Why They Lie

At this point, it cannot be deemed an overstatement to say that the American right suffers from an epidemic of lying. Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter (among others) have been caught red-handed by Al Franken. Blogger and plagiarist Ben Domenech even have the temerity to claim that P. J. O’Rourke had given him permission to claim O’Rourke’s work as his own—something O’Rourke himself quickly put the lie to. David Horowitz, once a leftist liar, joined the right a quarter of a century ago—and lies still. These are far from the only examples (and I have left out the politicians completely).

As anyone with even a casual familiarity with my blog diaries knows, what bothers me most about these liars is that I have trouble understanding why these people, all intelligent, lie so badly and so often. Most of the lies they tell are rather transparent, fooling only those most willing to be fooled. Maybe that’s all they care about, fooling that percentage, but I can’t quite accept that they have so little self-respect.

The other day, I turned to Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978), hoping to find some answers.

According to Bok, many liars justify their lies through their estimation of their enemies. They have believed that:

those who threatened society were outside its moral bounds, and, as a result, need not be treated with the honesty due to others. Armed with such a conviction, those who contemplate action against enemies may then throw ordinary moral inquiry to the winds. They see no reason to seek alternatives to lying and rarely question either their own motives or the process whereby they came to see their enemies as enemies, as outside the social contract. (138)

This is particularly disheartening, for it also explains the tendency of those on the right to label as “un-American” those they disagree with. We are beyond the pale, so any treatment of us necessary is justifiable.

Horowitz, certainly, sees enemies all around him. But how does that justify lying to friends? After all, most of the lies written by the right are aimed at people on the right, the liars’ so-called allies. Liars

may believe, with Machiavelli, that “great things” have been done by those who have “little regard for good faith.” They may trust that they can make wise use of the power than lies bring. And they may have confidence in their own ability to distinguish the times when good reasons support their decision to lie. (23)

What arrogance! But there’s truth to this description. From Plato to Leo Strauss, the “noble lie” has been part of the justification elites use for their lying. After all, they often really do believe they are better than the rest of us:

The powerful tell lies believing that they have greater than ordinary understanding of what is at stake; very often, they regard their dupes as having inadequate judgment, or as likely to respond in the wrong way to truthful information. (168)

Another result of the liar’s arrogance is intense anger at being lied to:

Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived. As a result, their choice to lie is one which they would like to reserve for themselves while insisting that others be honest. (23)

Just because they don’t tell the truth doesn’t mean that other people should be allowed to get away with lying. Accusing others is also a way of deflecting attention from oneself. Joseph Wilson, for example, is frequently accused of lying in relation to his findings in Niger—by the very people whose lies are under investigation—as if any lying he may have done (none, as far as I can tell) somehow mitigates the actions of the others.

Believing that “everyone does it—and besides, they lied to me” makes the lying easier to manage:

Many find it easier to lie to those they take to be untruthful themselves. It is as though a barrier had been let down. (125)

There is often an extremely simplistic (and ultimately destructive) “morality” on the part of these liars. They believe that:

People should receive the treatment that their behavior merits. Enemies, through their own unfairness, their aggressive acts or intentions, have forfeited the ordinary right of being dealt with fairly. (136)

’They do it! They do it! It’s a conspiracy. They are simply trying to hurt me!’

Paranoia is not an unusual occurrence when it comes to setting up “enemies” and deciding how to treat them. Worse, the more paranoiac an agent or a group—the more convinced they are both that there is a conspiracy against them and that their cause overrides all others—the more self-righteously will they see their lies as merited by the iniquity of their enemies. (139)

There’s been a liberal conspiracy against him, Horowitz seems to think, ever since the publication of his attack on college professors. I’m sure many of the other caught liars feel the same. Certainly, the defenders of Ben Domenech want to point to persecution by the Daily Kos.

In a comment on his blog, Horowitz claimed that it is only recently that he has been accused of lying. I suspect the truth is quite different. After all:

It is easy, a wit observed, to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one…. After the first lies, moreover, others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen; the liar’s perception of his chances of being caught may warp. (25)

Horowitz is certainly an example of this.

One of the things that has confused me about the demonstrations of Horowitz’s lies in his book on college professors is his dismissal of the lies as trivial. According to Bok, that is one of

three circumstances [that] have seemed to liars to provide the strongest excuse for their behavior—a crisis where overwhelming harm can be averted only through deceit; complete harmlessness and triviality to the point where it seems absurd to quibble about whether a lie has been told; and the duty to particular individuals to protect their secrets. (166)

Many of the liars on the right use the first, manufacturing a “threat” from the left and then using it to justify their lies to their own confederates. Like Horowitz, many also dismiss their lies (when they are caught) as meaningless. As to secrets, well, these particular people have few anyone cares about. Among politicians, though, that’s a particularly strong excuse.

Bok was writing at the end of the seventies, when American society was still reeling from the lies of Vietnam and Watergate. She makes one statement about the lie in the public arena that is as true today as it was then:

We cannot take for granted either the altruism or the good judgment of those who lie to us, no matter how much they intend to benefit us. We have learned that much deceit for private gain masquerades as being in the public interest. We know how deception, even for the most unselfish motive, corrupts and spreads. And we have lived through the consequences of lies told for what were believed to be noble purposes. (169)

The book may be old, but it is still available. If any of you, like me, are perplexed by the lies of the right, it is well worth reading.