You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the most dangerous lie would be a sneaky one, one that is reasonably close to the truth? One that kind of grows on the truth − on the fertile fabric of what we already know to be true − like a mould or a parasite. That’s the kind of lie I’d go for, anyway, if I were in the business of fabricating lies. A sneaky one.
But no − I had it all wrong. We had it all wrong (I’m assuming I’m not alone in this).
A Big Lie is “more potent because in order to believe it you have to disbelieve everything else”, US historian Timothy Snyder told BBC Radio 4 listeners. An example, said Snyder, is Donald Trump’s claim to have won the presidential election, believed by millions of Americans despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The more absurd the lie, the bigger it is, the more dangerous. You can say pretty much anything, as it turns out. You can say the most outlandish, absurd, ridiculous things. Things that not only have no basis whatsoever in truth or reason, but are loudly, roundly, multiply contradicted by truth and reason.
Things like “by leaving the EU we’ll have less red tape; be able to fund our NHS; and avoid 76 million Turkish people (the entire population of Turkey, which is not even in the EU) from coming over here and taking all our jobs”. Things like “they need us more than we need them”.
The more outlandish the lie, the more it gains traction, it would seem. Why must this be? I’m going to hazard a few guesses. One is that when the lie is that big, it may not seem worth controverting, at least at first. People aren’t going to buy that, that’s ridiculous, we tell ourselves. This was Vote Remain’s grave error: sleepwalking into disaster, assuming that Vote Leave’s claims were too crazy, too extreme to be heeded. By the time truth wakes up to what’s happening, the Big Lie has grown even bigger and started throwing down roots all over the place.
Of course this couldn’t happen without the media − such an innocuous little name for something so powerful and destructive. In both the UK and the USA, the barely regulated right-wing press and social media platforms have blood on their hands, both metaphorical and literal (Labour MP Jo Cox and the five who died recently in the Capitol riot being examples of the latter).
Neither of these factors, the truth’s sleepwalking habit or the destructive, divisive power of the media, would be nearly so effective, though, if it weren’t for a third factor: desperation. Many of the people who voted for Brexit, and likewise the people who voted for Trump, were sick to the back teeth of being ignored, of not having a say, of living hard lives with little to no hope of things improving.
And last but not least, there’s the question of faith. It now seems that people will believe the Big Lies, not despite the lack of evidence, not despite the rational arguments heaped against them, but precisely because of these things.
When you take reason and evidence out of the equation, all you’re left with is faith. Blind faith. Which, let’s face it, is much sexier, much more interesting, much more appealing than dogged reliance on boring old facts. Think about it. Having faith, believing, taking a leap of faith − how good does it all sound? ‘Knowing’ something so fully that no amount of evidence can contravene it. It’s irresistible. It’s (surely?) why religion has been such a powerful force in the world for millennia.
All of which makes me wonder: Is this what England gets for turning its back on God? Brexit?! If so, the big man in the sky must be laughing his bearded head off.
And while he’s having a good old laugh, we still need to get to work down here on Earth, on both sides of the pond and in plenty of other places too, to heal the divisions in our countries and communities. Again the word ‘division’ seems a little too little. ‘Great big gaping chasm with no visible means of crossing’ would be more appropriate (though perhaps a bit wordy).
If “a Big Lie is dangerous because in order to believe it you have to disbelieve everything else”, as Snyder says, it stands to reason that heaping more truths on the lie, hoping to quell its fire, will not work. To continue the analogy (and I do like to), the more you try to blow the lie out, the more you will just keep fanning the flames.
It really is about winning hearts not minds. It has to be, at least to begin with, until we can make facts and minds a bit sexier again. We need to come up with something that is wonderful and bonkers enough to inspire faith, but that also happens to get along OK with truth and reason. To combat a Big Lie we need not just loads of little truths, stacked one on top of another in the hope their cumulative effect will be enough.
To combat a Big Lie we need a Big Truth. A great big, ballsy truth. What will it be?
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