Small Truths, Big Lies

“Did you clean your teeth, Lucas?” “Erm, yes.”

”Are you sure?” “Erm, no” “Go and clean them please.”

My son, I’m glad to say, is a pretty poor liar. It is written all over his face. It is also, in general, pretty easy to test if he is telling the truth. If we suspect he did not clean his teeth, we can simply check his toothbrush, and the mere suggestion that we will do this tends to make him admit the truth.

His lies tend to be small lies – the sort that most scandals in our society are about. ”Did you sleep with her?” “Did you tap those phones?” “Did you say such and such to so-and-so?” When people with power tell little lies, we get very excited. If it can be proved that they told a lie, they often lose their post (Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment for lying about having sex in the White House. It wasn’t so much the sex that got him into trouble, it was the suggestion that he had lied about it).

It is similar in the world of large corporations. There was a big food scandal in the UK recently where it turned out that food labelled as beef or pork was in fact partly horsemeat. It is not in fact of earth-shattering consequence – the meat was just as safe to eat as other processed meat – it is just that we don’t like being misled. So politicians queued up to be outraged and huge numbers of minions in the food industry were mobilised to sort the situation out.

Because small lies are relatively easy to spot, politicians and corporations tend to be fairly rigorous about avoiding them. They are truthful almost to a fault, but only in small things. It is the big lies they are much more bold about. This is, in part at least, because they are much easier to get away with, much harder to disprove. Think of some of the lies that are commonplace in our society. “Invading country XXX will bring peace.” “Economic growth is the most important thing“. “We have to pay our CEO £5m in order to motivate him/her.” And the favourite one “Everything is under control”.

Often the biggest lies aren’t even spoken. The deceiver simply act as if something is true, making us feel obstructive or unreasonable for questioning something so obviously true. Thus it becomes perfectly normal and right for a company to make profits out of selling alcohol and tobacco, and to take pride and pleasure in “growing the market”. In a society where obesity is the major health threat, it is considered normal and respectable for supermarkets to spend huge sums persuading their customers to eat sugary confections of no nutritional value.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, understood this dynamic well: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

These big lies are therefore far more dangerous, subtle and powerful than the little lies. That’s why the deceivers are able to act so brazenly, simply continue with their behaviour as long as they can get away with it.

Part of the reason they get away with it is that the deceived are often subtly complicit in the deceit. We want to believe we live in a true democracy (demos – people, kratia – power) because then we don’t actually have to fight for anything, we don’t have to stand up for what we believe in. It’s a convenient lie. In a similar way, we like the consumer goods and cheap titillation that are freely available in a society bent upon growth above all else, and so we allow ourselves to be deceived about the downsides (devastation of the planet’s life-support systems, rising inequality and, perhaps worst of all, lives lived without meaning). Thus a friend of mine can tell me “I don’t believe in climate change” when what he really means is “I choose not to look into this question too deeply because the truth might scare me.”