Truth is a valuable commodity because of its rarity. Lies are destructive because their ubiquity destroys our understanding of reality. As a society, we may become confused between lies and untruths.
Rupert Murdock confessed that he and his employees at Fox News lied about the 2020 election being stolen and confessed that he could have stopped it but didn’t. To paraphrase him, “Fox is not about Red or Blue but Green (Money).” As a confessed liar, he denied that he was in any way responsible for the violence and deaths on and following 1/6. A civil jury might find otherwise.
To those who argue that MSNBC also gets it wrong from time to time and that science is never certain, I respond that they are correct. However, it is one thing to get it wrong (in good faith) and another to knowingly purvey information you know to be false.
We tend not to make this distinction as a society, but it is the vital difference between misinformation and disinformation. There are, at times, no thin lines but big fat blurry lines between lying and being wrong. I remember the chant of many who opposed President George W Bush and the Iraq War. “Bush lied, and people died.” Maybe Bush lied about having proof of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, or maybe he was just wrong. The wounded and dead remain wounded and dead, but the truth should make a difference.
Was it a lie when government officials said that if you get the Covid vaccine, you won’t get Covid? (What they actually said was that the vaccine was 85 to 90% effective). They were correct for Covid 19 (or “Classic Covid, as I call it). They didn’t lie. The virus mutated, and the vaccine was not as protective against Covid Delta, Omicron, and now Kraken. The science changed, so the statements changed because the virus changed.
The critical question is intent. Does the person want to inform or deceive? It does get more complicated than trying to read someone’s mind. We all have observational biases. We gather facts confirming our existing opinions and move them to the top of our argument. We bury inconvenient truths. We carve truths into half-truths to make them fit into the Procrustean Bed of our biases. Most half-truths are whole lies.
President Clinton said, “I did not have sex with that woman.” True or false? It depends on what he meant by “sex” and how he believed the public would understand the word. Later, a Clinton lawyer said, “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton [and Monica Lewinsky]” When Clinton was asked if this assertion were true, he responded, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” This is a great legal truth but a social lie. It’s grammatically true because “is” is in the present tense. So, the question “Are you having an affair?” can legally be answered in the negative because, in the present, he wasn’t having an affair. He was having a deposition. Was that perjury? Probably not. Was its intent to deceive? Absolutely.
Some circumstances present blurry lines. When someone swears in court or at a Congressional hearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” it can become an impossible oath to keep. How often have you heard lawyers demanding a “yes or no” response on TV? But many questions are not amenable to yes or no. And a yes or no without context might be both truthful and deceptive. It’s plausible that concentrating a complex question into two strict alternatives might be violative of the oath to tell “the whole truth.”
Whether in court or on a job interview, if I were asked, “Do you believe in God? Yes or no?” I couldn’t answer the question. Trying (and, I’m confident, failing) not to be Clintonian, I’d have to say, “That depends on what you mean by ‘believe’ and what you mean by ‘God?’” The question assumes we all have the same theology, mental picture, or belief in the same god. Am I being asked if I believe in an old White man in a toga sitting on a golden throne? Well, that would be Zeus, and I’m not a believer. Yet that is the default picture of God in the White western world. If the question is, “Do you stand in awe of the mystery of existence and life?” I would respond, “yes.” Are there many theologies between those positions? Clearly. Questions of truth are seldom binary. On the contrary, truth is complicated and nuanced. Lies, however, are often straightforward and are created by a confluence of knowingly asserting untruths with the intent to deceive—as per convicted killer Alex Murdaugh, confessed liar Rupert Murdock and perjurer (in Paula Jones case) Bill Clinton.
Lies are dangerous to society because they hurt our ability to get the information we can trust to make our own decisions. However, great flamboyant liars such as Donald Trump and George Santos are certainly more entertaining than non-charismatic truth-tellers such as Jimmy Carter. Trump could be right about something and Carter wrong, but the intent is central to character—the character of a person and the character of a society.