Lies—big and small, noble or not—are the way of the world, whether we speak of personal, social, and professional relationships or of advertising, media, and politics. Lying is normal—so it seems—yet still disturbing.
When we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is our oath. But as a juror, I find it difficult to determine whether the testifier’s truth telling is stretched, selective, or faked. Truth is not so transparent or objectively known as we’d like to think. Indeed, it is the jury’s job to make a judgment about what is true and what is false.
Among the factors that influence our assessment of a claim to truth, whether in the courtroom, the political arena, or elsewhere, are the credibility of the testifier, the coherence of the story told, common sense, our own experience, and perspective. Seldom, if ever, are we absolutely confident of our judgment, which can leave us feeling uneasy—a little or a lot depending on the circumstances and consequences.
Lying complicates an already difficult process. It adds an element of deliberate falsehood. It is an act of dishonesty with the intention to deceive or mislead, whether bluntly or more subtly by prevaricating, quibbling, paltering, or fibbing. Lying is devilish.
In the United States it is not uncommon for political talk to be religiously inflected. Abortion is a sin, many opponents insist, and should be outlawed. Terrorists are evildoers, President George W. Bush proclaimed. President Donald Trump asked for God’s wisdom and prayed for the souls of the enemy’s victims as he launched Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military base. The devil lurks wherever wrong is done.
This mixture of the sacred and the secular in US public culture applies to lying. The symbolism can be traced to Saint John’s Jesus, sent by God to tell God’s truth and opposed by the devil’s spawn. The devil, Jesus proclaimed, “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, NRSV). Jesus, who personifies divine truth, “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” (The Apostles’ Creed).
Kenneth Burke’s devil is less profane, more secular. The issue is not so much a matter of truth and lies as it is a question of perspective. Satan and the Lord converse with one another “on friendly terms.” Satan is “an agile youth” wearing “a fool’s cap with devil’s horns, and a harlequin costume of two colors, dividing him down the middle.” He is “over-hasty” and “mercurial,” but he amuses the Lord. He keeps coming up with perfect solutions and absolute judgments, all of which meet with the Lord’s refrain, “It’s more complicated than that.” Absolute authority and perfection exist only in heaven. So far as earth-people are concerned, they must broaden their limited perspectives as much as possible even to recognize the attitudes that inform their flawed judgments about right and wrong, truth and lies.[i]
What, then, do we make of the bald declarations of the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times that Donald Trump “lies,” that he is “Our Dishonest President”? In their account of his dishonesty, they accuse the President of displaying “an utter lack of regard for truth.” He “regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction,” thereby “encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media—and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions,” making “rational compromise” impossible. He must be held accountable, the Editorial Board insists. Efforts must be redoubled “to defend the truth from his cynical assaults.”
By this account, Trump is more the spawn of Saint John’s devil than the mercurial fool that is Burke’s Satan. In the Editorial Board’s account of Trump’s lies, the President shows a profound disregard for fact, choosing to target the “darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us.” His lies are like demons possessing the body politic. If one lie doesn’t work, he tries another. He is the demagogue who threatens the founding principle of our civilization: the principle that truth exists, is knowable and verifiable, and eventually will prevail. The demons must be exorcised.
This is not to say that Burke’s foolish Satan is entirely absent the Editorial Board’s characterization of Trump’s dishonesty. There is a word or two in their editorials on behalf of compromise and a comic sense of Trump as a simpleminded stooge, albeit a dangerous one. It would do us all well to heed the Lord’s refrain that it is always more complicated than it appears to earth-dwellers. Repelling lies with assertions of absolute truth sustains the vicious cycle of accusation and counter-accusation. A note of contingency and the broadening of perspective might serve the bulk of us better should we choose to address the human divide in this world and leave perfection to heaven.
[i] Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 276, 277, 289, 303).