Friday, March 19, 2010

slack, slack, slack

No matter how many times I say, "Hey, you ought to consider reading this slacktivist guy", if you're like me you probably won't listen. I mean, you came to this blog for a reason, and here I am trying to send you somewhere else. Nonetheless, his latest two posts ought to be read, I think, because they clearly express the frustration I often feel with them there 'publicans. So I'm going to cheat and just re-paste them here, hoping you'll stick around:



"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," the eighth commandment (in some numberings, ninth) reads.
When I was growing up in Sunday school our teachers usually paraphrased the archaic King James Version English of that commandment as "don't lie." Teaching children not to lie is a good Sunday school lesson, but note that this isn't actually what the commandment says. It's much more specific, prohibiting a particular kindof lying -- "false witness." A better children's paraphrase might be "don't accuse anyone of something they didn't do" or "don't make up bad things about other people."
The distinction and the specificity matters. Lying is a bad thing and if you're teaching small children in Sunday school about the importance of telling the truth, there are plenty of other Bible passages you can cite to make that point. But this particular kind of lying -- bearing false witness -- is singled out as particularly bad. It's corrosive and enslaving in a way that other lying may not always be.
To explore this, I'd like to revisit a classic Ethics 101 hypothetical situation involving, as so many of these hypothetical situations seem to, Nazis. (I apologize for violating the "Godwin" convention.)
Say you're living in occupied Holland during World War II and you've got a neighboring Jewish family hidden in your attic. A local busybody, a collaborator eager to curry favor with the occupying Nazi government, comes sniffing around looking for anything he might learn that would earn the oppressor's praise. Is it acceptable to lie to this man, to deceive him in order to ensure the safety of the innocent family you are helping to rescue?
Note that this classic hypothetical dilemma was not-at-all hypothetical for many actual people who lived it. The righteous gentiles of the Netherlands -- people like the Ten Boom family or the many helpers who tried to save Anne Frank's family -- were constantly confronted by this very real, high-stakes situation. And every time, they lied. They actively, aggressively worked to deceive the collaborators and the Nazis themselves, lying, misleading, forging papers and deceiving without hesitation or remorse.
I believe they were right to do so. I think this is obvious and uncontroversial. This is, in fact, the judgment of history. These people are remembered as righteous gentiles, after all, because they chose to lie to protect the innocent.
There are schools of thought which regard the moral duty never to lie as applying even in cases such as this. (Michael Sandel has an engaging discussion of  Kant's views on this, if you're interested. As far as that consequentialist/inconsequentialist argument goes, I'll see your Kant and raise you a Bonhoeffer.) My point here is not to rehash that argument, but simply to point out that this sort of lie -- deceiving an evildoer to protect the innocent from harm -- is a wholly different species from the sort of lie prohibited in the Ten Commandments. The rescuers lied, but they did not bear false witness against their neighbors.
That brings us to the distinction I want to make here. I do not think it is difficult to envision, imagine or identify a context in which it is acceptable -- justified, moral, right, wise, obligatory -- to lie to evildoers. But it is far more difficult to construct or identify a situation in which it is acceptable to lie about evildoers.
Lying about others -- bearing false witness against them -- is dangerously corrosive. It sets the liar on a downward path that leads not just to moral confusion, but to epistemological insanity. Bearing false witness will ultimately make you crazy.
What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to "fight dirty" for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous -- behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.
This slide from fighting dirty to embracing insanity happens in politics, obviously, but not only in politics. And regardless of the arena the end result is the same. The bearers of false witness make themselves stupid -- so stupid that they don't even seem to notice that they've surrendered the argument by choosing to live in a fantasy world in which all arguments are irrelevant.
Anyway, contra Kant, I believe it may be justified and just sometimes to lie to evildoers. But don't lie aboutothers, not even about those you regard as evildoers. That's never justified and it won't end well for you.

Lying Your Way to Crazy
Wednesday's post on bearing false witness wasn't prompted by a specific incident in the headlines as much as it was by a general phenomenon. Scarcely a day goes by without some public official saying something insanely untrue and ridiculously stupid -- and yet says it with what seems to be utter sincerity. Scarcely an hour goes by when some pundit doesn't say something just as crazy-stupid. (This seems to be what "pundit" means.)
I think many of these pundits and politicians have fallen into the quagmire trap of bearing false witness. And I think sinking down into stupid and crazy is the inevitable consequence of that.
This is probably also related to what we earlier discussed as "Family Feud politics." Once you decide that politics -- or any other realm of dispute -- can be won by allowing perception to trump reality, then the temptation to bear false witness becomes overwhelming.
I was trying in the previous post to avoid mention of specific examples because I wanted to make a point about the corrosive repercussions of bearing false witness without entangling that point in the choosing-sides and knee-jerk defensiveness that any given example would likely provoke. But since that may be unavoidable anyway, let's consider the example of the Republican Party's yearlong Family-Feud opposition to theRecovery Act.
The GOP wants the Recovery Act to be unpopular, so they want to create the perception that it has been ineffective. The problem for them is that the Recovery Act has actually been quite effective. It was designed to preserve and create jobs and it did so.
This is not a statement of my opinion. Opinion don't enter into it. This is something we can measure and verify and know.
One is free to argue that the Recovery Act might have been more effective if it had been bigger or more targeted or more balanced toward tax cuts or more ambitious about infrastructure or what have you. But one is not free to say, truthfully, that it has been ineffective. And one certainly cannot say, as Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., recently did, that the Recovery Act "didn't create one new job." The Congressional Budget Office -- the nonpartisan office charged with the measuring and verifying that allows us to know -- says that the Recovery Act created about 2.1 million jobs in the fourth quarter of 2009.
That puts the Family-Feuders in an awkward position. The reality has proven to be stubbornly unlike the perception they've been trying to create by lying about the supposed ineffectiveness of the Recovery Act. And now a respected arbiter of reality -- the CBO -- has weighed in with the final word disproving what they've been saying.
But having committed to the Family Feud approach, they see no choice but to continue trying to create a perception of ineffectiveness even if it can't be reconciled with reality. They can't very well say the CBO has innocently miscalculated -- the difference between 2.1 million jobs in a single quarter and zero jobs, ever, doesn't seem like a simple rounding-error. And they really don't want to get into a numbers fight with the numbers people -- start playing on their turf and suddenly the game becomes Jeopardy, where facts matter.
So the next step becomes to suggest that the CBO is lying, that it is somehow, for some reason, deliberately misrepresenting the effects of the Recovery Act. They thus go from bearing false witness against the proponents of the Recovery Act to bearing false witness against the CBO too. Bearing false witness turns out to be kind of like eating pistachios. You just can't seem stop after the first one.
Accusing the CBO of lying pushes them further into unreality. That step requires an even slipperier step of trying to explain why the CBO would be lying, which almost always leads to the vague suggestion that the nonpartisan agency can no longer be trusted because they're "in on it." The suggestion, in other words, of a vast, shadowy conspiracy.
This is the destiny and destination for everyone who chooses to play Family Feud politics and/or to bear false witness: Conspiracy theory.
Once you choose to prefer manufactured perception to reality or to deny reality about others, you wind up pitting yourself against every arbiter of reality. You will be forced to accuse them all of lying -- of being "in on it." Eventually, you will be forced to embrace the theory of a conspiracy so vast that it includes and encompasses any and every arbiter of reality which might cast doubt on the false perception to which you're committed: the press, the media, researchers, scientists, NASA, teachers, doctors, the courts, authors, photographers, philosophers and intellectuals and artists of every stripe. And even, to paraphrase Groucho, "your own lying eyes." Even your five senses can't be trusted because they will seem to be "in on it" too.
Once you arrive at that destination, you've metamorphosed from a liar into a fool. You're no longer bearing false witness, you're just stupid and crazy. It's not a pleasant thing to behold.
Consider the sad example of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who left reality long ago, lying his way to the conspiratorial land of fools.
Grist recently interviewed Inhofe, trying to get the senator to explain his repeated assertion that climate change is a "hoax." He rises to the challenge and gamely lists many of the various conspirators conspiring in the conspiracy he imagines must be perpetrating this hoax: the United Nations, the International Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA, the majority of scientists, "Hollywood people," the Heinz Foundation, "very liberal churches," the Pentagon, the White House, General Electric.
This isn't Inhofe's comprehensive list of agents in the grand conspiracy, but it was only a short interview.
But Inhofe believes they're all in on it and that therefore you mustn't listen to any of them.
Maybe James Inhofe simply began as a fairly stupid man who then went a bit mad. But I don't think his sad predicament is due to either mental illness or a lack of mental capacity. I think it's the consequence of a moral choice. He started out lying and he wound up stupid and crazy.

1 comment:

  1. Josh - this doesn't have anything to do with this fine blog post on this very fine blog of yours except for the very first part where you mention Slacktivist again - a very fine blog as well and one that I only became aware of through yours.

    I wanted to recommend you to another terrific blog where I spend way too much time myself that I think you will like, just in case you had never come across it.

    There is an unbelievable wealth of knowledge and insight coming from this guy and well worth your time. Especially check out the section on "Dogmatism & Doubt: Curing the Religious Disease" (scroll about halfway down the list on the right side of the page).

    I would have sent this to you directly, but I apparently do not have your email address. I'd love to hear your take on this material.

    Keep up the good work here in the meantime.