“All politicians lie,” so they say. No; all human beings lie. What matters is what lie, when – and what it does to your ability to choose.
I’m a sucker for a series.
By which I mean a sequence of books (for preference) or a good serialised TV show. Genre, of course – you can critique me all you like, but good fantasy/scifi/etc, written with love and care, can’t be beat.
A long-running tale is part of it, to be sure. But the key is writers and creators who let their characters grow and change over time, rather than remain stable as the world shifts around them. It’s a privilege to be part of that.
My problem, particularly with books where there’s been a long gap between instalments – and I recognise this may just be me – is a tendency to want to re-read the whole series before diving into a new one. Which, with the Dresden Files, is taking a while.
Sometimes, though, doing this unearths gems you may have missed the first time round. There’s a couple buried in Ghost Story which hit me squarely between the eyes – and made me think about what I respect, what I despise, and why I make the distinction.
Late in the book – and I won’t spoil it with too much context for the uninitiated – the main character, Harry Dresden, is talking to someone far mightier, but also far gentler, than he. That person’s mission in life is to preserve people’s right to choose, because good and evil mean nothing unless that fundamental human right is preserved. He notes that a particularly vicious misfortune which befell Harry was born of a particularly well-crafted and well-timed lie: convincing him that what was, wasn’t, and making him think he had no choice but to walk down a bad road.
And the character says this: “When a lie is believed, it compromises the freedom of your will.”
That sticks with me. We all lie. Yes, we whinge about politicians doing it – but we all do. Mostly for self-protection. But there are big lies and little lies. And the difference is found not in the extent of the untruth, but in the anticipated consequence.
So a lie designed and intended to sway the world, to destroy the chance to make an honest decision: that’s the lie that’s unforgivable.
Perhaps this is why our profession’s greatest sin is to mislead the court. Sure, represent your client. Highlight the truths that help. Play down those that don’t. Tell the story in the best way for your side – the most believable way. But to mislead the court – even by hiding a relevant authority that doesn’t help – is to rob the tribunal of its chance to make its mind up. It’s not persuasion. It’s a con.
It’s also why I reserve a special hatred for con artists. Sure, I can admire the artistry bit – sort of. But the most successful cons which turn their marks into their best salespeople. Whose self-esteem has been warped by the lies, such that it can scarcely survive if the lies are challenged.
And that inevitably leads me back to politics. As I said, all politicians lie. They’re human. Sometimes to make life easier. Sometimes to protect secrets – whether for fair reasons or foul will depend on the circumstances. Sometimes to protect a confidence.
But outright lies, told to sway and shape opinion, when it’s clear on close inspection that the teller knows perfectly well what they’re doing? That’s treating people as pawns. Playthings.
Some thinkers take this further. Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay (and later book), “On Bullshit“, made a distinction between lies on the one hand – where the liar at least placed some value on the truth, prizing it in the act of obscuring it – and bullshit, where the teller simply didn’t care what was true and what wasn’t as long as it served their purpose. It’s a distinction that has been often criticised.
I’m not sure where I stand. I see the distinction, and we do seem to be swimming nostril-deep in particularly noxious and damaging political bullshit in recent years. (Brexit, Johnson, Corbyn, Trump, so many others. Lord, the list goes on. And a special mention for Michael Gove, whose Ditchley speech was an example of extreme – and, I can only conclude, calculated – intellectual dishonesty.)
But I think I care less about the lie-vs-bullshit axis than I do about this question of choice. Whether in politics or people’s personal lives – think of abusers warping the world to rob their victims of a vision of anything different, for instance – robbing people of the freedom to choose feels like the big differentiator.
Dan Davies, author of a wonderful book called “Lying for Money”, put it particularly well, in something he wrote getting on for a couple of decades ago entitled “Avoiding projects pursued by morons 101“. Seriously, read it – it’s not long. But it boils down to three rules, all of which focus on lies and testing them:
- Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. (If people won’t buy into them without being lied to, that tells you everything you need to know.)
- Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. (You can’t mark a liar to market. You can’t hope to fudge their numbers towards reality. If a liar says “this is what will happen”, the only safe thing is to assume the opposite.)
- The vital importance of audit. (Any time someone won’t let their predictions or their advice get tested against reality, or moves the goalposts mid-game, run. Immediately.)
Put differently: If you catch someone deliberately lying to you, so as to change your mind about something important: that’s it. They’re done. Stop listening to them. Now.
You can accept lies as a fair form of discourse. Or you can – while accepting that we’re human, and so we fail – focus on the right to choose with your eyes open.
You can’t have both. And anyone who favours option one? Don’t trust them. Ever. About anything.
* I’m gradually re-reading the whole Discworld saga. Taking it very, very slow. Essentially to leave till the last possible moment the time when I pick up the Shepherd’s Crown – because it will be the last new Pratchett I ever read. And that hurts.