The Five Lies
The Obscuration of Truth, in Five Ways
A culture that values truth recognizes it as something more than just accurate information. The truth is as much about intent as it is about content. In evaluating the truth, one must consider the context in which a statement is made. What is the speaker’s aim? What does the speaker know, or not know? How has the speaker chosen to frame his knowledge, and which parts of it has he chosen to reveal? Determining the context behind a statement not only helps us to examine the statement itself, but it also allows us to make a more accurate assessment of real truth. If our goal is real truth, which is to say, the whole truth of a thing, we must go much further than simply extracting facts and falsehoods.
In order to identify the degree to which a given statement represents real truth, we must first develop a framework in which to understand potential falsehoods. We can do so by breaking falsehood down into five categories: lies of falsity; lies of ignorance; lies of omission; lies of misdirection; and, lies of implication. Each of these is malicious in its own way, representing a different kind of assault on real truth. Understanding if, and how, such lies are being used, allows us to assess a speaker’s true intent. Let us take a moment to review and define each of these lies.
Lies of Falsity
Perhaps the most straightforward of the lies is the lie of falsity, which can be defined as a statement that willfully perpetuates some falsehood. There are two critical elements of this lie: falsehood; and, deliberate intent. The first element is familiar to most of us, for it is the most well-known definition for a lie, that is, a thing which is simply not true. Consider, if you will, a politician who maintains a secret overseas bank account. The money in the account comes, primarily, from some lobbyist who has attempted to curry the politician’s favor with cash payouts. On being confronted about the account, the politician claims to have “never in [his] life taken money from that lobbyist.”
At first glance, this seems like an obvious lie of falsity. The money in the account is indeed from the lobbyist, and therefore the politician’s statement is false. But what if the politician legitimately did not know the money came from the lobbyist? What if the payments were made by some shell firm, for some ostensible service rendered, and the politician did not know the real source? For sure, this defies credulity somewhat, but it is conceivable. In order for us to say that the politician has made a straightforward lie of falsity, he must have done so knowingly. Otherwise, we would have to consider the lie to be a lie of ignorance, which we shall address shortly.
There is an argument to be made that the lie of falsity is the most malicious of all lies; however, any lie has the potential to be malicious. The question of intent is a difficult but important one, for it is true that some lies have a noble cause behind them. That said, a truthful source makes every effort to avoid the perpetuation of falsehood, lest absolutely critical towards some greater cause. In the case we have described here, if the politician knowingly and willfully makes a false statement about the existence of his corrupt bank account, we can reasonably draw some conclusion about the extent of his malice.
Lies of Ignorance
Let us now return to the lie of ignorance, in which an individual puts forwards some false claim that they legitimately believe to be true. Going back to the politician, consider for a moment that the money in his account did in fact come from a shell company, which totally unbeknownst to him, was actually a front for the lobbyist. Perhaps the politician performed some consulting work for the shell company, ostensibly separate from his political duties (a moral quandary in itself, though we shall ignore that for the moment.) In this case, the politician’s statement about “never taking money from the lobbyist” can, in some ways, be considered true. After all, he can hardly be held responsible for something he did not know.
Well, yes, but also very much no. A lie of ignorance may be forgiven in some cases, but once again we must investigate the context. Did the politician willfully restrain himself from investigating the money’s true origin, not really wanting to know where the money came from? Did he fail in his duty to conduct due diligence to ensure he was not crossing some moral boundary? To what extent can we hold him responsible for not knowing a thing? The answer will depend on the situation.
Take for example a student who tells his mother that he has finished “all of [his] homework”, when in fact an assignment has gone undone. What if the student was in the bathroom when his teacher assigned the task? We might, in this case, forgive his lie of ignorance because it was made in good faith. The politician however, ought to be held to a higher standard. We might say that the student should have ensured that he missed nothing important while out of class, but we can absolutely say that a politician should know from whom he accepts any amount of money.
Actual authority, justly given, requires some amount of moral authority to back it up. For this reason, a lie of ignorance can be just as malicious as a lie of falsity. How can we trust a politician to govern if we cannot trust him to fully investigate the truth in all matters, public and personal?
Lies of Omission
We have discussed the straightforward lie of falsity, and that somewhat more complicated but nonetheless entertainable lie of ignorance, now, let us move on to some of the subtler sorts of untruths. The first of them is the so-called lie of omission, in which a speaker omits some vital fact in order to give the impression of real truth, while actually being very far from it. In a way, the lie of omission is much more insidious than the lie of falsity, for it requires a degree of forethought.
Returning to our politician, imagine now that the money in his account did indeed come from a shell company, which was in actuality a front for the lobbyist. In this case however, the politician knows the truth of the money’s origin — he knows full well that the lobbyist was behind it (something which, no doubt, would be of use to the lobbyist as it would be more likely to curry favor in the right direction). Here we encounter a critical juncture in our effort to label the politician’s lie. Previously, when he legitimately did not know the original source, we might only have said he failed in due diligence. Now, he knows the real source and yet attempts to circumvent the truth by providing us with technically accurate semi-facts rather than the whole of the context. In a way, his statement that he has “never taken money from the lobbyist” is accurate, for he accepted the money from the shell firm, not the lobbyist. Bank transfers will prove as much. However, the politician knows this to be an obfuscation and proceeds with it anyway.
Here we can see that context matters deeply. Many a statement might be considered “technically true,” but that does not mean it points to real truth. Let us look at another example. In this case, a husband returns home from work several hours late, due primarily to a stop off at his mistress’ house. When his wife asks him about the late hour, the husband says, “I’m so sorry to be this late, we had a meeting at work that ran extra long.” Perhaps the husband did in fact have a long meeting at the end of the day, but can the length of the meeting fully explain the length of his tardiness? No, of course not. The true reason for his tardiness is the affair that he is attempting to conceal. However, if the wife runs into one of his coworkers later, and asks about whether there had been a late meeting, the husband’s story might very well be corroborated. The husband has omitted some vital piece of information, and thus, deliberately perpetrated a falsehood without technically having had told a lie.
It is important that we understand the extent to which technical truth and real truth can differ. In the latter case, we are hearing the truth along with its full context. In the former, we are only hearing some piece of the truth, often a piece that has been purposefully designed to mislead us.
Lies of Misdirection
Omission is but one form of misleading one’s audience, and might even be considered a subset of our next type of lie: the lie of misdirection. In this type of lie, a speaker attempts to distract from real truth by pointing his audience elsewhere. As with the lie of omission, such lies are generally willful and perpetrated with forethought. Good liars (which, as it so happens, is a wonderfully compact oxymoron), have an understanding both of the truth, and how to manipulate their audience away from it. This requires a good deal of thinking because individual interlocutors are likely to require distraction through different means. Lying to one’s friends requires something different than lying to a dogged journalist or investigator. Misdirection, however, can be useful to the liar in both cases.
As it turns out, our corrupt politician is quite a bit more adept than we had hoped he might be (for who hopes for talent among the corrupt?) Understanding that his lie might land him in hot water, should it be discovered, the politician launches a new “anti-corruption committee” and immediately begins efforts to uncover corruption among his peers. The politician embarks on investigations, holds press conferences, and demands action against corruption in all its forms. For sure, this is hypocrisy; however, the politician knows that by crusading against corruption he can potentially raise himself above suspicion (naive perhaps, but sadly often effective.) In portraying himself in a new light, the politician might quickly manage to divert attention from real truth, escaping it not through falsehood, but by pushing it further into the shadows.
In an information landscape where participants are constantly bombarded by new facts, and new scandals, and new pleas for where they should direct their attention, lies of misdirection are surprisingly easy to perpetuate. Our politician might not even have to launch a whole crusade to distract his audience. Perhaps he only need survive the current news cycle by creating some new story and his misdirection will be complete. The truth of his corruption will remain uncovered because people stopped looking.
Lies of Implication
Our final type of lie is, arguably, the most difficult to pull off. But, when done right, it can also be one of the most effective. This is the lie of implication, where a speaker avoids the easily refuted lie of falsity and the easily investigated lie of omission, and instead relies on rhetorical twists to imply a new truth entirely. Returning one last time to our politician, let us listen in a bit further to his response to the confrontations about his bank account. This time, instead of denying the money, or its ultimate source, the politician adds a new twist for our consideration, saying something along the lines of this…
“Yes, I do indeed maintain an overseas bank account, and yes, it currently contains a good deal of money from the described lobbyist. Unfortunately however, due to the secrecy involved in the nature of my committee’s work, I cannot currently go into further detail about this issue. Rest assured that the full truth will soon come out and that all guilty parties will be held to account.”
This is a dastardly bit of work but also a brilliant kind of lie. Our politician, caught red-handed, has chosen now to invent a new narrative that he hopes will free him from further scrutiny. Here, he strongly implies that the secret bank account and the corrupt money are part of some unknown investigation into larger but unmentioned wrongdoing. The brilliance here is that disproving the implication will be extremely difficult. The politician has done several things to achieve this. First, he has fully admitted the easily provable facts of the case, thus putting off potential allegations of falsehood. Second, he has hinted at a plausible explanation, which unlike the aforementioned easily provable facts will be virtually impossible to confirm. Finally, he has preemptively wrapped the entire issue in a cloak of noble secrecy, thus providing an easy means to duck further investigation.
A lie of implication, done well, can serve both to throw interlocutors off the path towards real truth, and also muddy the waters as to what real truth even means. It is particularly effective in the hands of the powerful, perpetuating lies to those with less means to investigate effectively. It may however be used by anyone who hopes to master the art of the lie without getting caught.
For the most part, people tend to want to trust one another. Basic trust in one’s fellows is a core tenant of the social compact. Without trust, we feel that we can no longer rely on one another and the entire fabric of our society falls apart. Disorder is rarely in the interest of the majority. Rather, it serves the interests of the powerful and unscrupulous who wish to escape justice and push personal agendas rather than serve the greater good. Such individuals know that the truth can easily be obfuscated, and dividing would-be investigators is a good way to keep it that way. A talented liar knows how to use the various tools in his toolbox to his own ends, and how to do so without getting caught.
We are however not without the power to identify untruths when they are served to us. Neither the truth nor lies may be straightforward, but each carries with it contextual clues that may set us on the path towards real truth. In a highly complex information ecosystem, using context is a vital part of our collective information literacy. And part of that context is recognizing that lies come in many forms, each of which demands a different type of investigation.
We are, truly, a generally honest people who wish to do right in the world. In order, however, to achieve that right, we must work together to identify and piece together the necessary clues. By its nature this is a collective effort, and the greater the obfuscation around real truth, the more effort will be required to find it.