatal flaws because he speaks to their fears and carries out policies they believe are in their interests.
However, there’s a large group of voters who are addicted to his lies, and can’t get enough of them. He tells them millions of dead people voted, or machines switched his votes to Mr Biden.
All these claims have been laughed out of court about 60 times for lack of a single proof.
Mr Trump and many of his voters are in a suicide pact, a sort of a Gordian knot, or a Faustian bargain – a contract of devils. They are bound by untruth, irrationality and a deep hate for “the other”.
He’s a messiah to them, and messianic figures don’t “lie” to their admiring plebian hordes. It’s scary Mr Trump’s legions are so hungry for the blatant lie. If it’s raining, and he tells them it’s blazing hot, they will believe him.
He’s taken control of their brains. He knows it because his lies become outrageous by the hour. In tandem, his followers become more frenzied. His followers aren’t victims. They have full agency and choose to believe the lie.
The Trump phenomenon isn’t unique. There are many mini-Trumps everywhere. We see them locally every day on Kenyan TV screens. Politicians lying through their teeth and their followers crying Amen! They lie, lie and lie again – all day, every day.
They should be wary of President Richard Nixon’s ignominious end. A liar to his final days, a disgraced and drunk President Nixon knelt down, prayed, and pounded the carpet asking, “What have I done?” He would wander the corridors of the White House alone talking to portraits of ex-presidents.
Too many lies may catch up with us and throw us into the deep end. Let’s forsake the lie for the truth.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.