Given the number and significance of the lies being told by various politicians and their representatives, why do they still have loyal supporters? It must be a kind of sunk cost fallacy: having invested so much in a person or a party, the prior commitment justifies ongoing investment even in the face of evidence that shows the cost will outweigh the benefits. Like a gambler at a slot machine, the faithful think that eventually it will pay dividends.
We don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes we tell white lies, sometimes we say nothing to avoid telling the truth, sometimes our memories deceive us, sometimes we are mistaken, sometimes we exaggerate, and sometimes we deliberately lie. Most people are honest most of the time, but recently we all noticed that lies can sometimes just come out of a person’s mouth and they don’t even really know how or why it is happening.
Sean Spicer, the US President’s Press Secretary, apologized after he misspoke a few weeks ago. In attempting to express outrage at Syria’s president’s use of Sarin gas in his country’s civil war, Spicer tried to say that even Hitler wasn’t that bad. What he actually said was, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in the second world war. . . You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” He also referred to the Nazi extermination camps as “Holocaust centres,” and claimed that Hitler did not kill “his own people.”
Ofer Aderet, in his article in Haaretz, was among many who pointed out that Spicer got three things wrong: Hitler did use chemical weapons, he did kill Germans, and the Nazi death camps were and are not referred to as Holocaust centres. There has been some speculation in the media that these ideas come from white supremacist writings, and that Spicer’s mistake was in allowing himself to voice those opinions. Now many of us are wondering; did Spicer get these idea from propaganda, was he knowingly speaking untruths when he voiced those ideas, or was he being deceptive when he apologized?
I have known people who like to tell others what they think they want to hear. I suspect it is because they want to be liked, but whatever the reason they mislead friends, family members, and lovers. I don’t know how they keep track of it all. Sometimes they lie to avoid paying for things. Sometimes they lie to keep people in the dark about their relationships. Sometimes they lie because they want to avoid disapproval. Sometimes they lie to get sympathy. There are all sorts of reasons. Sometimes deceptions become so much a part of a person’s life that they don’t know how to be completely open and honest with anyone, and everyone around them probably knows that.
Most of the time, the lies are not necessary. They could tell the truth and no-one would care very much. They might have to explain themselves, but that’s all. Usually, when I have known I have been lied to, I just let it go. It usually doesn’t affect my life in any significant way, but it does change how I feel about the other person. Whatever it is they lied about matters less to me that the fact that they lied.
Since we all engage in selective sharing, and we all sometimes use hyperbole for effect, and we all sometimes varnish the truth to protect the feelings of a loved one, we usually don’t condemn others for similar minor infractions. If you lie to tell me I don’t look fat in these jeans, I am certainly not going to criticize you for that. But when the White House Press Secretary misinforms journalists at a press briefing, then it matters.
We know that all politicians duck and dive a little if they want to avoid the truth, and we know they are the experts at redirecting the conversation, but if we cannot trust anything they or their representatives say, then we have entered that Orwellian level of discourse in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.