“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” — Hannah Arendt
Our times are sometimes referred to as ‘post-truth’ or the era of fake news, with tribalism on social media blamed for increasing the production and consumption of misinformation.
However, the manipulation of information is not new.
In Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt wrote, “[t]ruthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.”
All over the world, politicians twist the truth and lie for whatever end they believe to be righteous, including, of course, waging wars on other countries. And this is not just the purview of dictatorships. Twenty years ago, to cite just one example, the United States, together with the United Kingdom made up evidence to justify invading Iraq. The result of their manipulation is the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Lying has for a long time been an integral part of many companies’ - from tobacco to pharmaceutical - public relations efforts. In the 1970s, for example, the oil giant Exxon undertook scientific research that predicted with disarming accuracy the impact that our continued use of fossil fuels would have on the planet. Yet, their public communications strategies focused on casting doubt and confusion.
Even our trust in national new agencies is slowly eroding, either because of private ownership and influence, or political party interventions.
So many people, disillusioned, turn to social media where anyone and everyone can become a producer and distributor of information, a cog in the fake-news farm; and where each of us can find a group that will reinforce what we believe to be true. Failing that, there will always be a celebrity or influencer to convince us that their truth is the correct one.
Lying appears to be all around us. And truth can seem like an impossible goal to achieve and a dangerous one to act upon. “Throughout history,” Arendt observed, “the truth-seekers and the truthtellers have been aware of the risks of their business; as long as they did not interfere with the course of the world, they were covered with ridicule, but he who forced his fellow-citizens to take him seriously by trying to set them free from falsehood and illusion was in danger of his life.”
Truth seekers, whether writers, artists, investigative journalists, or whistleblowers often face resistance, retaliation and even threat to their lives. A documentary aired in the UK in June last year, looked at the experiences of whistleblowers inside the United Nations. Described as 'shocking' by TV critics, it showed the retaliation faced by whistleblowers when trying to uncover wrongdoings and human rights abuses within the institution.
When evidence of wrongdoing is revealed, the state, company, or institution responsible often begins a campaign to undermine the credibility of the whistleblower. This is particularly the case in instances where the whistleblowers are women or children. It’s a form of institutional gaslighting, where the point is to make the whistleblower question their own sanity, and subsequently blame them for bringing scandal onto institutions ‘doing good in the world.’
“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Timothy Snyder writes. When you can’t get people to stop speaking out, acting on truth, or showing solidarity to other humans, you legislate to silence them. Climate activists in the UK have been jailed for disrupting traffic and people helping migrants to safety in Greece (and other countries) have been charged with human trafficking. Governments are effectively using the laws and policies we fought for in the name of human rights against us.
Should we just give up on truth then? “The story of the conflict between truth and politics,” Arendt advised, “is an old and complicated one, and nothing would be gained by simplification or moral denunciation.”
So maybe the question of true or false, or grasping truth, then is not what actually matters. Perhaps what we should seek - and commit to - is honesty. Honesty as a form of open-heartedness. That is honesty with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us.
Professor Darcia Narvaez suggests that Western scholars have for centuries thought that their power (their truth) was superior to nature (nature’s truth) and that they could conquer nature. This is where our dishonesty began, she believes. Yet, nature does not lie.
It has been suggested that we humans struggle to make sense of things for which we have no language. On climate change, for example, we are seeing more and more suggestions for new words to describe events we had not noticed before as a way toward better understanding.
In many Indigenous communities, however, they have had language to describe changes to our climate for centuries. On the other hand, for many of them, deceit and lying was not part of their language. Narvaez cites a researcher, E. Richard Sorenson, who lived among Indigenous communities all over the world explain how not only was honesty expected from everyone, but children and young people couldn’t even grasp the concept of lying and deceit when he tried to explain these to them.
“They didn’t expect prevarication, deception, grandstanding, or evasion. And I could find no cases where they understood these concepts. Even teenagers remained transparently forthright, their hearts open wide for all to gaze inside,” he wrote.
Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and lived in Paris for the next eight years. In 1941 she immigrated to the United States and soon became part of a lively intellectual circle in New York. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community: The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, and The Human Condition, published in 1958.
Timothy Snyder is an American historian specialising in the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe, with a special focus on the Holocaust. He is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Darcia Narvaez is Professor emerita of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She investigates moral development and human flourishing from an interdisciplinary perspective, integrating anthropology, neuroscience, and clinical, developmental, and educational sciences.
[Sources: Wikipedia, artists’ own websites]
Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt.
Costs of War, Watson Institute International Public & Affairs, Brown University.
‘Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections,’ Science, 13 January 2023.
‘Addendum to 'Assessing ExxonMobil's climate change communications (1977–2014),' Supran and Oreskes, 2017, Environmental. Research Letters.
‘The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN,’ BBC 2, June 2022.
‘The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN review – a horrific tale of misogyny, rape and 10,000 deaths,’ Jack Seale, The Guardian, 21 June 2022.
‘New exposé highlights need for urgent UN whistleblower protection reform,’ Whistleblowing International Network (WIN), 27 June 2022.
On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder.
UK Public Order Bill, download pdf.
‘Top lawyers defy bar to declare they will not prosecute peaceful climate protesters,’ Damian Gayle, The Guardian, 24 March 2023.
‘Greece in spotlight over trial of activists, volunteers who rescued migrants,’ UN News, United Nations, 13 January 2023.
Restoring the Kinship Worldview, Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth, Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, PhD.
‘Lying in Politics,’ Hannah Arendt, 1972, Philosophy Overdose on Youtube.
An Ecotopian Lexicon, edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, with a foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson, https://www.ecotopianlexicon.com/.
Who do we Choose to Be? Margaret Wheatley.
‘A Warning From the Past: 'You Haven't Learned Anything From Our History,'’ Angelo Madsen Minax, Op Docs New York Times.
‘Secretary-General's video message for press conference to launch the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,’ United Nations, 20 March 2023.
‘Urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all,’ The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 20 March 2023.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” ― Antonio Gramsci
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”― Chinua Achebe
“Everything that needed to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” — Erich Fromm
“The millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.” – Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau