notes: about liars and the truth

Whether or not the accusations are deserved or not, I can’t help but notice the character and some of the content of the Brian Williams, counter-narrative frenzy contained in rapidly propagating (so-called) “news” stories such as that exemplified by the tabloid headline “Another tall tale? Brian Williams’ alleged encounter with a Christmas bandit” 1 One can’t help but wonder what the next story to come down the road will be about; that he had marijuana “in his system”? The deliberate lies Brian Williams told about his experiences in Iraq didn’t just work to promote his own image, but helped to market a war and to enhance its “eventfulness” in public perception.

Two camps of reaction to lies

The double purpose Williams projected outwards with his lie has resulted in the delineation of two camps of offense and indignation with regards lying.

One type of person is simply offended that he lied at all. This person might be motivated to dig up additional evidence to show a trend in his character to show that Williams was the kind of person who lied all the time.

There is another type. But we should linger here for a moment to consider what the nature of this indignation means. I’m afraid I won’t be able to really plumb this with any kind of depth. It isn’t just a matter of my time or the limitations of the medium. Whether I properly finish out this essay or write a book on the subject, I am limited by the challenge of thinking and the problem of attention — yours and mine.

When such a person hears about a “lie”, he or she thinks, “This is a true barometer of character”.

“Lying”, it is thus said, “is just wrong. Period”. Therefore, sin.

And, I’m not talking about religious standards, or whatever. I’m talking about a type of personality or mode of thinking. Such a “Purist” might note Williams’ job description and might also idealize journalism, but principally note his lie and wonder what else was false. This is a normal reaction. It’s the common level of the lie. Also, it’s the limit of “Purity” thinking: He lied, all else risks being false too.

There is another type of personality or mode of thinking about lies. This other mode sees the pettiness of this kind of lie and wonders why someone of his public stature would ever need to tell such a lie. Not just pity for a pitiful act, Williams has the world in his hand; he has, even now, actual wealth and fame and he can go just about anywhere and do just about anything he wants and any time. Surely, in such a lie, he’d think that someone would’ve outed him sooner or later?

The greater offense, while talking about lies and degrees of offense, has something to do with whom we allow to tell the truth in the public forum, not whom we catch in a lie. I’m really afraid that this is a very complicated idea about which I will be unable to expand on adequately. I’ll refer you again to challenge of thinking and the problem of attention. I lack the technical expertise. But, I think this is something that exists in our thinking; being a part of who we are as people in large, complicated societies, it drives all sorts of public perception and ideas about status and appropriateness.

Who is allowed to tell the truth? And who is castigated for lying? We fully expect someone like a Hannity or a Limbaugh to lie constantly and with complete impunity. They do this with great ease, flair, and style. We hear them and think to ourselves how stupid they sound or what an outrage that they “get away” with lying. But usually, we’re more concerned that other people will be swayed by their obvious lies, not simply the fact that they are lying. We take the latter for granted, yet huge groups of people really are swayed by open lies. Such a consequence of propaganda results in real indignation and offense.

But what really causes offense, I think, is when a Hannity or a Limbaugh, just to continue with these two as models of the form, are caught telling the truth amongst their volumes of lying. One who is thus offended by this kind of “truth telling”, if you can call such truth hidden within dense lie-telling, is one who is really and truly less offended that Williams lied, than disappointed.

I suppose it’s slightly more complicated than a binary distinction I made between two types: that is, the Purists who gasp at his sin and those who are merely “disappointed” (sorry, I can’t come up with a label for the latter category). After all, a person’s mind is as singularly complicated as is, say, the effect of one’s surroundings and even one’s own reflexively significant history. These are complicated and make for complicated people and complicated interactions.

Frankly, I’m more offended by plagiarists than I am by some petty and stupid helicopter story. The thing is, the (apparently false) story that Brian Williams told was used to prop up a narrative that injected excitement and adventure into a kind of story-telling (“journalism”) that isn’t really appropriate. Yes, I know it happens all the time, but the Iraq invasions were particularly odious actions perpetrated by actors who sat in safety (and wealth and prosperity) within the United States and elsewhere (e.g. Saudi Arabia?)

Do you not remember the grotesque and barbarous Iraq invasion and the subsequently protracted war with its opportunities for crime and corruption? Perhaps you think the Iraq war was a noble enterprise? Well, you can blame people like Brian Williams for injecting flair and an athletically tanned color of “adventure”. This was the color of adventure in journalism, the flair of the exotic put into the news stories he and other like him produced. These did far more damage to Truth in that they promoted a lingering and growing impression that war in Iraq was something that it wasn’t. And the process was “additive”. Each lie he told (I’m sure there may have been others) added to a little lie someone else told; together these built a work of false (and plagiarized) story-telling, the kind of propagandistic story-telling the likes of which career liars like Limbaugh or Hannity could only dream of pulling off. THAT is a level of lie telling you should be truly offended about, not some stupid and petty “helicopter” episode or some contrivance about being robbed whilst selling Christmas trees for Jesus (or whatever).

It seems to me that some people who are the most offended by lies like those told by Williams are not, in fact, offended by the flood of lies told by the Hannitys and Limbaughs of the world. In addition to that, but those so offended by Williams’ lies are demonstrably offended by pointedly substantiated facts; by “the truth”, if you will.

And, to pile onto that mess of contradiction, there are people who are more offended, many orders of magnitude offended, by “truth” when told by career liars! Think about that for a moment. For better or worse, I would have to count myself in this last ‘type’. Aren’t you, too, offended by such a thing? Don’t you think to yourself, “How dare you dirty your hands with the truth!!” .Someone who continually lies with impunity should always be called out when they dare — DARE — say something truthful. It isn’t right. It is, in fact, the greater sin, if you’d like to be devotional about it.

  1. Natalie O’Neill and Jennifer Bain, “Another tall tale? Brian Williams’ alleged encounter with Christmas bandit”, Page Six February 8, 2015 (New York Post) (retrieved 2015-02-08