Today, as I write this blog to my baby niece and nephew, who will not be able to read it for many years, I wonder what the world will look like when they can and possibly do. Will this blog be seen as some quirky time capsule, harking back to different times when there was still something called ‘the truth’ and facts actually mattered? Or will they look back at me with condescending indulgence and laugh at the naivety of my generation? Quite honestly, if they garner any wisdom from me whatsoever, they shouldn’t believe a single thing I write here because…
You see, while I know that it’s been a long time coming, every since that woman birthing in a barn claimed virginity, the endangerment and ultimate extinction of the truth has never been more acute than in the last year. I could blame religion. I could blame social media. I could blame Trump. I could blame Brexit. I could blame ‘the gays (why not? everything else gets blamed on them). But I actually think it may genuinely be part of our evolution as a species.
I’ve always held honesty in high regard. In fact, for me, the thought of being accused of doing things that I didn’t do is my ultimate nightmare. I can remember my first flirtation with dishonesty and how it ate away at me. When I was very little, my parents got hold of a huge Bert from Sesame Street, that had been used in a display. He was made of some sort of thick cardboard and was beautifully dressed and designed. He was hollow inside and I remember my fascination with that and the way I would reach inside his body to touch the ends of the long, large, sharp needles that were used to upholster him. They were a very dangerous and good lesson to me ,as a child, in personal responsibility. I also learned that nothing is safe in this world…even Sesame Street puppets. They might look cute and appealing on the outside, but they are filled with pain and danger deep inside. These days a child would never be given access to such a thing and if they were, someone would be sued.
Bert lived with me in my bedroom and was a wonderful roommate through my youth. Funnily enough, in hindsight, this was the first (and not the last) time I shared my home with a gay man. Now, because of my obsession with the truth and my absolute understanding that we can sometimes invent our own childhood histories, I can only vouch for this happening because I remember it with such vivid pain that it must have. On the other hand, it could simply be a false memory. Isn’t it great? We don’t just lie to each other but can’t even work out if we’re lying to ourselves. I should just give up.
At some point, before I was 5 years old, I somehow managed to steal candy from somewhere. I have no idea where I got it or from whom. What I do remember is that I hid it deep inside Bert, all the way into the recesses of his hollow body, behind those dangerous, long, sharp pins and inside his hand, which, I believe, held a styrofoam snowball. That piece of candy stayed hidden there for what seemed like decades to a small, guilt ridden child. I can’t describe how agonising it is for such a young human being to carry such a heavy burden.
I recall building up the courage to confess to my mother. I wonder if she even remembers this. But I even remember where I was when I told her. I was in the back seat of her car and I blurted out my confession. I was in such a heightened emotional state that I don’t accurately remember her response except to note that it wasn’t horrible and I think I felt a little deflated that the enormity of my confession hadn’t elicited a suitably emotive response from her.
And that, my lovely niece and nephew, was the beginning of my obsession with honesty. As I got older, I had to deal with the issue in many different contexts. Living with heroin addicts taught me that some people simply cannot be trusted at some points in their lives, even if they are nice people. Finding out that a male friend was a pedophile taught me that some people can seem completely wonderful but be hiding awful secrets. Catching a good friend stealing from our employer and forcing her to break back into his house to return the stolen item taught me that I even smart people do stupid things and that it’s a disservice not to help them correct their errors. But, one of the most important lessons I learned from a 4 year old after giving him a 2 hour pointless lecture on honesty, because he lied to me, was that children are very much natural born liars.
In this instance, the child had broken something of mine. I knew he did it and he knew he did it and yet, when I asked him, he looked me right in the eye and said he did not. As I got to know more young children in my life, I saw this repeated over and over again. This is how the conversations almost invariably go.
Me – ‘Did you do that?’
Child – ‘No’
Me – ‘Well how did it happen?’
Child – Now here the answer depends on whether there is someone (like a younger child) or something (like a dog) who can be blamed, in which case the answer is ‘He did it’. If there is no one to blame, the answer will be either ‘I don’t know’, or, the ever reliable ‘It happened all by itself.’
Several years ago, these encounters came back to me when I asked a group of adult men with ladders, how a ladder shaped piece of damage had been caused. Their answer was ‘The wind did it.’ Of course I sighed and wrote it off as ‘men acting like children’. I still firmly believed I lived in a society where most people are honest and that, I think for most people, is something important to believe in. The alternative would be to live in a virtual state of paranoia and uncertainty? Wouldn’t it?
I did have friends, who were in relationships with partners, who constantly lied, blatantly and with absolutely no guilt. Even when caught red handed. If anything, they seemed annoyed at being caught at their lies rather than in any way appearing to have a conscience. This was not gender specific. I still, to this day, do not understand why people do this but I did tend to brush it off as sexually motivated and so, somehow not indicative of true dishonesty.
Sure, some of the whole dishonesty thing is easy to dismiss as quite harmless and, even amusing. We all laugh at the way we’re told by one expert that wine is good for us and by another that it’s bad for us. We joke about how people fall for claims about herbs that will make their penis bigger. We giggle about adverts for skin cream that promise to make people look ten years younger or mascara that makes lashes 83% thicker. Advertising and marketers have long been the soft world of almost acceptable lies and, when the lies get too ridiculous, someone sues and makes a fortune. Remember Airborne, those high dosage Vitamin C pills that people were convinced prevented colds on airplanes? When it was proven (not that anyone with common sense would have needed proof) that they were no more effective than a placebo, they were sued for over 20 million dollars. So, there was some self limiting on the lies of advertisers, imposed by a litigious society.
Social media, of course, upped the game with the sick baby shares (one amen = $1), the hoaxes, the satire sites that weren’t satirical and the sadly frustrating propaganda that various interest groups used to justify their agenda. The reason I found that particularly upsetting was because many of these groups already had the moral high ground. I mean, when interest groups that I don’t support lie, I just assume that’s the nature of their malevolent ways. But, when interest groups I supported do it, well…that is another thing altogether and one that many would prefer we ignore for the ‘better good’.
Political parties, environmental, animal rights and human rights groups are usually fighting for important and worthy causes and yet some of them intentionally circulate falsehoods, exaggeration and downright untruths to elicit outrage and emotional responses from the public, when the actual truth should have elicited just as an emotional response. Propaganda shmopaganda. I have no idea whether or not they feel forced to resort to this due to a hugely desensitised public or whether they just feel that ‘by any means possible’ is excusable when you do it for something with good intentions. The thing is, that people have stopped caring what is true or false anyway, and have simply started to believe whatever makes them happy, or angry or whatever the fuck they want to be at that moment. Acknowledging that was a significant turning point for me. The ‘good guys’ are no longer, necessarily, arbiters of authenticity.
Turns out that Christians have legitimised ‘lying for Jesus‘. In all fairness, all religions are based on lies, some of which are truly horrible and so, despite their claims to moral superiority, the foundation of genuine honesty in religion is tenuous, at best. Maybe it is that historical need to choose to believe lies over truth, fairy tales over reality and fiction over fact that has led us to this shift in our perceived system of values.
Now, the world is witnessing the advent of Donald Trump, who is a true example of how human beings no longer seem to need, want, desire, require or depend on anything that resembles honesty. He’s become one of most recognisable and famous people in the world during his run for presidency of the United States and there is no doubt that most of the things he says are lies. The things he says have been fact checked over and over again and he’s been shown to be absolutely consistent in not telling the truth. At first I was shocked and horrified by not only his propensity to lie and how his manner reminded me so much of that four year old because even when presented with irrefutable evidence that he is lying, he doesn’t back down but now I simply have a morbid fascination.
When did tens of millions of educated, privileged people in the richest country in the world decide that the truth doesn’t matter anymore? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not letting Hillary Clinton off either. It’s clear from fact checkers that she’s told her fair share of porky pies, but statistically, the number of lies she’s told are relatively small in comparison. And, in all fairness, when confronted with a lie, at least she has the decency to back pedal or try to do something to fix it rather than stand, steadfastly by it in the firm belief that if she does so, it will simply be believed eventually. The problem is that it’s exactly that tactic that has worked so beautifully for Trump. He just keeps saying shit until people accept it as truth.
It works. People still believe that Napoleon Bonaparte was short. He wasn’t, but it’s been said so many times, people think it’s a fact. People think that the ‘fresh’ vegetables they buy in the supermarket are healthier than frozen ones. Nope, not true. They believe that covering your head helps you stay warmer than covering other body parts. No it does not. People think that when bulls see red, they get angry. Sorry to disappoint you. One of the ones that makes me really sad is that people believe that goldfish have 3 second memories and use that to justify keeping them in a bowl of water. Actually, they are capable of learning and remembering things extremely efficiently and can even be taught to do tricks. See what I mean. These are all things that we’ve heard so often we thought they were facts. They are not true.
Are we getting more dishonest? Well, there is at least one piece of research, carried out in the UK, that showed that people have become much more tolerant of lying. Professor Paul Whitely, the author of the study said that he believed role models play a big part in society’s attitudes to honesty. Another piece of research suggests that social media use also affects people’s behaviour in terms of honesty, which is particularly scary given that social media is probably one of the most powerful tools of this generation.
Certainly lies spread faster than the truth does and poor practices by journalists, which at one time was a profession that prided itself on ethics, contribute to many modern day myths, masquerading as real news and facts. I would suggest that those who spread and share lies are just as guilty as the liars themselves although my views may well become softer over time because it is getting more and more difficult to even undertake the most basic due diligence due to the overwhelming preponderance of lies.
We are quite literally drowning in a sea of misinformation and dishonesty. Our mere existence involves digging ourselves out of a heap of stinking bullshit on a daily basis just to try to make sense of a world that once seemed so much more rational and critical. Nowadays it seems that the response to any form of critical thinking is to call someone a sheep as a means to avoid meaningful discussion.
People seem to actively want to believe lies. In the UK, the hugely important referendum to leave the EU, otherwise known as Brexit, was based on one simple lie. The Brexit supporters promised that hundreds of millions of pounds would become available to the National Health Service if Britain left Europe. That was a bold and absolute lie and yet people opted to use it as a good reason to vote, very obviously, against their best interests. After the ‘leave’ vote was victorious, the leaders who had promoted it all quit and walked away after admitting they’d told a big fat lie.
For goodness sake, the politicians who led the UK, the USA and many other countries into an invasion of Iraq lied about their reasons for doing so. Now, I have no doubt that many leaders in history have led their people into wars to serve their own agendas and misled their people but for fucks sake. British newspapers even mocked the leadership by counting down the days until they would find the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ they had promised were in Iraq and the reason for such urgency. Of course those weapons never existed and politicians knew it.
Now, it’s reached a whole new level. Given that there are scientists who believe that our ability to lie and deceive is what has given humans great evolutionary advantages, it’s worrying to think that Donald Trump could, actually, be our next step up in evolution as a species. What Trump has been doing, scarily, even has a name. It’s called ‘post-truth politics’. ‘Post-truth’. Yep, that’s the era we’re in.
A recent study came to some pretty interesting conclusions. It seems that while a country is developing, honesty is very important and beneficial during development if they wish to achieve economic success, but – and this is the zinger – once they have been sufficiently successful economically, honesty is no longer that important. What really stood out to me in this study was that people who assumed the worst of others and thought those around them were dishonest, were the most likely to be dishonest themselves. Once you live in a society where you assume that everyone lies, then you might as well join the party.
So, we can thank Donald Trump for one thing and that is to be a very visible warning to the young. I’m sad to inform you, my little niece and nephew, that in in this ‘post-truth’ society, you will have to assume that everyone is lying to you unless you have pretty clear evidence otherwise. Even if the evidence appears to be clear and has even been published in a recognised journal that is peer reviewed, find out who paid for that evidence. Good luck fact checking what I’ve just written!
So, to end this missive to my darling niece and nephew, I will provide you with evidence that all I said above is true. I posted a meme of a quote often attributed to Adolph Hitler and sometimes attributed, in other forms, to his Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda , Joseph Goebbels, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Neither actually said that. In fact, it is a bastardised version of something Hitler said in Mein Kampf and he was actually accusing Jews of doing just that. Seriously, go look it up. I can’t vouch for the veracity of any thing you discover though.
Of course, because Hitler is, quite rightly, considered an evil character from history and to this day, people are trying to find reasons to explain his atmospheric rise to power, believing he made this statement and practiced its philosophy supports the narrative most wish to believe. I bet when you read the meme, you assumed it was true, but it wasn’t. And that, boys, girls, women, men and everyone else on the beautiful gender spectrum, is exactly why truth no longer matters.
Much love from your Badass Auntie