President Donald Trump claims that millions of people voted illegally. If this is true, the whole government – including winners of local races and Trump himself – has been elected illegitimately.
Should we take any of this seriously? In the past week, the Trump administration lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. Trump even suggested that God held back the rain during his inaugural speech. When challenged, the president claimed that journalists are dishonest. In a speech at the CIA, he declared that journalists are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
This creates a paradox of sorts. If journalists are liars, then what they report is false. If they report that Trump claims they are liars, are they lying about that, too?
To resolve this, we must reaffirm our commitment to truth. Truth provides an anchor for communication. Lies destroy trust and set us adrift. Without baseline faith in truthful and sincere communication, chaos ensues.
Sometimes we joke and exaggerate. Some people even write novels, plays, and poetry. But non-serious communication is derivative. Jokes only work given a background of trust in truthful speech.
Over a decade ago, Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosopher, wrote a short book titled “On Bullshit.” He uses this word as a technical term. It describes the kind of conversations that we’ve all had, over beer, late at night when we are just shooting the breeze. BS is not quite a lie. Nor is it serious. It is hot air that floats free of truth. Frankfurt concludes that BS is “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”
This is a common problem these days. The internet encourages hyperbole, hyperventilation, and self-promotion. Roger George, The Bee’s fishing expert, wrote this week about anglers who embellish their fish stories with Photoshop. Fishermen have always exaggerated. But George reports that these fishy tales create a “toxic environment of suspicion.”
I asked Professor Frankfurt what he thought about Trump and the fishy state of political discourse. Frankfurt said in an email that Trumpian BS is “contemptible” and “unworthy of a U.S. president.” He concluded, “perhaps his vulgarity and his palpable ignorance – even his clumsy and unpolished manner of speaking – will awaken people to the poverty of his mind and the shallowness of his ideals.”
Awakening requires an education in critical thinking. We need media literacy and lessons in logic. And we need to reaffirm our commitment to honesty and truth. Truthful exchanges create trust. But trust once broken is difficult to repair. We ignore liars once we understand how dishonest they are.
This lesson is an ancient one, taught by Aesop through the fable of the boy who cried wolf. A shepherd boy falsely warns that a wolf is near. After a couple of false alarms, the villagers figure out he is lying. When a real wolf comes, they ignore his cries. Aesop’s moral: “Liars are not believed even when they speak the truth.”
Fraud fractures families and finishes friendships. Duplicity and dishonesty are dispiriting, deadly and destructive. In any relationship, as the lies pile up and our suspicions increase, we are less likely to believe anything we hear.
Aesop reminds us that in a world of disbelief, the wolf wins. When distrust prevents communication and cooperation, we cannot unite in defense of the common good.
Threat to democracy
The rising tide of bull is a threat to our democracy. Distrust breeds apathy and contempt. If we don’t know who to trust, we may simply turn our attention elsewhere. If we cannot trust the electoral system, the press or the president, then everything is up for grabs. If a wolf comes calling, who will we believe?
The value of truth is its power to create solidarity. The Declaration of Independence begins with a statement of the truths that we hold to be self-evident. Foundational truths unite us in a world of shared facts and common values.
But we cannot agree about the weather and the crowds at the inauguration. Nor can we agree about the legitimacy of our electoral system or the objectivity of the press. What hope then is there for agreement about our fundamental rights?
I hear a wolf howling in the distance. But then again, I might be lying.